Spending on schools has risen over the past six years, and teacher numbers are keeping pace with rising pupil numbers. Standards have held up. But an imminent growth in the secondary school population, a shortfall in trainee teachers of key subjects, and new financial constraints, signal pressure ahead.

Spending on schools has increased by 7% in real terms since 2009/10… 

Change in spending on schools in England

The past five years have seen a 7% real-terms increase in schools’ day-to-day spending budgets. This purely covers schools – primary and secondary up to age 16 – and not other components of the education budget, such as youth services. The increase is the continuation of a long-term trend: education has been prioritised by successive governments.

However, despite the continued protection of the schools budget, schools are set to face a period of financial pressure greater than any have felt for some years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts an 8% fall in spending per pupil between 2014/15 and 2019/20, due to rising pupil numbers, and rising national insurance and employer pensions contributions.[56] In this Parliament, schools will have to find £3bn of savings – something the Department for Education (DfE) has failed to clearly communicate to schools, according to the NAO.[57]

…and so has the number of pupils – the primary population has increased by 13%. 

Number of pupils at state-funded secondary and primary schools

A rising birth rate in the early years of the 21st century has fuelled a rise in pupil numbers.[58] So far, this increase has been felt only in primary schools, where there has been a 13% rise in numbers since 2009.

Those children are now beginning to enter secondary school, where pupil numbers (FTE) are expected to increase by 10% by 2020. Primary numbers will also increase, although at a slower rate – there are projected to be a further 174,000 primary and nursery pupils in 2019/20 (a 4% rise).[59]*

This increase has not led to intensified overcrowding, or to a scrum for school places. Across the whole country, the number of children in overcrowded schools has fallen since 2009, and the percentage of pupils receiving an offer from their first-choice primary school actually rose from 87.7% in 2014/15 to 88.4% in 2016/17.[60]

Pupils’ attainment is holding up. 

Student attainment at the end of Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4

Box 4.1: Tackling educational inequality

Tackling educational inequality has been a strong part of all education secretaries’ rhetoric since 2009, not just improving overall success.

Recent research from the Education Policy Institute suggests the gap has narrowed during this period. In 2015, disadvantaged children were on average 9.6 months behind their non-disadvantaged peers at the end of primary school (down from 11.5 in 2009). At the end of secondary school, the gap was wider: 19.2 months (down from 21.7 in 2009). 


The best-known metrics of student attainment – achieving level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths at the end of primary school, and achieving grades A*–C in English and maths at GCSE – have both slightly increased since 2009/10.

However, reforms to the way students are assessed, and changes to the way that data is collected, make it difficult to make comparisons over time. From 2013/14, resits were no longer counted in the aggregate A*–C figures for GCSE, leading to a drop in the headline number.

International benchmarks offer potentially more consistent measures of student attainment over time. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) surveys of educational performance suggest that the quality of education in England – in terms of students’ knowledge and skills in certain areas – has remained largely flat in recent years.[61]

New assessment regimes in England at both primary and secondary level will put pressure on the system, as teachers spend time getting to grips with them. ‘Levels’ in primary schools have been done away with, while A–G grades at GCSE are to be replaced with numbers 9–1 from this year.

These new regimes are explicitly designed to be tougher. One estimate suggests that, if the new system had been applied in 2015, only 35% of children would have achieved a good pass (a 5 or above) in their GCSE English and maths (compared with 58% who achieved a C or above).[62]

And so far, teacher numbers are keeping pace with the increase in pupil numbers.

Pupil–teacher ratios, 2009–2015

The number of teachers per pupil has remained steady at both primary and secondary level since 2009/10. In terms of teacher numbers, the picture is different at the different stages: primary teacher numbers increased (by 11%), as did pupil numbers, while the number of secondary teachers went down (by 5%), as did pupil numbers (by 3%).

If the Government wants to maintain this ratio, and keep pace with the imminent growth in the number of secondary pupils, a sharp upturn in the number of teachers at that level will need to take place. But there are signs that this may not happen.

But there are not enough new entrants to the profession in certain subjects – last year’s targets for secondary teacher training were missed by 21%… 

Comparison of new postgraduate entrants to Initial Teacher Training to target

Ofsted has described teacher recruitment as a ‘very real problem’.[63] The NAO noted in February 2016 that while overall teacher numbers have kept pace with pupil numbers to date, vacancies are increasing and teacher training targets are being missed.[64]

Every year, the DfE produces an estimate of the number of new teachers it needs to train (the teacher supply model). For the past four years, the target has been missed – trainee teacher recruitment for 2015/16 was 21% short of the target.

The problem is particularly acute in certain subjects. Last year, the maths target was missed by 174 teachers (7%), the science target by 487 (15%) and the computer science target by 214 (30%).

This has not resulted in large staff shortages within schools. Vacancy rates have more than doubled since 2010, but they remain at less than 1% of the size of the whole workforce.[65] However, these statistics may mask the scale of the recruitment problem. By the time the data is collected in November, headteachers have deployed different strategies to make sure no classes are left without a teacher in front of them – merging smaller classes into larger ones, or using non-specialist teachers for shortage subjects.[66] In one survey from the Association of School and College Leaders, 84% of school leaders reported unprecedented challenges in recruiting teachers.[67]

School leadership is a particular area of concern. A recent report from McKinsey and Teach First projected that by 2022, a shortage of between 14,000 and 19,000 school leaders will affect almost one in four schools – including 40% of the most challenged schools.[68]

…and more teachers are leaving state-funded secondary schools than entering them. 

More teachers are leaving state-funded secondary schools than entering them

Perhaps more worryingly, the numbers leaving state-school teaching have risen steadily since 2012. The problem is again particularly acute at secondary level, where more teachers are now leaving the profession than entering it. Last year, the equivalent of 9.8% of the secondary teaching workforce entered the profession, but an equivalent of 10.6% left.

The actual number of teachers leaving the profession is therefore well below the high numbers reported to be considering leaving: different surveys have placed this at between 20 and 59%.[69] However, a growing proportion of teachers leaving state schools are of working age. In 2011, 35% of teachers leaving were retiring – by 2015, this figure had shrunk to 20%. This adds weight to the claim that more teachers are leaving because they are unhappy in their job. Teachers in England work on average 48.2 hours a week – higher than almost all other OECD countries.[70]

If these recruitment and retention issues at secondary school level are not addressed, then – as pupil numbers go up – pupil–teacher ratios will deteriorate. This will not necessarily harm educational quality; research suggests that class size has a limited impact on pupil performance until it is reduced to under 20.[71] But those teachers must be of a high calibre, teach the right subjects, and be motivated to build a career in teaching and school leadership.

* Using the January 2016 census figure as a baseline.