BABY BOOM: Hopes to boost falling primary school demand in Bristol
Demand for places at Bristol schools is expected to rise following a predicted spike in the birth rate after the pandemic.
Multiple lockdowns and countless Covid restrictions have seen couples spending more time at home together and housemates cooped up with each other for weeks and months on end.
It is not known how the pandemic will affect the world’s birth rate over the next couple of years, with some pundits predicting a baby boom in poorer countries and the opposite in wealthier nations.
But Bristol City Council is building the possibility of a post-pandemic baby boom into its thinking as it manages a falling demand for primary school places across the city.
Ian Bell, the authority’s school place planning manager, told head teachers this week: “There are lots of predictions that the current situation that we’re in may result in a rising birth rate.
“So it may not be too far in the future where we’re looking at increasing numbers for primary again.”
Pressure on reception places in Bristol began falling several years ago after reaching a peak in 2016.
So far the council has managed that by working with primary schools to reduce their published admission numbers, Mr Bell told the Bristol Schools Forum.
This allows schools to plan their staffing accordingly, he said.
The council has a statutory duty to provide enough school places for children in the city.
It is not intending to permanently remove primary school places in response to the decline in demand because of the likelihood the need for places will rise again, headteachers heard.
Some 5,160 children started primary school in Bristol last September, compared with 5,580 four years earlier, a report to the Bristol Schools Forum shows.
“Those numbers are decreasing relatively slowly, so there isn’t an awful lot of empty classrooms across the city,” Mr Bell told the meeting on January 13.
“On top of that, I think we need to be very mindful that as the population is dropping at the moment, it will start to increase again.”
As well as the possibility of a post-pandemic baby boom, large-scale plans for housing in certain parts of the city will increase demand for school places, Mr Bell added.
Chris Pring, headteacher of Cabot Primary School, asked whether government funding could be used to protect primary schools with falling roles in the meantime.
But council finance manager Graham Booth said: “One of the issues is, the way the regulations are at the moment, is whether any or any of the schools that would need it would actually meet the criteria for getting funding from the falling rolls fund.”
Mr Bell said the council was working with schools to help manage falling rolls, for example by reducing the number of classes.
Simon Holmes, head of St Philip’s Marsh Nursery School and Barton Hill Children’s Centre/Cashmore Early Years Centre, said he thought the situation presented a good opportunity to address unequal class sizes across the city.
“The highest birth rates seem to be in Lawrence Hill, Easton, Hartcliffe, Withywood, St George West…so they’re generally the poorer areas and the areas of greater deprivation,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it be good actually to have some small class sizes for a few years to support schools in the poorer areas, so those children can catch up a bit?”
Mr Bell said the council cannot refuse any preferences in the school place admissions process.
“But what we can do is manage the children that don’t get any of their preferences and, as best we can, within reason and not making anybody travel too far and all of those things, try and ensure that some schools are filling up and others can manage their classes down as much as possible.”
Words: Amanda Cameron, Local Democracy Reporter
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