Academic year 2020/21

Schools, pupils and their characteristics

View latest data: Academic year 2021/22
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See all updates (7) for Academic year 2020/21
  1. Additional free school meal data added to underlying data and table tool, specifically: 1) Number of pupils who are FSM eligible by ethnicity and by year group 2) FSM6 – the number of pupils who have been eligible for Free School Meals at any point in the last 6 years 3) UIFSM – the number of pupils who benefit from Universal Infant Free School Meals

  2. The category 'Asian - Chinese' and 'Chinese' have been reconciled under a single entry 'Asian - Chinese'.

  3. Corrections to underlying data made where some LAs were not displaying in table tool. Ages 3 and 4 broken down by lower, middle and upper now aggregated to age 3 and 4 to enable easier use of table tool based on feedback. Year group X (national curriculum not followed) added to Cross Border movement data. Correction to footnote to clarify ethnicity group Arab includes pupils recorded as Arab other only.

  4. Cross border movement data added and section in commentary updated

  5. Data for measure known to be eligible for free school meals (used for FSM in Performance Tables) as been updated to include percentages. No changes have been made elsewhere or to underlying data.

  6. School open dates added in school level underlying data files. Data for Shropshire, Cambridgeshire, Birmingham and Walsall local authorities fixed, these were previously displaying incorrectly with multiple rows for each at local authority level. National figures are unaffected.

  7. Figure for FSM in January 2020 has been corrected in headline facts and figures section to 17.3%. This previously stated 17.8%. No changes have been made elsewhere or to underlying data.


This release contains the latest statistics on school and pupil numbers and their characteristics, including:

  • age
  • gender
  • free school meals (FSM) eligibility
  • English as an additional language
  • ethnicity
  • school characteristics
  • class sizes

The publication combines information from the school census, school level annual school census, general hospital school census and alternative provision census.

As schools were only open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers on census day, schools were asked to record day specific data items as if in normal circumstances, for example for free school meals taken and class sizes.

Headline facts and figures - 2020/21

  • There are 8.9 million pupils attending 24,400 schools in England in 2020/21. This includes state-funded and independent schools.
  • 20.8% are known to be eligible for free school meals, representing 1.74 million pupils. This has increased from 17.3% in January 2020.
  • Over 420,000 pupils have become eligible for free school meals since the first lockdown on 23 March 2020. This compares to 292,000 for the same period (March 2019 to Jan 2020) before the pandemic.
  • The average class size for infant pupils (reception, year 1 and year 2) has decreased to 26.6. There is a statutory limit of 30 pupils in an infant class.

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All supporting files

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List of all supporting files

Schools and pupils

State-funded primary schools and state-funded secondary schools – Primary schools typically accept pupils aged 5-10 and secondary schools aged 11 and above, but there are increasing numbers of all-through schools, who take pupils of all compulsory school ages. These schools include academies and free schools and are included in the totals for secondary schools.

State-funded special schools – these are schools which provide tailored provision for pupils with special educational needs.

Alternative provision – these are education settings for children unable to attend a mainstream school. Local authority maintained establishments providing alternative provision, are often referred to as pupil referral units. Local authorities can also fund places not maintained by the local authority. Alternative provision is covered in more detail in the “Pupil referral units and alternative provision” section below.

Independent schools and non-maintained special schools – these are registered schools which do not receive government funding. They often charge fees for pupils to attend.

State-funded nursery – these are nurseries maintained by the local authority in which they operate. Other nurseries, such as private and voluntary nurseries, are not included in the school census. Schools with a nursery attached will complete the school census as a school rather than as a nursery.

There are over 8.9 million pupils in January 2021, a small increase from similar levels last year

Increases are seen in the number of pupils in secondary and special schools, however, decreases are seen in all other school types. This is primarily driven by demographic changes, following a peak of births in 2013, with higher numbers of children reaching secondary age and lower numbers of pupils moving in to primary school. 

The primary population is projected to decrease until 2030 whilst the secondary population is projected to increase until 2024 (see the Department's pupil projections release). 

The number of pupils in state-funded nursery has decreased by 10% to 37,900. Although this will be in part due to demographic changes, this may also indicate a reduction in enrolments in nursery as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of pupils in pupil referral units (PRUs) has decreased by 17% to 12,800. PRUs typically have high mobility with pupils having shorter spells than in other schools.

The number of pupils in independent schools has decreased by 1.3% to 569,400. While this follows a trend of decreases since a peak in 2016/17, it is a larger decrease than in recent years.

The number of schools has also increased

There are 53 more schools across all sectors than in 2020. This is driven by increases in independent schools (35 additional schools) and special schools (12 additional schools).

The number of pupils attending academies (including free schools) has continued to grow, along with the number of academies. While 39% of all schools were academies, over half of all pupils (52%) were attending an academy. This is due to higher proportions of secondary schools being academies than primary, with typically much higher numbers of pupils. At January 2021:

  • 37% of primary schools are now academies or free schools, accounting for 39% of the primary school population
  • 78% of secondary schools are academies or free schools, accounting for 78% of secondary school pupils

For up-to-date information on open academies, free schools, studio schools and UTCs, see the monthly transparency data

Pupil referral units and alternative provision

Alternative provision are education placements for children unable to attend a mainstream or special school. There are two types of alternative provision discussed here. 

Local authority maintained establishments providing alternative provision are often referred to as pupil referral units. There are also an increasing number of alternative provision academies and free schools and these are combined in this release with pupil referral units. This data is collected through the school census

Data on local authority funded alternative provision is collected via the alternative provision census. This includes pupils attending establishments not maintained by a local authority for whom the authority is paying full tuition fees or educated otherwise under arrangements made (and funded) by the authority. 

Pupil referral units, alternative provision academies and free schools

The number of pupils in pupil referral units (PRUs) has decreased by 17% to 12,800. This includes pupils whose sole or main registration is in a PRU. 

Most pupils, 72.9% are boys, as in previous years. Over half of pupils in PRUs are eligible for free school meals (53.1%), this compares to 20.8% for the overall school population 

A further 9,200 pupils have a dual subsidiary registration in PRU's, this means that they also have their main registration at another school.

Local authority funded alternative provision

The number of pupils attending alternative provision has increased by nearly 3,000 (10%) to 32,436 in 2020/21. As in previous years, most pupils are boys (74.6%). Pupils in alternative provision have a lower rate of free school meal eligibility (19.8%) than the overall school population (20.8%).

Free school meals eligibility

Children in state-funded schools in England are entitled to receive free school meals if a parent or carer were in receipt of any of the following benefits:

  • Income Support
  • Income-based Jobseekers Allowance
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance
  • Support under Part VI of the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999
  • the guaranteed element of State Pension Credit
  • Child Tax Credit (provided they were not also entitled to Working Tax Credit and had an annual gross income of no more than £16,190, as assessed by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs)
  • Working Tax Credit run-on - paid for 4 weeks after you stop qualifying for Working Tax Credit
  • Universal Credit - if you apply on or after 1 April 2018 your household income must be less than £7,400 a year (after tax and not including any benefits)

Children in nursery schools are eligible if they meet the criteria and attend for full days. Pupils are still eligible for free school meals in school in sixth form, but not sixth form college or further education.

Since 1 April 2018, transitional protections have been in place which will continue during the roll out of Universal Credit. This has meant that pupils eligible for free school meals on or after 1 April 2018 retain their free school meals eligibility even if their circumstances change. Prior to the pandemic, this had been the main driver in the increase in the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals as pupils continue to become eligible but fewer pupils stop being eligible.

If a child is eligible for free school meals, they’ll remain eligible until they finish the phase of schooling (primary or secondary) they’re in on 31 March 2022.

The number of pupils eligible for free school meals has increased during 2020

In January 2021, 1.74 million pupils were eligible for free school meals, 20.8% of all pupils. This is an increase of nearly 300,000 pupils since January 2020, when 1.44 million (17.3%) pupils were eligible for free school meals. 

The number of pupils eligible for FSM was already increasing prior to the pandemic

The percentage of pupils with free school meals had been increasing prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with increases from 13.6% in January 2018, to 15.4% in January 2019, and to 17.3% in January 2020. The increase from January 2020 to January 2021 is higher than each of these previous year on year increases.

Due to the transitional protections described above, these pre-pandemic year on year increases were expected as pupils flow on to free school meals when becoming eligible, but protections mean pupils do not flow off in a similar way.

Over 420,000 pupils have become eligible for free school meals since the first national lockdown began.

427,000 pupils who were eligible for free school meals in January 2021 had a free school meal eligibility start date after 23 March 2020, when the first national pandemic lockdown was announced. For the similar period before the pandemic, March 23rd 2019 to January 2020, there were almost 292,000 pupils who became eligible for free school meals. 

While some of these pupils may have been eligible for free school meals previously, their latest spell has started since the first national lockdown began on 23 March 2020. 

Universal Infant Free school meals

1.7 million infant pupils were recorded as taking a free school meal on census day as if in normal circumstances, of which 1.3 million are not normally eligible for FSM through the criteria above and received them under the Universal Infant FSM policy.

Free school meal eligibility varies by region

The highest rates are seen in the North East where 27.5% are eligible for free school meals, and West Midlands where 24.5% of pupils are eligible for free school meals. These areas also show the largest increase from 2020.

By contrast, 16.0% of pupils are eligible for free school meals in the South East and 16.6% of pupils are eligible in the East of England. However, all regions show some increase from 2020.



Minority Ethnic background

Those pupils of all school age who have been classified according to their ethnic group and are of any origin other than White British are defined as being of minority ethnic background in this release. The percentage of pupils from minority ethnic backgrounds is 33.6% across all school types, up from 33.2% in 2019/20. The percentage varies by school type - 

  • 33.9% in primary schools (unchanged from 2019/20)
  • 32.1% in secondary schools (down from 32.2%)
  • 30.5% in special schools (up from 30.2%)
  • 24.6% in PRUs (down from 25.5%)

First language

English as an additional language

A pupil is recorded to have English as an additional language if they are exposed to a language at home that is known or believed to be other than English. This measure is not a measure of English language proficiency or a good proxy for recent immigration.

80.3% of pupils were recorded as having a first language known or believed to be English. 1.6 million (19.2%) were recorded as other than English, a decrease from 2020 following steady increases in recent years.

19.3% of pupils were recorded as having another first language. This varies by school type from 7% in PRUs to 28.9% in nursery. In primary schools, the percentage recorded as other than English has decreased slightly from 21.3% to 20.9%, while in secondary there has been a small increase from 17.1% to 17.2%.

Class size

Large Classes 

An infant class is described as ‘large’ when it exceeds the statutory limit of 30 pupils. There are no formal policy restrictions on any other class sizes. 

Lawful and unlawful infant classes 

The School Admissions (Infant Class Sizes) (England) Regulations 2012 prescribe certain limited circumstances in which pupils may be admitted as lawful exceptions to the infant class size limit of 30 for one-teacher classes. This means that a class of, for example, 32 pupils is lawful if two or more of those pupils have been admitted under lawful exceptions. If fewer than two have been admitted as lawful exceptions then the class is termed ‘unlawful’.

Classes taught by one teacher

The figures below represent classes taught by one teacher only, and therefore do not total to the overall number of pupils across the year groups.

The average class size for Infant classes has decreased

The average infant class sizes has decreased from 26.9 pupils per class to 26.6, continuing a downward trend seen in recent years. The number of pupils in large classes has also decreased from 65,400 to 54,200, representing 3.5% of all pupils in infant classes.

Infant classes cover Reception and Key stage 1 (years 1 and 2) and class sizes are subject to the large class limits outlined above.

The average class size in key stage 2 has also decreased

This is the first decrease (from 27.9 to 27.6) following a pattern of gradual increases in recent years. The number of pupils in large classes has also decreased from 408,400 to 353,800, representing 16% of pupils in key stage 2.

Key stage 2 includes pupils in years 3 to 6.

The average primary class size has decreased from 27.0 to 26.6 in 2021, while the average secondary class size has increased from 22.0 to 22.3. These both continue recent trends.

Cross border movement

The cross-border movement data describes patterns of movement for pupils who live in one local authority area while receiving state-funded education in another. Pupils educated in independent schools are not included in this data. Local authorities use the information for financial planning.

Nationally, secondary school pupils (9.2%) and special school pupils (8.6%) are most likely to be educated outside the local authority where they live. Only 3.8% of primary school pupils travel outside the local authority of their home to school.

Local authorities vary greatly in the proportion of pupils educated outside of the area. The pattern is partially explicable by local authority size and geography. For example, City of London has a small number of resident pupils and almost two thirds of primary school pupils and all secondary and special school pupils are educated in other local authorities. Across London as a whole, 21.1% of secondary, 16.0% of special school and 8.2% of primary school pupils are educated outside their resident local authority – a higher proportion than any other region. Conversely, in Cumbria only 0.2% of primary, 0.1% of secondary school pupils and 1.2% of special school pupils are educated in authorities where they are not resident.


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