School places: are we running out?

3 April 2015
  • One million more school children are expected by 2023 due to an increased birth rate
  • 'Basic need' funding for school places has increased under the coalition but other funding streams have been cut
  • Increased demand is expected particularly for primary places, with infant school classes becoming more overcrowded
  • There is disagreement over the extent to which free schools are meeting this need

By 2023, about a million more school pupils

The number of pupils in state funded primary schools in England is expected to increase by almost 10% to 4.7 million by 2023, according to the latest forecasts by the Department for Education.

The total state school population including secondaries is expected to reach over 8 million by 2023. This will be the first time pupil numbers have been so high since the 1970s.

This is putting pressure on school places.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said that 256,000 places would need to be added between May 2012 and September 2014.

Main cause is the increase in the fertility rate

The main cause of this increased demand is a substantial increase in the fertility rate between 2001 and 2011. Changes to the fertility rate are mostly driven by women born in the UK as they make up the majority of the population of childbearing age. But between 2001 and 2011, non-UK born women will have pushed it up as they have a higher fertility rate and made up an increasing share of the population, according to the Office for National Statistics. In 2013, the fertility rate was thought to be about 2.2 children per non-UK born woman and 1.8 for UK-born. We've written more on the impact that immigration in particular is having on school places here.

While secondary-aged pupil numbers have been falling since 2005, that's expected to reverse from 2015 as the increasing primary school population flows into secondary, that is according to the latest estimate from the Department for Education. Even before then, the NAO said about 64,000 extra secondary places were thought to be needed by September 2014.

Who's to blame for not predicting the rise?

Why didn't we know this earlier so we could plan places to meet the expected demand? Well forecasting such a need can be difficult, because you have to predict things like the fertility rate and net migration. The National Audit Office have questioned the accuracy of the longer-term forecasts in particular.

The Coalition government says it has created an additional 445,000 school places since 2010 and the Conservatives have pinned responsibility on the previous Labour government for the shortage. The number of primary school pupils fell between 1999 and 2009 and places were reduced to offset a surplus which can cost money. There's uncertainty over whether Labour should have known about the long-term increase and local authorities only began to forecast increases to pupil numbers in 2008.

Funding for 'basic need' has increased under the coalition but other funding streams have been cut

The Coalition has said its spending more on school places than the previous government.

Over £5 billion is being spent on new school places from 2011/12 to 2014/15. That is 'basic need' spending that's passed to local authorities to provide additional school places where needed in their area. This £5 billion also covers the cost of the 'Targeted Basic Need Programme' which provides extra funding for local authorities in the areas with the greatest demand for additional places.

The previous Labour government provided £1.9 billion of equivalent 'basic need' spending in the period 2007/08 to 2010/11, according to the National Audit Office. But this doesn't take into account other spending on schools. For instance in the same period Labour put just under £6 billion into the Building Schools for the Future programme, a major effort to build new schools that was scrapped by the Coalition in 2010. The impact of this cut in spending had on the provision of new places hasn't been fully evaluated yet say the NAO.

The data only takes us as far back as 2003/04, so we can't assess Labour's overall legacy on the funding of new school places.

Hotspots with a shortfall in primary school places

Roughly 238,000 primary school places were created between May 2010 and May 2013—a net increase of about 204,000 once reductions and closures are taken into account.

There are plans in place to create a further 300,000 places between 2013/14 and 2015/16. But on top of that, local authorities still need to find space for a further 57,000 by 2015/16 according to Department for Education estimates.

Need isn't uniform across the country. As well as particular local authorities and cities demonstrating a greater demand (such as London) there are specific areas within local authorities that will have a greater need for places too.

Infant class sizes are showing the pressure

A shortage of school places means growing pressure on class sizes.

There are three times the number of Key Stage 1 classes (ages 5 to 7) in England with more than 30 pupils—the limit set by government—since January 2010. That's up from from 995 to 2,985 in January 2014, according to the most recent figures from the Department for Education.

That's 5% of all KS1 classes (up from 2%). (More on the issues of overcrowded classes here).

In 2012 the Department pointed to the rise in the birth rate which is now feeding into greater pressure on school places:

"The recent and projected population increases are likely to increase demand for teachers and the number of class rooms, making it more challenging for local authorities to keep Key Stage 1 classes within the legal limit of 30 pupils per class."

For Key Stage Two (ages 7 to 11), and secondary school, where there's no legal class size limit, the percentage of classes with over 30 pupils has decreased by less than one percentage point from 2010 to 2014.

Parents not getting first choice school

Rising demand is also having an impact on parental choice, according to the NAO. In 2014 85% in England got their first choice secondary school—down two percentage points on the previous year but up three percentage points from 2010. For primaries, 88% of applicants received an offer for their first choice (the first year the figures were collated).

Areas where there is a shortage of places there were lower proportions receiving their preferred offer: in London 81% of primary and 70% of secondary applicants received their first preference offer in 2014.

Free schools already open are mostly in areas in need of primary places

The government has argued that free schools are helping to meet the need for school places. Another National Audit Office report from 2013 said that about 70% of the estimated 114,000 primary and secondary places opened in free schools so far are in areas forecasting either high, severe, or moderate need for places. As of 2014/15 many free schools are not operating at full capacity and haven't been open long enough to fill up with pupils in every year group.

The picture is quite different between primary and secondary free schools though, with 87% of projected primary places being created in areas forecast to have high or severe need, but only 19% of secondary school places in such areas.

A report published by the Public Accounts Committee last year said that more needed to be done to encourage free school applications where they are most needed. The report claimed that no applications to open primary free schools had been submitted in half of areas with a high or severe forecast need for extra school places. Since then, the Department has made basic need for places part of the assessment criteria (rather than context) by which free school applications are considered.

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