Schools across London face budget cuts and possible closure as the pandemic and Brexit have accelerated a drop in pupil numbers that were already under pressure from falling birth rates.
The combination of EU migrants returning to their home countries and families moving out of the capital, made less attractive by coronavirus lockdowns, is undermining the funding model for schools, which is based on pupil headcount.
The number of pupils in state-funded primary schools in England in the academic year that started in September 2020 fell for the first time since 2010, down 0.3 per cent year-on-year.
But detailed admissions data obtained by the Financial Times for London suggest the capital is suffering much steeper declines with a year-on-year fall of 6.7 per cent in applications for primary school places this September by the January deadline across the city.
This equates to 6,546 fewer children enrolled in the capital’s reception classes in September, resulting in a potential funding cut of £34m according to London Councils, the umbrella body representing the capital’s local authorities.
Data from two other English cities suggest the drop in pupil numbers for the next academic year is not confined to London.
Figures from Birmingham city council show an annual fall of 9.5 per cent for reception places this September, while in Bristol the figure was 6.8 per cent.
Birmingham council pointed to a gradual fall in the birth rate but said there was “early evidence” the drop in applications was “primarily due to reduced net migration to the city”. Bristol declined to comment on the drop in applications.
A breakdown of the data for the capital, from the Pan-London Admissions Board, showed a double-digit decline is some areas. All 32 boroughs have registered a fall in applications, with the City of London, by far the smallest local authority, the exception.
London Councils said in a statement it had expected lower birth rates would start hitting pupil numbers but it had not foreseen the sharp falls for next year.
It blamed the drop in applications in part on EU citizens returning home after Brexit. It also said the “double whammy” of successive coronavirus lockdowns and the government’s stamp duty holiday had led to families moving out of the capital.
“Although we don’t know how big the recent drop is, we know it’s real to some extent,” London Councils said. “It all has an impact in terms of school funding . . . If a school isn’t able to fill a classroom that’s when they’ll need to think about reducing staff and other costs.”
The north London borough of Haringey was the worst hit, with applications down 14.1 per cent year-on-year, followed by Enfield down 13.5 per cent and a 10.2 per cent drop in Hammersmith and Fulham.
Most of the councils contacted by the FT blamed part of the fall on declining birth rates: Camden for instance has seen a 20 per cent drop since 2012.
Haringey also pointed to “an apparent migration from London of families with children as a result of the Covid pandemic”. Hammersmith declined to comment further and Enfield did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The reduction in pupil numbers has left some schools in an unsustainable financial position. Consultations are under way over the future of St Mary Magdalen primary school in Lewisham, while Carlton primary school in Camden and Shapla and St Matthias primary schools in Tower Hamlets are set to close this year.
“Unfilled school places have an immediate cost for schools through a reduction in their budgets,” Lewisham said.
Along with a fall in births, Camden council blamed the high costs of living in London and said it was working with schools to deal with “significant funding challenges”.
Tower Hamlets said there were “multiple factors” influencing numbers. “As a responsible local authority, we carry out regular reviews of school places locally in response to population change,” it said.
Even in the less affected boroughs, a fall in new pupil numbers will hit budgets. Ed Davie, the council cabinet member for children and young people in Lambeth, where applications for primary school places are down 3.6 per cent on last year, said only about 86 per cent of places were filled for September.
This would mean a drop in funding that may force headteachers to cut costs and staff including teaching assistants and cleaners. “It costs the same to run a class of 23 as it does a class of 30,” he said.
London Councils said late applications could yet offset some of the falls ahead of the start of the new school year, although most London councils contacted by the FT said the numbers had not changed. But the umbrella body warned that the longer-term trend of falling numbers would mean many boroughs still face a funding squeeze.
In Hackney for example, the 12.6 per cent year-on-year drop in applications for primary school places reported in the January data had shrunk to 1.5 per cent as a result of late applications, the council said.
But in the last academic year, 14.4 per cent of reception places in the borough went unfilled and in two areas reception classes were less than 75 per cent full, according to council documents.
The documents show the council had pledged to “minimise” school closures and class mergers during the pandemic but warned that the surplus places meant it was “poised to consider and undertake these measures in the near future”.
Hackney deputy mayor Anntoinette Bramble said school funding had been hit by a fall in pupil numbers falling back to 2010 levels and government cuts.
“The effect of falling pupil rolls on school budgets has been compounded by the 9 per cent real terms cut in per pupil government funding since 2010,” she said. “We’re working closely with schools on meeting this budget challenge.”
The government said that it was working with local authorities “to support them in their planning to make sure the supply of school places matches that demand.”