Academic year 2020/21

School capacity

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This release publishes data reported by local authorities in England, in the annual School Capacity (SCAP) survey, as of 1 May 2021. 

Information is included on: 

  • The numbers of primary and secondary state-funded school places; 
  • Unfilled school places and pupils in places that exceed their school's capacity; 
  • Sixth form capacity;
  • Local authorities’ pupil forecasts;
  • Local authorities' planned changes to school places; and
  • The Department's estimates of the future number of school places needed to meet predicted demand. 

To reduce burden on schools and local authorities during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, data was not collected in 2020. This is, therefore, the first data in the series covering a period of the pandemic. Faster than expected declines in birth rates have impacted data this year, however, the pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU will also have had impacts. For example: 

  • 2021 primary enrolment numbers show a notable decrease that is expected to be temporary;
  • Some housing developments have been delayed; and
  • There is increased uncertainty around future trends in international migration and movement between areas.

Headline facts and figures - 2020/21

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About these statistics

These statistics are used by the department to estimate the future need for additional school places, to aid departmental monitoring of local authority school place sufficiency, and to support a range of policy developments and operational decisions. 

This publication may be of interest to users who wish to see data on school place provision in their area.

Findings in this commentary are at a national level though information at regional, local authority, school (school capacity and school sixth form capacity) or planning area level (forecasts, planned places and estimates of places needed) are provided in the data files associated with this release.

In the commentary, pupil numbers are rounded to the nearest thousand (or to the nearest hundred or ten thousand where appropriate) and school numbers to the nearest ten. Percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number. Unrounded numbers are provided in the accompanying tables and data files. 

Primary and secondary state-funded school places

Local authorities are expected to add school places where needed. These changes in school capacity are reflected in the number of school places reported in the SCAP survey as at 1 May each year. In times of population growth, the number of school places is expected to increase, as they have done since the survey began. Even in times of a declining population, there will still be increasing demand in some areas of the country.

Between 1 May 2019 and 1 May 2021, there has been a net increase of 47,000 primary places and 65,000 secondary places – 112,000 in total (SCAP2020 was cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic so this increase covers two years rather than one). This overall net change reflects both increases and decreases in capacity within state-funded mainstream schools in England (see definition of capacity in ‘Methodology: School capacity’).

The rate of primary places being added continues to slow, after previous increases of over 100,000 primary places per year from 2012/13 to 2015/16. There has been a reduction in actual primary pupil numbers seen since 2019, which is expected as the birth rate has been declining since 2012. Secondary places have increased, in line with the increase in actual secondary pupil numbers since 2019. This is due to the large birth cohort from 2008 to 2012 now moving through secondary.

Combined with all the changes in previous years, there has been a net increase of 1,115,000 places since 2010, consisting of just under 716,000 primary places, and just under 400,000 secondary places. 

Schools that are at or in excess of capacity

A school is identified as at or in excess of capacity when their pupil number on roll is greater than or equal to capacity (see 'methodology' for more information on ‘pupil on roll’). Some schools choose to operate in excess of their stated capacity because they feel that they can comfortably do so. 

The number of state-funded primary schools that were at or in excess of capacity decreased to 2,790 schools (17% of primary schools) in May 2021 from 3,340 schools (20%) in May 2019. This is the lowest number of the past decade. Of these, 480 (3%) are operating at but not in excess of capacity; 1,560 (9%) exceed by fewer than 10 pupils; and 750 (4%) exceed by 10 or more pupils. 

The number of state-funded secondary schools that were at or in excess of capacity increased to 750 schools (22% of secondary schools) in May 2021 from 560 schools (17%) in May 2019.  This increase corresponds to the larger cohort moving into the secondary phase. However, this is still lower than 2010 (930, 28%). Of the 750 schools in 2021, 20 (1%) are operating at but not in excess of capacity; 130 (4%) exceeded by fewer than 10 pupils; and 610 (18%) exceeded by 10 or more pupils. 

Where the number on roll is higher than a school’s capacity, the number of pupils in places that exceed their school's capacity is the difference between number on roll and capacity.

The number of pupils in places that exceed their school's capacity has decreased to 56,000 in 2021, from 97,000 in 2010. However, this is an increase from 50,000 pupils in 2019. 

This is driven by a 40% increase in secondary pupils in places that exceed their school's capacity, to 35,000 in 2021, from 25,000 in 2019. This continues the upward trend in recent years, which corresponds to the large cohort moving through secondary. 

In primary schools, there were 21,000 pupils in places that exceed their school's capacity. This 16% decrease from the 25,000 pupils in 2019 continues the long-term downward trend in primary schools.

Unfilled school places

A school has unfilled places if its capacity is higher than the number of pupils on roll. The number of unfilled places is the difference between the capacity and the number on roll.

As of May 2021, 83% of primary schools had one or more unfilled places, the highest percent in over a decade and is reflective of the falling primary population. 

The percentage of secondary schools with one or more unfilled places decreased to 78% in 2021 from 83% in 2019.  This is likely the result of places being filled by children reaching secondary age, after the high birth rate from 2008 to 2012 . Prior to 2019 there was a longer-term increase from 2010 (72%), potentially due to secondary schools adding capacity to prepare for the predicted rise in numbers of children reaching secondary age.

Unfilled places can be evidence of local authorities having planned ahead for future need, as the increase in pupil numbers at primary level is now moving into secondary level and will continue to do so over the coming years. Unfilled places can also be attributed to the building of whole new schools, which fill up from the bottom, leaving space in the upper years until those year groups work their way through. In some areas, low or declining need for places will also contribute to the number of unfilled places.

In 2021, there were 561,000 unfilled places in primary schools, an increase of 16% from 482,000 in 2019 (when the primary school population peaked), and 22% more than in 2010 (458,000). 

In secondary schools there were 529,000 unfilled places in 2021, a decrease of 15% from 621,000 in 2019, although still a lot higher than 2010 (355,000). As the secondary population has not yet peaked, local authorities appear to have added capacity in preparation.

For primary and secondary schools, the total number of unfilled places were nearly 1.1 million in 2021 (12% of total school places available). This is an increase from 814,000 places in 2010 (10% of total school places available). 

School sixth form capacity

Sixth form capacity in schools has been collected as a separate voluntary field since the 2018 School Capacity Survey. The response rate has improved in 2021 with local authorities reporting sixth form capacity for 99% of schools with sixth form pupils on roll, (up from 92% in 2018). The proportion of local authorities reporting sixth form capacity for all their relevant schools has risen to 83% in 2021, from 65% in 2018. Therefore, this dataset is no longer deemed experimental. 

Comparisons between 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2020/21 should still be treated with caution. Changes from year to year may not reflect actual changes in figures, but may simply indicate improvements in data quality.

In 2021, nearly 540,000 sixth form places were reported in 2,010 schools. Whilst sixth form capacity has remained relatively stable since 2019, the number of sixth form pupils on roll have increased by 8% to nearly 410,000 (from 380,000 in 2019). Most schools appear to have made use of spare capacity to accommodate this rise in sixth form pupils, rather than adding capacity.

Where sixth form capacity data was submitted, the proportion of schools with unfilled sixth form places (pupil on roll is lower than capacity) is 78% in 2021, which is lower than 87% in 2019. In 2021, 22% of schools were reported as having more sixth form pupils than reported capacity, which is more than in 2019 (12%). This is in line with the secondary school population increasing since 2019. 

Local authority pupil forecasts

Each local authority uses a fairly similar methodology coupled with their own local knowledge to generate pupil forecasts, 5 academic years ahead for primary and 7 academic years ahead for secondary. The forecasts reflect the number of pupils they expect to provide a place for, in each year group for each academic year, in each pupil place planning area (see methodology for definition). 

On aggregate, the forecast number of primary pupils (reception to year group 6) shows a decline after 2021/22 of no more than 1% a year. In contrast, the aggregate forecast number of secondary school pupils (from year group 7 through to year group 13 in sixth form) continues to increase to a peak of 3.7 million in 2025/26. There are fewer primary and secondary pupils predicted on aggregate, compared to local authorities' forecasts reported in SCAP2019, demonstrating that growth in pupil numbers is slowing down. 

As with all forecasts, the level of accuracy is expected to reduce as forecasts are made further into the future and care should be taken when using forecasts from the later years. Uncertainty is even greater in this latest set of forecasts, due to the recent impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU on local authorities' pupil forecasts, as described below.

There are two ways local authority forecasts submitted in SCAP2021 were impacted: 

  1. Much of the input data used in modelling has changed substantially since SCAP2019 as a result of a) faster than expected declines in birth rates and b) the pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU – for example, 2021 primary enrolment numbers show a notable decrease that is expected to be temporary, and housing developments have been delayed.  
  2. There is increased uncertainty around future trends in international migration and movement between areas, again as a result of the pandemic and the UK’s exit from the EU, as well as current world crises.

These LA pupil forecasts at a national level will differ from the national pupil projections published annually by the Department for Education due to methodological and timing reasons. See ‘Relationship with National Pupil Projections publication’ in ‘Methodology: School Capacity’ for further information.

Local authority planned changes to school places

Local authority planned places are the cumulative number of places local authorities plan to add or remove in the next 3 academic years, where funding has been committed as at the time of the survey. Local authorities add and remove places to manage their school estates as necessary according to future demand. Local authority planned places exclude those created through centrally funded DfE programmes such as Free Schools. See methodology for more information.

Local authorities have reported a planned net increase of just under 69,000 places by 2023/24. This is fewer places than the planned increase for 3 years ahead, as reported in SCAP2019, again demonstrating that demand is slowing down.

Estimates of future school place demand (place planning)

The department use SCAP2021 data, as well as internal data, to produce place planning estimates up to 2025/26 for primary and 2027/28 for secondary. These show the estimated number of places needed to meet future predicted demand in each national curriculum year group and pupil place planning area (see ‘Definitions in ‘Methodology: School capacity’). These estimates of places needed, are in addition to the local authority planned places reported in SCAP.

The cumulative aggregate estimates as at 1 May 2021, show an estimated 28,000 primary places are still needed across England in order to meet demand in academic year 2025/26. This is despite the expected decline in primary pupils nationally. Even in times of a declining population, there will still be increasing demand in some areas of the country. Secondary shows a growing rate of need for places up to 2026/27, with an estimated total of 54,000 places needed in order to meet demand. 

These estimates identify place need only, setting aside spare places identified within the calculation of estimates. This acknowledges that pressure in one part of a local authority cannot necessarily be offset by spare places in another area. These ‘additional need only’ estimates are provided in the ‘School place planning estimates’ data file at national, regional, local authority and planning area level. A second version of estimates (additional need minus spare places) are also provided at local authority and planning area level only.

Caution should be taken with interpretation of these estimates. Further information on when to use the two different versions of estimates, how these estimates are calculated, how to interpret them and their limitations is provided in the technical guide to the school place planning estimates accompanying this release (see supporting files under 'Explore data and files’).

Comparison to other statistics

The aggregated national level forecasts of demand for school places in this release will differ from the national pupil projections published annually by the Department for Education due to methodological and timing reasons. This publication includes local authorities’ own forecasts of future pupil numbers in each of their local areas, incorporating their own local-level information. The department’s main pupil projections are produced at national level only within the department using a set methodology. They are published annually as an official statistical release. See ‘Relationship with National Pupil Projections publication’ in the methodology accompanying this release for more information.

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