This document provides background information on the ‘National pupil projections – future trends in pupil numbers’ 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
The pupil projection model creates national projections for the number of pupils in England by age and by school phases and types. It uses ONS population estimates and projections, information on birth registrations in England and data derived from the School Census.
Each model uses the most recent ONS population projections, based on the estimated population at the appropriate mid-year, as well as ONS’s monthly birth 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 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 are based on their most recent estimate of the resident population. The population includes 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.
These pupil projections are produced annually. However, they are based on ONS’s national population projections, which are 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.
Pupil counts for the historic years are derived from data collected via the School Census.
The 2021 school census dataset showed unusual drops in the pupil numbers in certain school types, most significantly nursery & primary and alternative provision schools, and it was therefore not included in the 2021 pupil projections (with 2021 remaining a projected year).
Now we also have the 2022 school census we can start to see the longer term effect of the pandemic on school numbers. The nursery and primary population in that year is very slightly lower than in 2021, which is not unexpected considering the drops in the number of births since 2013 and, particularly, after 2018. The population in alternative provision schools in 2022 is a further drop on that seen in 2021.
All projections are inherently uncertain but the pandemic related effects on the 2021 and 2022 census may make the results of the pupil projections more so than usual. The new pupil projections have therefore had the methodologies by which historic figures are projected into the future reconsidered to try to take account of the census results. For example, the calculations for alternative provision schools now include a longer historic time frame to take greater account of the population prior to the recent drops in pupil numbers.
It is not possible at this point to know whether alternative provision referrals, and therefore the number moving to these schools, will return to pre-pandemic levels or, if it does, how long this might take.
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 most recent 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 ONS’s national population projections, alongside participation rates, they are directly affected by the assumptions made by ONS. Changes in the population who are of school age is largely 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 non UK-born women). The number of children born to non-UK born women increased by around 75 per cent between 2002 and 2013 (the years in which many children currently in schools were born), although this was a period of increased births generally.
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. ONS’s short-term birth assumptions in their national population projections will have been reduced as a result of these changes.
The ONS national population projections, which are the base for this 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. As such ONS normally also produce a number of alternative – known as variant – projections based on different assumptions of future fertility, migration and life expectancy. The pupil projections can then be run using these alternative scenarios to see what effect they would have on the future forecast population. These scenarios are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended to represent the upper or lower limits of projected pupil numbers.
The 2022 pupil projection model is produced using ONS’s mid-2020 national population projections. These are the last projections produced before the results of the 2021 national census are made available and did not include any variant projections. Therefore these pupil projections again do not include variant pupil projection results.
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 ONS 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 ONS which are widely used across government for planning purposes. National population projections are National Statistics, which means they undergo regular quality assurance reviews and are produced free from political influence. 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. The assumptions are agreed in liaison with the devolved administrations, following consultation with key users of projections in each country and advice from an expert academic advisory panel.
As for the last few years, 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.