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The falling birth rate in England and Wales – how it will affect schools

Stark fact No 1: The birth rate in England and Wales is now lower than it has been since records began.

In 2019, some 640,370 babies were born here and in the Principality.

Now, that might seem like a very large number of children brought into the world, but it is a 12.2 per cent decrease since the most recent peak at the start of the decade.

And it is put into perspective by the figure for 1920, when 957,782 children were born – despite the overall population being 22 million fewer than it is in England and Wales today.

Worryingly for education leaders, that falling birth rate is set to have a serious impact on the finances and even the survival prospects of schools across both countries.

The Americans call what is happening a ‘baby bust’ – and that description is grimly appropriate in the school sector. 

Stark fact No 2: Some 796 primary schools and 400 secondary schools were closed in Greece between 2009 and 2014.

Why is this important?

It’s important because it allows us to fast forward to what could happen here.

In short, what happened in Greece may well end up happening in the UK, only slower.

It has broadly been true throughout history that, in times of economic uncertainty, families do not as readily add to their number.

The crash of 2008 and the era of austerity that followed in the UK are seen as the main factors in the falling number of children being born here since the start of the last decade.

In Greece, there was also a fall in the birth rate. But the process was turbo-charged, as the recession was so severe that hundreds of thousands of young people left the country to look for work, exacerbating the natural fall in the birth rate at times of uncertainty.

We are not Greece. For a start, the weather and salads are worse.

But education leaders should not ignore the possibility of similar levels of school closures happening here.

The issue has started to gain traction in the education media.

Recently, an article in TES featured warnings of serious problems for schools.

The article argued that the impact of the falling birth rate would be:

  • Schools being financially stretched to “breaking point”, with squeezed budgets – through less funding per pupil – exacerbated by the school funding crisis
  • School closures
  • Teacher and support staff redundancies
  • Bigger class sizes as schools compress year groups
  • Increased competition for places between schools
  • Less collaboration between schools
  • Schools in urban areas and those with lower Ofsted ratings being impacted most severely

Speaking to TES, Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, warned: “We know that some of our primary school members are beginning to feel the effects of the bulge in pupil population having moved from primary to secondary. 

“They are expecting fewer pupils in coming years but, particularly in smaller or less popular schools, this drop in numbers can be very sudden.

“Set against a backdrop of the school funding crisis, this means schools can go from just about managing to breaking point almost overnight.”

Gerald Clark, secretary for the NEU teaching union in Camden, told TES that schools were already making teaching staff redundant.

“There are schools where teachers or teaching assistants have been made redundant. In some cases, when teaching assistants leave they are replaced with agency staff, whose contracts are then discontinued,” he said.

“Ultimately, a school has to have one teacher in front of 30 children. If that is your bare minimum calculation, I think some schools are thinking, ‘Let’s put that in, and anything else is just a bonus’.”

Stark fact No 3: Researchers have said they believe that the pandemic will lead to an acceleration in the decline of the birth rate in the UK.

This would dash hopes that the decline in the birth rate will soon flatten out and numbers of babies rise again.

A December 2020 piece of research – Potential Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Future Birth Rate – looked at what is likely to happen in high-earning countries.

It found that while the pandemic is likely to lead to an increase in the birth rate in low-income countries, it is likely to lead to a fall in high-income nations.

The report cited evidence from past pandemics and economic crises, as well as research from the current pandemic, notably from Italy, where the proportion of couples confirming they planned to conceive dropped markedly.

It all points to a decade or more of falling numbers coming into our schools.

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