Wales’ schools face the alarming challenge of the lowest birth-rate in 100 years
Whatever new challenges COVID-19 is presenting schools with at the moment, one thing that could be confidently predicted is that many primary schools will have fewer learners than they saw a decade ago.
In October 2021 we published A Picture of Schools as part of our reports on public services. One issue we highlighted was the impact of demographic changes on schools. This blog unpicks that issue for schools in more detail.
Birth-rates in Wales have been falling since 2010
The birth-rate in Wales has fallen every year since 2010. In 2019 fewer than 30,000 babies were born in Wales, the lowest number in the last 100 years. The latest provisional figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggest a further decline with 28,661 live births in 2020, 20% less than 2010. The birth-rate varies across Wales, but this is not a North-South or rural-urban issue; for example, birth-rates fell by 7% between 2018 and 2019 in urban Cardiff and rural Powys.
Source: Office for National Statistics (ONS) – Births in England and Wales. Provisional ONS data for 2020.
Will this trend continue?
Nobody knows, and birth-rates tend to fluctuate in the short term. However, the general trend is for declining birth-rates. Birth-rates tend not to rise during periods of economic uncertainty or rising unemployment [opens in new window]. Currently across Wales the total fertility rate is 1.48 per woman. If it fell to 1.38 – the current rate in Cardiff and Gwynedd – fewer than 25,000 babies would be born, 30% less than in 2010.
Will migration into Wales offset the decline in births? Again, nobody knows for certain, but ONS figures do not show a significant net movement of families with children into Wales in the last decade. There is no reason to think this will change.
Does this decline in births matter to schools?
The economic impact of falling birth-rates has been well documented (Social market foundation report September 2021 [opens in new window]). However, what does this mean for schools?
Over the last decade, the overall number of pupils aged 3-19 in Wales stayed steady, largely due to a small rise in birth-rates from 2003 to 2009. The Welsh Government’s own predictions suggest that total pupil numbers will be 3% lower in 2026 compared to 2020. Looking further, it expects numbers to fall further: with the number of pupils aged 3-19 in 2036 estimated to be 9% less than 2020.
Change in projected pupil numbers compared to 2020 in Wales
Source: Stats Wales, Pupil Projections. Pupil numbers at 31 January 2020. Audit Wales analysis.
However, the pace of these population changes varies; in some parts of Wales the number of pupils has been falling for some time. In Gwynedd, for example, primary pupils fell from 10,159 in 2016 to 9,633 in 2020. Ultimately, without action, the fall in pupil numbers could have an unfortunate impact on schools and pupils in the areas of Wales most affected.
Will more schools close?
Generally, costs per pupil are higher in small schools. Currently Wales already has lots of small primary schools (less than 100 pupils) and secondaries (less than 700), partly because of rurality and because it operates a split system with Welsh, bilingual and English-medium schools.
In future falling pupil numbers may mean that some schools may become unviable leading to schools merging or even closing. When this happens, pupils may have to travel further for education. Closing schools can have a devasting impact on the local community, especially for rural, predominantly Welsh-speaking, communities where the school is the only remaining facility that has not already disappeared. Our Picture of Schools report highlights the tension that can arise between the duty of councils to provide an efficient school estate and communities’ support for their local schools.
What are the Welsh Government and councils doing?
The Welsh Government already has strategic plans that support councils’ planning for school places through the well-established 21st Century schools and education programme, the 2018 Rural Education Action Plan [opens in new window] and the Welsh in education: action plan 2017 to 2021 [opens in new window].
The 21st century schools and education programme started in 2014. Councils are required to review plans for school places with the aim of having the right schools in the right places for the future. The programme also funds school-based early years facilities and further education colleges. In recent years the number of schools has reduced through closures and mergers as councils have reviewed their school estate. The number of unfilled primary places has fallen from 21% in 2010 to 12.6% in 2018, although this is partly due to the mini-baby boom from 2003-09.
The programme is not delivering a one-size-fits-all approach to school places across Wales. For example, in some councils such as in Blaenau Gwent, post-16 education is offered through colleges while councils including Ceredigion have developed new age 3 to 19 schools. The programme is supporting shared school buildings that can meet wider community needs and create vibrant community hubs.
The 2018 Rural Education Action Plan [opens in new window] sets out Welsh Government support for small and rural schools. The revised School organisation Code ensures that councils and others must consider all viable alternatives before closing a rural school. In most areas, planning school places involves balancing the demand for places in different language settings. Councils are required to set out their 10-year Welsh in Education Strategic Plans [opens in new window] from 1 September 2022, including setting out how they will meet for current and future expectations for increasing numbers of pupils in Welsh-medium schools as part of the Welsh Government’s target for 30% of learners in Welsh-medium by 2030/31.
The challenge for Wales is that the alarming decline in the number of births has been with us for a decade and may continue for some time. It is unclear if and/or when the decline in births will end and what are the long-term implications for Wales.
About the authors
Claire Flood-Page is an Audit Lead in the National Studies Team. Before moving to Audit Wales, she worked as a Research Manager in Scotland and London.
Gwilym Bury is an Audit Lead with responsibility for the local government performance audit programme of work at Flintshire and Conwy councils. Before moving to Audit Wales, he worked in the civil service, local government, and housing associations in London and Wales.