714,000: is that a big number?

By Geoff Gee - Part of our Election 2015 blog series

Tuesday 21 October 2014

In their guide to making sense of statistics, The Tiger That Isn’tBlastland and Dilnot make various recommendations for how to understand the significance of a number.

They suggest not being put off by the apparent naivety of the question: is that a big number? It is a question that is going to be very useful in the run up to the General Election, as we track policy proposals and try to relate them to reliable data and meaningful evidence.

Let’s take one example. According to the latest figures from the Department for Education (DfE), from a low of 3.947 million in 2009 the primary school population in England is now forecast to increase to 4.661 million in 2022. So, the figure 714,000 is derived by a simple subtraction between these two official figures. It represents the net forecast increase in the primary school population over a 13-year period, which we are almost halfway through.

But, is that a big number? Blastland and Dilnot warn that the presence of lots of noughts is not an infallible guide. Another way of expressing the trend in the figures, quoted in the DfE release, is that it represents a 2.5 per cent annual increase in the number of pupils in state-funded primary schools last year. Put that way, it perhaps doesn’t sound quite so worrying. However, with another sum, some cautious estimating, and an assumption of primary class sizes around 30, we can see that 714,000 more pupils is roughly the equivalent of finding over 1800 extra primary classrooms every year for 13 years – and then staffing them. So it is starting to look like the answer to our question is yes.

Some of the numbers relating to the English school system in 2014/15 are really big. These are numbers that give us a useful point of reference for many school statistics, particularly if we want to think about staffing and funding issues.

• 8.3 million: pupils in all categories of school of which 4.4 million are in primary schools.
• 21,936: state-funded schools, of which 16,788 are primary.
 1.3 million: people working in state-funded schools.
• £38.7 billion: the Total Dedicated Schools Grant. This is the money to run schools, including academies, and associated support services, but excluding capital costs such as building.

Perhaps we should shift perspective to the implications of our number for individual schools. Although finding more school places does mean looking for existing surplus capacity and opening new schools, it predominantly means expanding existing schools. Here are some statements taken from the ‘Pupil Place Plan’ of one local authority, chosen more or less at random, which help us relate the national statistics to the situation in individual schools:

• Expanding to two-form entry from 2014.
• Agreed to take up to 60 into Reception 2012 as a one-off ‘bulge’ year.
• School is now filling and additional classroom will be needed by 2016.
• Potential for expansion if required in response to local housing development.

This is how that big number translates into the issues being faced by thousands of school leadership teams, governing bodies and academy trust managers this year and for the next few years. In this context, even 60 is a big number.

Can the debate about school standards and structures be insulated from this central issue for the school system (which, of course, will have an impact on secondary schools in due course)? Politicians and policy analysts seem to see pupil place planning as ‘taking care of business’: they would prefer to talk about initiatives and ideas. As a case in point, think tank Policy Exchange in its recently published report, Primary Focus sees a ‘perfect storm’ coming to primary schools over the next few years – of higher floor standards; a new curriculum and assessment model; increasing leadership vacancies; and declining local authority support services. All important issues, but surely when many schools are being asked to double in size that ought to be on the list as well?

Those in central and local government are, of course, well aware of the issue. The Coalition Government has found £5 billion for the Targeted Basic Need programme to fund new school places up to 2015. There have been outbreaks of finger pointing between the parties and between local and central government over who should have seen the growth in pupil numbers coming and whether this central government funding is enough.

One cliché of election time is about ‘issues on the doorstep’, that is, what is on the mind of the voters, particularly when it differs from the things politicians and their advisors want to talk about. We will be watching to see what these issues turn out to be, and whether the availability of primary school places is among them.

That can be another way of finding out what the really big numbers are.