Summarising the challenges affecting schools, including the presence of RAAC, pressures on school budgets, a recruitment crisis and rising pupil absence rates.

Key figures

  • 7.8 million – the number of pupils in state-funded primary and secondary schools in January 2023, up from 6.8 million in 2010.
  • 437,000 – the number of full-time equivalent teachers in state-funded nurseries, primary and secondary schools, including school sixth-forms, in November 2022, up from 415,000 in 2010.
  • 16.5% – the fall in average, real-terms pay of a classroom teacher between 2010 and 2022.
  • £7,520 – the average per-pupil funding for primary and secondary pupils for the current school year, up from £6,911 in 2010/11.
  • 6 percentage points – the fall in the proportion of children at the expected standard in KS2 reading, writing and maths between 2019 and 2023. 

Safety fears and rising absence rates

The start of this academic year was marred by the RAAC concrete crisis, with 104 schools and colleges unable to reopen over safety fears. This comes after significant disruption both from the pandemic and teachers strike action over pay and conditions. Schools are now seeing a drop in the performance of primary age children, a rise in absence rates and the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their non-disadvantage peers returning to 2012 levels.

Pressures on budgets

Per-pupil funding fell in real terms between 2014/15 and 2017/18, but by 2022/23 stood at £7,156 per pupil, the highest level to date and 3.5% above 2010/11 levels. It is set to increase by 5.1% in 2023/24 after the government increased funding in the 2022 autumn statement.

However, despite these increases, pressure on school budgets has come from a number of quarters, including an increase in children with special education needs or SEND. The number of children with an education, health and care plan rose from 2.8% of the total pupil population in 2014 to 4.3% in 2023. High needs funding has seen a 35.9% increase in real terms since 2019/20, while in 2021/22, three-quarters of local authorities were in deficit on schools’ budgets due to their statutory SEND costs.

Pupil attainment and recruitment challenges

Pupil attainment in primary schools remains below pre-pandemic levels. In both 2022 and 2023, 59% of pupils reached the expected levels in reading, writing and maths compared to 65% in 2019. The gap in performance between all disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged school children returned to 2012 levels, while the rates of persistently absent pupils increased markedly.

While the numbers of teachers reached a record high in 2022, new recruits have dropped starkly since the pandemic. The numbers entering postgraduate training were 30% below target in 2022/23. The rate of teachers leaving for other professions also hit its highest level in 2021/22 for over a decade. Declining pay is one of the factors behind this exodus. Classroom teachers median pay fell by 12.5% in real terms between 2010 and 2022 and 6.5% for headteachers. This led to a series of strikes between February and July this year and an improved 6.5% pay deal from the government. This has been funded through an extra £432.5m for 2023/24 and a further £742.5m for 2024/25.

The impact of RAAC

The schools affected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete or RAAC have now hit 174. Capital spending has declined since 2010 and in the last survey of the school estate in May 2021, the cost of returning it to a good condition was estimated to be £10.6bn.