This document provides background information on the ‘National pupil projections’ release. It explains the concepts and methods used to calculate the figures and provides an overview of the data sources and other relevant information.
National pupil projections
Projection methods overview
The pupil projection model creates national projections for the number of pupils in England by age and by school phases and types. It uses population estimates and projections, normally from ONS, information on birth registrations in England and data derived from the School Census.
Each model uses the most recently available population projections, based on the estimated population at the appropriate mid-year, as well as ONS’s monthly birth figures, as underpinning total population figures. The population estimates and projections are modified from their original mid-year basis to simulate the definitions used in the School Census (a January count with pupils’ ages as at the previous 31 August).
Census data up to and including the model year is used alongside the above to create participation rates, calculated as a series of historic census totals measured against population estimates. These provide a starting point for the model, with the school census data informing assumptions about future proportions of the school population by type of school.
Separate figures, both historically and into the future, are calculated for part time and full time pupils.
ONS’s population projections include all usually resident persons, whatever their nationality. Long-term migrants are defined as individuals who change their country of usual residence for a period of at least a year, and in such cases their country of destination becomes the country of usual residence. Pupils who are short-term migrants, and are staying in England for less than a year, are included in the School Census and are therefore reflected in the pupil projections. They are not separately identifiable.
In 2023 the underpinning estimate and projected data used to create the pupil projections are different to that normally used (see 2023 reporting year section). This is because of delays in the publication of ONS’s rebased 2012 to 2020 population estimates and mid-2022 population estimates, and population projections that take account of the results of the 2021 census.
ONS’s announcement details the delay to the population estimates. Although these are now due on 23 November 2023, the department has published earlier 2023 pupil projections, based on alternative data sources, to provide a continued set of national pupil projections and to meet the needs of a number of internal models and funding calculations.
These pupil projections are produced annually. However, they are based on ONS’s national population projections, which are normally produced once every two years.
In the years where there are no new ONS projections then the pupil projections are technically an update of the previous year’s projection, with an added year of actual data, rather than a new projection in their own right.
2023 reporting year
Due to the delay in the publication of ONS estimates and projections, alternative input data has been sourced for the 2023 pupil projections.
For the former it has been decided to use population estimates, up to and including 2022, from ONS’s dynamic population model. This is a new way of calculating population estimates using a combination of historic time series data and real-time information from administrative sources to produce more timely and comprehensive estimates. These are currently being produced alongside the traditional population estimates normally used in these pupil projections but ONS ultimately aim to make this the default methodology for creating population estimates. The next step will be the changing of their designation to National Statistics.
At this point in time, however, the dynamic population model population estimates are designated as experimental statistics. The most recent release provides an understanding of the estimates which will avoid misinterpretation.
For the projected years, the most recent ONS population projections are still 2020 based, which means they do not take account of the 2021 census. As there are notable differences at some school ages between the results of the census (rolled forward to mid-year) and mid-2021 population estimates produced by the traditional methodology, these projections are no longer fit for purpose for forecasting future pupil numbers.
Therefore population projections from the Greater London Authority (GLA) have been used instead.
These are produced by the GLA to inform their work across London and are produced by a cohort component method, the same as the ONS projections, but including their own mid-2021 population estimates which take account of the 2021 census results.
The GLA have produced three projections based on differing migration trend data. For the national pupil projections the 5-year migration trend variant has been used.
Pupil counts for the historic years are derived from data collected via the School Census.
The school censuses in 2021 and 2022 showed greater variation than usual, probably due to the pandemic. For example, there were drops in the number in nursery & primary, and alternative provision schools, in 2021, with the former stabilising in 2022.
In 2023 the nursery and primary population was again virtually unchanged. This would not be expected given the drop in births in the age group now coming into reception year. However, there was an increase in children attending primary school (year 1 and higher) in January 2023 who were not in the census last year. These could be recent arrival from abroads – for example part of the recent resettlement schemes for people from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. The population in alternative provision schools increased but is still lower than that seen in 2020.
All projections are inherently uncertain but the pandemic related effects and recent arrivals from specific countries may make the results of the pupil projections more so than usual. Each projection, therefore, has had the methodologies by which historic figures are projected into the future reconsidered to try to take account of the census results. The main change this year has been to swap some of the calculations for All Schools from the last 3-years of actual data to 5-years, to even out any anomalies in the most recent years.
It is not possible at this point to know whether the increase in children in the census who were not present in any school the previous year will continue or return to more usual levels.
Key drivers to change in the projections
The school census data is measured against the ONS population figures to create participation rates (both overall and for the different school types) for each historic year. The participation rates from the last three – five years are then used to calculate the pupil numbers going forward. Thus if the school census figures are inaccurate they have the potential to affect not only the year in question but the whole of the projection model.
As these pupil projections are based on national population projections, alongside participation rates, they are directly affected by the assumptions made by the producer of the projections.
Changes in the population who are of school age is generally driven by changes in the birth rate rather than direct immigration. However, that birth rate is in turn affected by any increase in the number of children born to non-UK born women (compared to those born to UK-born women) as they can have higher fertility rates. The percentage of children who were born to non-UK born women increased from 24.0% of births in England in 2007 (the earliest birth year for children currently in compulsory school years) to around 29.5% in 2019 (the latest birth year).
After a decade of increases the total number of births in England dropped in 2013, remained stable for the next three years, then have dropped again. There was a relatively small increase in 2021 but early indications are that this is pandemic related rather than the start of a new trend.
The difference between the projected numbers in nursery & primary schools and secondary schools from 2022 compared to the new projections published in 2023 are shown in the chart below.
 See https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/datasets/parentscountryofbirth, table 6 in 2022 edition.
The GLA’s national population projections, which are the base for the 2023 projection of future pupil numbers, are based on assumptions which best reflect demographic patterns at the time they were selected.
However, there are inherent uncertainties in projecting the future size of the pupil population, particularly migration which does not benefit from the registration system by which births and deaths are recorded. As such the GLA have produced three projections based on different assumptions of future inwards, outwards and internal migration. The pupil projections could be run using these alternative scenarios to see what effect they would have on the future forecast population. However, as none of the three options are considered more likely than the other the pupil projections selected the one that looked a best fit for the other data being included. This was the 5-year migration trend option.
Alternative projections using the 10-year and 15-year migration trends have not been produced.
Relationship with school capacity publication
This release presents the Department’s main national-level pupil projections. The department’s data on school capacity is produced by a different methodology and includes local authorities’ own forecasts of future pupil numbers, based on local-level information, such as inter-authority movement of pupils. It provides forecasts by national curriculum year group whereas these national pupil projections forecast by actual age.
The school capacity data is published annually as an official statistical release, which can be found here.
The national pupil projections presented in the current release are produced within the Department, at national level only. They cover a longer time period than in the school capacity release. Differences in the methodologies used by individual local authorities for pupil number forecasts mean that the aggregated totals in the school capacity release will differ from the national-level projections presented here, but the trends in both are broadly similar.
Pupil counts for the historic years have been derived from data collected via the School Census.
The projected figures are subject to increasing margins of error the further into the future they run. There is also a greater level of uncertainty for smaller and more detailed categories, such as particular age bands or smaller categories of school. Factors which may contribute to differences between projections and actual data include:
- the underlying population trend, which depends on assumptions about births, mortality and migration;
- differences between short-term assumptions in the population projections, used in one model, and subsequent population estimate data incorporated into the next year’s model;
- participation for all pupils, but particularly amongst pupils aged under 5 and over 15, which may differ from the rates assumed;
- school reorganisation by local authorities, which may affect the balance between primary and secondary schools;
- variations in the proportions attending different school types, such as independent schools;
- the introduction of new Government policies affecting schools or population.
Pupil projections rely heavily on the population projections produced by outside sources which are widely used across government for planning purposes. The projections are produced using demographic assumptions about future levels of fertility, life-expectancy and net-migration, based on analysis of trends and expert advice.
Change from early projections
This release does not include projections for pupils aged 16 and over. The projections prior to 2013 were aligned to overall 16-18 participation rate projections produced for the Education Funding Agency 16-19 Funding Statement. This has been replaced with a much simpler funding letter to 16-19 education and training providers which does not include projections that are comparable with the pre-16 projections in this publication. This is a permanent change.
Consistent with the July 2014 onwards publications, this release takes out dual-registered pupils from schools classified as alternative provision settings. This removes double counting in pupil numbers from this school type, which was present in previous statistical releases. For this reason, the alternative provision data from 2002 to 2010 has been removed.
Date of count
- Figures relate to January of the year shown.
- State-funded schools – a total of the mainained nursery, primary, secondary, special schools and alternative provision settings.
- State-funded primary schools – primary and middle deemed primary schools
- State-funded secondary schools – secondary, middle deemed secondary and all through schools, including city technology colleges, studio schools and and university technical colleges.
- State-funded special schools – includes all special schools apart from non-maintained special schools and general hospital schools
- Non-maintained special schools – constitute a separate category of school which are not included in the state funded total
- Alternative provision settings – includes pupil preferral units and alternative provision academies and free schools, but not other types of alternative provision
- Independent schools – includes all schools that are not state funded, ,except non-maintained special schools.
- Figures calculated in January, age as at previous 31st August.
- Under 5 – ages up to and including age 4
- Primary ages – 5 to 10
- Secondary ages – 10 to 15
Part-time and full-time equivalent
- Part-time pupils assumed to represent half of a full-time pupil to give full-time equivalent (FTE) totals.
- From 2003 to 2011 state-funded schools could record part-time pupils at any age. From 2012 pupils aged under 5 or over 15 can be recorded by state-funded schools as part-time, but all pupils aged 5 – 15 are recorded as full-time.
- Independent schools can record pupils of any age as part-time.
Help and support
If you have a specific enquiry about National pupil projections statistics and data:
Pupils and School Finance teamEmail: PupilPopulation.PROJECTIONS@education.gov.uk
Contact name: Helen Bray
If you have a media enquiry:
Telephone: 020 7783 8300
If you have a general enquiry about the Department for Education (DfE) or education:
Telephone: 037 0000 2288
Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5pm (excluding bank holidays)