What's happening to secondary school places?

29 February 2016
What was claimed

One in six secondary schools are at or over capacity.

Our verdict

15% of state-funded secondary schools in England were at or over capacity in 2014—one in seven.

What was claimed

95% of applicants received an offer at one of their top three preferred schools last year.

Our verdict


“One in six secondary schools ‘at or over capacity’”

The Telegraph, 29 February 2016

“Despite rising pupil numbers, 95 per cent of parents received an offer at one of their top three preferred schools last year and any suggestion to the contrary is nonsense.”

Department for Education spokesperson quoted in The Telegraph, 29 February 2016

Tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of parents will discover which secondary schools their children will be starting at in September. Ahead of this, the Labour Party and the Local Government Association have issued separate warnings about the ability of local authorities to cope with a predicted 20% rise in the number of secondary school pupils over the next decade.

15% of state-funded secondary schools in England were at or over capacity in 2014—so that’s about one in seven rather than the one in six referred to by Labour and in the Telegraph and others’ headlines.

95% of applicants received an offer at one of their top three preferred secondary schools for the current academic year, as the Department for Education says. What’s uncertain is whether the increase in pupil numbers will begin to affect this in future years.

15% of schools were at or over capacity in 2014, an improvement on previous years

About 500 out of 3,300 secondary schools in 2014 were full or had one or more pupils in excess of school capacity—15%.

Most of the 500 were over capacity. This means they were accommodating more pupils than what was thought reasonable based on the size of the school.

That proportion has fallen over the last few years. It was 18% in 2013, down from 21% in 2012.

That was at the same time as the number of secondary pupils was falling. From this coming academic year they will start to rise again for the first time in a decade.

Localised differences in offers

Despite the squeeze on capacity in certain schools, the government says that this isn’t affecting parental choice. 95% of applicants to secondary schools got one of their top three preferences for the current academic year.

This figure has fallen slightly over the last two years, from a high of 96.5% in 2013/14.

Not all families will be feeling content. There was greater competition for places in certain areas, such as London. 69% of applicants in London received their first choice place there. This isn’t necessarily all because of a shortage of places, as it will be affected by other factors such as the desirability of certain schools.

Rising numbers of secondary pupils

The number of pupils in secondary schools is expected to rise, from 2.7 million in 2015, to 3.3 million in 2024. 

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring there is a school place available for every child who wants one. They’ve been allocated additional funding up to 2018 to meet the rising need between now and then.

They can do this by either expanding existing schools or by opening new schools—which have to be free schools.  

The Local Government Association has said today that councils are in some cases struggling to find sponsors for free schools, which might affect their ability to increase the number of school places. It argued the government should allow councils to open new local authority maintained schools if they are unable to find sponsors for free schools or unable to get academies to expand.

The government has said this is “scaremongering”.

It’s difficult to say to what extent existing rules will affect local councils’ ability to meet rising demand in the coming years. 

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