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Schools struggle with demand for school places - April, 2016

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With pupil numbers set to rise[1], new data from The Key suggests that at least 12,300[2] schools in England would be unable to meet the additional demand for pupil places with their current buildings, budget and facilities

The data – taken from The Key’s annual State of Education report, to be released next month – reveals that 59% of schools (which equates to 14,347 schools in England[1]) received more applications for places this academic year than the number of pupils they could accommodate. Forty-one per cent received up to 50% more, and one in 10 received almost twice as many applications as available spaces.

The report comes at a time when thousands of pupils are awaiting their school allocation for September. The findings, which are based on a survey of 1,188 school leaders, outline how 86% of schools who faced an extra demand for places believe that meeting such needs with their current budget, buildings and facilities would be difficult - 58% stated it would be ‘very difficult’.

Lack of space for additional buildings (25%), insufficient school budgets (22%) and school buildings not being fit for purpose (19%) were the main obstacles for those who would find it difficult to meet the demand – ahead of challenges related to staffing. These concerns are compounded by a common expectation that budget pressures and lack of funding will be the biggest challenge for schools over the next 12 months.[2]

Speaking about the findings, Fergal Roche, CEO of The Key – an organisation that provides leadership and management support to schools – said: “The provision of school places is a more complex issue than simply supply outstripping demand. There are regional imbalances that need to be fully examined and addressed in order to ensure a sustainable solution to the issue.

Schools are brilliant at making the best use of resources available to them, and the government is allocating capital funding to support the creation of additional school places. However, with an expected extra 880,000 pupil places needed by 2023, more localised support is needed to meet and prepare for this growing demand.”

At the same time, the report indicates that nearly 16% of schools received fewer applications for places than they could provide for in this academic year, which brings its own budget implications for those affected.

The rates of over and undersubscription varied by region, too. London had the highest proportion of oversubscribed schools – almost seven in 10 (69%) – and one of the lowest rates of undersubscription (12%). In contrast, the south west had one of the highest proportions of undersubscribed schools – almost one in five (19%) – and one of the lowest rates of oversubscription (52%).

While the pressure for pupil places is presently being felt more at the primary level, with three in five primary school leaders (60%) stating their school was oversubscribed, secondary schools are not far behind – with more than half (52%) reporting being oversubscribed for the 2015/16 academic year. With the number of children entering the school system rising, a greater proportion of secondary schools may feel the squeeze in the current admissions round (the results of which are due today) and in coming years, as pupils work their way through the system.

The Key’s report also shows that the pressure for primary schools doesn’t end with the application figures – almost half (45%) of primary school leaders have had to respond to upset parents whose children didn’t get their first-choice placement at the school, compared to one in five (20%) leaders in secondary schools.

Speaking about their situation, a headteacher of a south London primary school, said: “This year we had 222 applications for 60 pupil places and it’s been a similar story the last few years. We could only start to meet this additional demand with the capital investment in our premises, which means we’re now expecting 10 new classrooms to improve provision for our children.

That said, taking additional pupils and the associated expansion has implications outside of funding. Our school field provides plenty of play space in summer, but come winter, the hard play area is the same size as when we were a one-form-entry school and we now hold an extra four classes.

“We’re not only having to rethink how we manage playtimes for our growing number of pupils, but how we provide on-site parking with no space for more staff and how we alleviate the chaos on the roads around the school during pick-up and drop-off times."


[1] The DfE statistical release, National Pupil Projections - Future Trends in Pupil Numbers, outlines how an expected extra 880,000 school places will be needed by 2023. Read more:
[2] Figure based on the percentage of schools in The Key's survey that reported receiving more applications than they had places for and said they would find it difficult to meet the needs of these additional pupils with their current buildings, budget and facilities. This represents 86% (12,338 schools) of the 14,347 schools in England that received more applications for pupil places than the school can accommodate (see footnote 3)
[3] Figure represents 59% of the 24,317 schools in England, based on 2015 ONS data:
[4] The Key’s survey asked school leaders to select their biggest expected challenge over the next 12 months, from a list of 12; 31% of respondents (the highest proportion) selected budget pressures/lack of funding

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