May 16, 2011 • 12:34 pm

Occasionally we see stories in the newspapers which rebut themselves. It is what Ben Goldacre calls the ‘paragraph 19 problem’: 18 paragraphs of sensation followed by 1 paragraph which discounts the rest.

It is hard to know whether to be annoyed by the misleading headline or grateful for the final burst of diligence.

Today’s Express contains a piece along these lines. “WE NEED 420 NEW SCHOOLS A YEAR TO COPE WITH MIGRANTS” proclaims the headline, citing research “using statistics from the Department for Education.”

It ends with a response from the Department for Education: “There will be some new schools needed but we have never put numbers on it and it’s far too simplistic to do the sums they have done.”

So how strong is the case and what can be said with certainty? Once again we find a dodgy headline obscuring an important story.

The research referred to in the Express comes from an article published in the Spectator entitled ‘The challenge of demographic change’. The article is not actually a research piece but it makes the 420 schools claim repeated by the Express and offers this syllogism of graphs to back it up.

(Although each graph says that the source for the figures is the Department for Education, the Department does not endorse the conclusion given on the graphs.)

420 schools

Pupil numbers are projected to rise. That comes from the DfE’s National Pupil Projections, which like the Spectator’s first graph show the number of pupils in maintained nursery and primary schools going from 3,986,000 actual in 2010 to 4,315,000 projected in 2014 and 4,529,000 in 2018, a rise of just over half a million over eight years.

The Spectator assumes a target of maintaining the present 230 pupils per school so concludes that over the three years to 2014 1,222 schools will be needed, 400 per year.

How could the Department for Education think that is simplistic? Because the latest school capacity figures show there are 458,250 surplus places in local authority primary school—almost enough for the projected rise in pupil numbers for the next seven years.

Of course it is too simple to say that all the additional pupils will be able to simply fill up surplus places because that takes no account of whether the extra pupils will be in the same places as surplus slots in schools. It is easy to understand why the Department for Education does not project school numbers like this when there is so much complexity.

The conclusion the Spectator and Express ‘research’ touts about 420 new schools can only be reached by ignoring a crucial variable and cannot be sustained even as conjecture, and certainly not as a serious estimate.

To cope with migrants?

As we mentioned above the projections foresee an increase of 329,000 primary pupils from 2010 to 2014.

The figures are based on ONS population projections but helpfully include an impact assessment of varying their migration assumptions on projected pupil numbers.

It states: “If zero net migration is assumed from 2010 onwards [but the same assumptions are made about births and deaths], around 10,400 fewer FTE pupils aged 5 to 15 are projected to be in state funded schools by 2014.” Of these 7,400 would (not) be of primary age—0.2% of the total increase would not happen.

However, these figures only account for first generation long-term migrants, that is under tens arriving in this country to stay over the next few years.

The Spectator and Express argument isn’t really about infants coming over and taking our school places. The article’s author claims: “One in eight children born in the past decade had at least one immigrant parent, and every second child born in London has an immigrant mother.”

It is not further immigration but the birth rate among people who have already immigrated to which the papers attribute the projected growth in demand for primary school places.

Figures from the Official for National Statistics (ONS) Statistical Bulletin Births in England and Wales by parents’ country of birth 2009 show that in that year 17.3 per cent of babies born had both a non-UK born mother and non-UK born father, which is just over one in six.

It also shows that the proportion of children born in the UK to mothers who were not born here has been rising steeply since 1999, reaching 24.7 per cent in 2009.

This is certainly a significant proportion but is also clearly not sufficient to explain the whole projected increase in demand for school places. Migration is a contributor but only one factor in the increase. The ONS have a helpful FAQ on births and fertility for people who would like to explore other factors.

Full Fact was not able to obtain figures on precisely what proportion of projected increase relates to children of immigrants, which due to the inter-related effects of immigration, emigrations and fertility rates is not a trivial calculation. However we understand that the government’s Migration Statistics Improvement Programme may help to throw more light on the contribution of second generation immigrants to the projected primary age population.

There is an important caution here. The advantage of using parents’ countries of birth instead of nationality for statistical purposes is that it is fixed and simple (for example, there is no dual nationality to worry about). However, that simplicity is not ideal for political debate. A mother born outside the UK may now be a British citizen. Some of the children being described as ‘migrants’ might be British citizens born in Britain.

Indeed, the mother may always have been a British citizen. 70 per cent of UK residents who were born in Germany are British citizens—probably due to the armed forces presence there. Oddly, their children would be included in the figures used to demonstrate the extent of immigration. So it is important to understand the limitations of these figures and arguments based on them.


Migration is a significant contributor to the projected increase in demand for primary school places but we recommend caution in juxtaposing that contributory factor with the entire projected rise in demand, as both the Spectator and the Express do. It is apt to give a misleading impression to readers.


Picture credit: Flavio Takemoto

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