Sites for Sore Eyes: Where Did All the Schools Go?
Senior Planner, Billy Palmer, kicks off the first blog in our series ‘Sites for Sore Eyes’, discussing how urban environments are impacted by the demand for schools and other educational facilities.
Despite the skewed nature of post-pandemic pupil data, the longer-term trend shows that primary school pupil numbers are dwindling in UK towns and inner cities. This isn’t an entirely recent trend. The last decade has seen a period of change for families and our choices in terms of where to raise children. But what does all this mean for school places and school choice and how are our urban environments being impacted by the shift in availability?
The most recent ONS figures show a continued reduction in the birth rate in the UK overall since 2013. As a result, the follow-on peak in state-funded secondary school pupil numbers is still projected to be 2024, followed by a drop to the end of the 2028 projection period to match the current primary school trend.
In Inner London, a greater number of primary schools are struggling to attract pupils due to the reduction in demand in neighbourhoods that previously had a higher percentage of families with children. This is triggering school closures or mergers with neighbouring schools and on the surface, this has been a successful strategy for London borough councils to consolidate their stock and maintain their focus on quality of education. However, the futureproofing of educational facilities in the capital appears to have disintegrated, which is a dangerous position to be in should a renewed places crisis occur further down the line.
Although hotspots still exist, the current position is a far cry from previous years of struggles to obtain a ‘first-choice’ primary or secondary school place. This is more of a sudden change but the projections for the next decade will cause peaks and troughs as the shift towards school closures picks up pace and families continue to move out of our inner cities. In addition, Brexit has had its say in this novella, with the free movement swelling of the noughties being counteracted by more than 200,000 EU nationals leaving the UK in the year ending 2021 - mostly from towns and inner cities.
The London Boroughs of Camden, Wandsworth and Hackney have been hit hard by this trend in recent years, with the latter currently seeing a surplus of approximately 500 new primary school places in 2022. School closures and mergers are becoming a frequent solution. However, this is having a significant impact on existing facilities including sport and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Departments within schools and specialist facilities. Indeed, Wandsworth are currently planning the closure and decanting of an entire primary school to make way for a new SEND facility, such is the need.
It may seem that suburbia is the winner in this competition, but the strain of winning is beginning to hit home. With the changes to the assessment of SEND pupils in 2014, the requirement for additional facilities practically changed overnight and the number of spaces available has for the most part been adequate with increases in funding from central government.
However, the movement of families to Outer London boroughs and beyond has changed the landscape of SEND demand. The pressure on the built environment and local authority funding is a significant concern for education providers and that strain on Outer London boroughs is constantly requiring the decanting of facilities into temporary buildings to upgrade existing sites. For example, the London Borough of Hillingdon are currently exploring their options due to the need to improve current facilities in Uxbridge, whilst expanding their overall SEND offering in more remote parts of the Borough due to lack of available sites.
Paired with the more onerous, but necessary planning requirements for energy and sustainability data, local authorities are struggling to pick up the bill for the resources required to maintain the diversity of school places, whilst managing sudden changes in funding due to overall pupil numbers falling. Indeed, with the pressure on existing sites and the nationwide housing crisis, councils in London are increasingly looking to the Green Belt to enable them to build the necessary purpose-built facilities required to comply with regulations. Despite the importance of repurposing existing buildings and the related embodied carbon debate, the lack of parity with building guidelines for schools has exacerbated this issue.
With the UK Government issuing updated guidance for falling school roll funding in 2020 alongside Ofsted’s ‘Making the Cut’ report, it is clear that the officials in charge are well aware of the financial pressures schools and Local Authorities are under. However, the future plan to mitigate the likely longer-term surplus in places is still unclear and needs addressing to maintain a balanced educational offering and built environment efficiency in our towns and cities.