Pupil projections and implications for teacher resourcing needs: education workforce modelling and research

An external report considering population projections and potential implications for education workforce resources in Scotland. This independent analysis is intended to support engagement with partners on workforce planning that enables delivery of key commitments while maximising value for money.

1. Summary

Future teacher resourcing needs in Scotland are expected to be affected by a number of factors, including changing demographics, policy commitments, and resource constraints. This comes in the context of the Scottish Government’s 2021 commitment[1] to increase teacher numbers by 3,500 by the end of the current Parliamentary term in 2026. There is also a Scottish Government commitment to reduce teachers’ contracted class contact time by 1.5 hours per week by 2026 from the current 22.5 hours.

WPI Economics has been commissioned by the Scottish Government to look at the potential impact of demographic change on pupil numbers in Scotland over the next decade, and the implications for the corresponding teacher resourcing needs. We have built an economic model to provide data-based insights on the future trends of pupil populations by different state school types (primary, secondary, and special). We have also considered different scenarios to project the future teacher resourcing need and compare Scotland with other nations within the UK and internationally in terms of pupil-teacher ratios (PTRs) and teachers’ class contact time.

In terms of international comparisons, our research findings are:

  • Scotland currently has lower PTRs than other UK nations overall and by school type.
  • Internationally, Scotland's secondary school PTR was lower than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average and roughly middle of the pack of the G7 countries in 2021, while its primary school PTR was slightly higher than the OECD average.
  • Scotland's statutory contact time was higher than the OECD average in 2020, especially at upper secondary level.

Pupil projections, based on population projections from the Office for National Statistics,[2] show that the school-age population in Scotland is peaking. It is projected to have reached 770,000 in 2022 and is then expected to decline over the subsequent decade. A deeper dive finds that primary school pupil numbers peaked in 2017, while secondary school pupil numbers are expected to continue increasing until 2025, and the number of special school pupils is expected to peak in 2024.

Meanwhile, the headline figures for teacher numbers show a mild contraction in the workforce for two consecutive years to 2023, with the total number of teachers falling slightly by 252 over the two years[3]. Given the projections for a declining pupil population, it is important to understand the future teacher resourcing needs in this context under different scenarios. We have explored a range of scenarios with the following headline findings:

1. Maintaining a constant teacher stock: if the size of the teacher workforce held steady over time, with inflows matching outflows, class contact time could be reduced by 1.5 hours by 2028, and the PTR would continue to fall over time as a result of declining pupil numbers. The class contact time reduction could be enabled across all school types by 2028 if the proportions of primary, secondary and special school teachers were allowed to adjust. Without this adjustment, the rate of reduction in class contact time would be enabled quicker in primary schools than secondary schools.

2. Enabling a reduction in class contact time: an increase in teacher numbers will be needed in the short term if a reduction of 1.5 hours per week is to be enabled in all school types by 2026, one year after the expected peak in secondary school enrolments. The year-on-year change in teacher numbers could be smoother if the reduction in class contact time was enabled over a longer time period.

3. Maintaining the current PTR: this will reduce the demand for teachers over time to proportionately match the decline in pupil numbers as a result of demographic change. However, maintaining the PTR while enabling a reduction in class contact time would be challenging without making other changes, such as exploring whether some of the teachers currently being used for targeted interventions, such as those doing the Scottish Attainment Challenge (SAC), Pupil Equity Funding (PEF) or COVID recovery work, could teach in classes.

4. Increasing the PTR: this would lead to a reduced resource requirement for teachers but could increase class contact time, running counter to the policy commitment.

5. Increasing the number of teachers: the Scottish Government's commitment to supporting the recruitment of 3,500 additional teachers by 2026 could drive contact time below the 2026 target of 21 hours per week but could have significant implications for cost and sustainability, and raise questions about whether this delivers maximum value for money.

Bringing the implications of these scenarios together can provide useful insight for teacher recruitment. Focussing on the implications from projected demographic changes – and in the context of constrained public sector budgets – our modelling suggests that a constant, rather than increasing, teacher stock could more closely match expected teacher resourcing needs over the next decade. This could avoid sudden excesses in teacher numbers relative to resourcing needs, while meeting the policy commitment to reduce contact time to 21 hours, albeit by 2028, two years later than planned.

This reduction could be enabled across all school types by 2028 if the proportions of primary, secondary and special school teachers are allowed to adjust (even though the overall number of teachers remain constant). Otherwise, the decline in class contact time could be enabled faster in primary (by 2026) and slower in secondary (by around 2031) with the average reduction being 1.5 hours by 2028.

Scotland’s PTR would also reduce over time due to the expected decline in pupil numbers.

Focussing on enabling a reduction in class contact time across all school types by 2026 would require a significant increase in the number of teachers in the short term. This increase in teacher numbers could be reduced if the reduction in class contact time was enabled by 2028.

If a multi-pronged approach were considered (for example, exploring changing the role of teachers being used for targeted interventions rather than in standard classes, to increase the number of classroom teachers without significant recruitment) the class contact time commitments could be met without any reduction in the PTR. However, if the PTR was allowed to increase to 13.7 (the level it was in 2015-16) all else equal, this would lead to an increase in class contact time unless a disproportionately large – and likely infeasibly large – number of teachers being used for targeted interventions had their roles changed.


Email: zak.tuck@gov.scot

Back to top