School capacity

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See all notes (3)
  1. Updated for SCAP23

  2. Updated data coverage and definitions sections

  3. Updated for SCAP22


This methodology provides information on the data sources used in the ‘School capacity’ release. It also provides information on the data quality and coverage and highlights any key limitations. It now includes notes on the new ‘Special educational needs provision’ data that has been published as ‘Official Statistics in development’

Data collection

Information in the ‘School capacity’ release has been derived from three data sources: 

  1. School Capacity Survey: an annual survey returned by local authorities in England that collects information on the below.
    • School capacity: mainstream state-funded primary and secondary capacity, the capacity of any Special Educational Needs (SEN) units and Resourced Provision (RP) in these schools, and state-funded special school capacity
    • Forecasts: Mainstream pupil forecasts for the next five academic years ahead for primary and seven years ahead for secondary.
    • Local authority planned places: plans for changes to the number of state-funded mainstream primary and secondary places for the next three academic years.
  2. School Census: a termly census of all schools in England, used to provide pupil number on roll figures for the below.
    • Actual pupil numbers in the forecast data are based on the January 2023 census (the census closest to the middle of the academic year).
    • Number on roll figures within the school capacity data are taken from the May census for the relevant academic year, in line with the reference point for the capacity measurement.
  3. DfE Central Programmes data: DfE run projects which will add or remove capacity. Further detail is available in the 'School place planning technical guidance 2023' in supporting files.

Changes to School Capacity Survey for 2023:

  • Planned places now includes data at school level rather than planning area level. Therefore, users can now see which schools are planning to change capacity.
  • The data collection now covers specialist education provision. Local authorities were asked to report on the capacity of special schools, and SEN units and RP within mainstream schools. Where pupils on roll figures are provided for mainstream schools reporting SEN units/RP, the pupils on roll figure relates to the school as a whole.

Data coverage and quality

The School Capacity Survey is a statutory collection, with the exception of specialist education provision data which was introduced for the 2023 collection. All local authorities provided a return for specialist education provision, so data coverage is expected to be complete.

All the data submitted by local authorities in the School Capacity Survey have undergone a thorough data cleaning process with validation at source and at the department. Anomalies have been raised with local authorities to check that the guidance has been followed. Except where noted, all data has been signed off by local authority’ Directors of Children’s Services (or equivalent roles) as complete and accurate.

For the 2023 School Capacity publication, planning area level forecasts for Liverpool are subject to change.   

School capacity

The School capacity Survey includes mainstream and special state schools with capacity in any of the year groups from reception to year 11, on 1 May. This includes local authority-maintained schools and academies, including free schools, city technology colleges, university technical colleges, studio schools. Special schools also include Non-maintained Special Schools. 

Capacity measures for mainstream vary depending on the type of school and any exceptional circumstances. Capacity measures for special schools and SEN Units and RP in mainstream schools will also vary depending on local authority practices. See definitions section for details.

The capacities of recently opened free schools are reported at their final intended capacity once places are filled.

Survey returns exclude nursery schools and nursery units within schools, pupil referral units and alternative provision settings, independent schools and 16-19 establishments.

For a middle-deemed primary school, all capacity is counted as primary. Primary capacity excludes nursery places. 

For a middle-deemed secondary or all-through school, all capacity is counted as secondary. Sixth form places are included in the total secondary capacity. 

In constructing the timeseries of mainstream school capacity data, minor revisions have been made to 2016/17 and earlier data to account for slight inconsistencies in methodology in how the published tables were produced. Data for 2019/20 is not available due to the cancellation of the 2020 School Capacity Survey due to COVID-19. This means the 2020/21 net change in school places since the previous survey, is not comparable to previous years, because this change is over two years rather than one year. 

School level capacity data needs to be viewed in context relevant to the school type. School type can be found at Get information about schools.

School sixth form capacity

Sixth form capacity has been as a voluntary field since 2018. The response rate has improved with local authorities reporting sixth form capacity for 99.7% of schools with sixth form pupils on roll in 2023 (up from 99% in 2022 and 2021, 98% in 2019, and 92% in 2018). There are a small number of schools with sixth form pupils are on roll but where capacity has not been reported; this relates to pupils who added school elsewhere with separate providers, therefore the local authority is unable to report any corresponding capacity. 

Comparisons across reporting years prior to 2021 should be treated with caution. Changes prior to 2021 are likely to indicate improvements in data quality rather than actual changes in numbers. 

Local authority planned places 

Local authority planned places are collected at school level. The future additional, bulge and places to remove, are based on local authority estimates. 

Local authority planned places include future addition or removal of places from a schools’ net capacity, at the time of the survey. Planned changes to pupil admission number are NOT included, unless they will result in a change in the net capacity assessment or academy funding agreement.  

Local authority planned places include those from locally funded projects, including zero cost projects, where the local authority had a high degree of certainty the project would go ahead. This is normally where funding had been committed, for example where the local decision-maker had signed off the plans or where contracts had been let.  

New places from presumption free schools, expected to open in the next three academic years at the time of the survey, are included. 

Local authority planned places, do NOT include the addition or removal of places from the below projects which are centrally funded by the DfE.

  • Priority School Building Programme
  • A centrally delivered free school programme (includes free schools, UTCs and studio schools) 
  • Condition Improvement Fund
  • Selective Schools Expansion Fund
  • Capital scheme for voluntary-aided schools
  • School rebuilding programme.

Local authority pupil forecasts

Forecast data is generated by local authorities based on their own data and local knowledge. Forecasts include future school places funded by Housing Developer Contributions and Housing Infrastructure Fund. Mainstream pupil forecasts are collected at a planning area level.  

These forecasts are challenged extensively during data cleaning processes. There are variations in the forecasting methodologies and data sources used across local authorities. This means there is the potential for local anomalies within the methodology. As with any forecast figures, there will be variation between the forecasts and the subsequent actual pupil numbers.

As with all forecasts, the level of accuracy is expected to reduce as forecasts are made further into the future. Care should be taken when using forecasts from the later years.  

Forecasting accuracy is derived retrospectively, once actual pupil numbers for the forecast data become available. Most local authorities’ forecasting accuracy tends to be within +/-1% one year ahead. Forecasting accuracy measures are published for each local authority in the Local Authority School Place Scorecards

Estimates of future school place demand (place planning)

The place planning estimates data includes the estimated number of additional school places still needed to meet future demand and estimated number of future unfilled places.

These estimates factor in existing capacity reported at 1 May 2023, additional capacity or planned removal of capacity from local authorities planned places, and additional capacity or removal of capacity provided through DfE internal projects. This capacity is then compared with the forecasts provided by the local authorities. This comparison of capacity and pupil forecasts is made at planning area level and year group level, i.e. places have to be available in the correct planning area and year group. Further information on how these estimates are calculated, how to interpret them and their limitations are available at School Place Planning Tables 2023: Technical guidance in supporting files.

Relationship with 'National Pupil Projections' publication

The national pupil forecast figures in the ‘School capacity’ release will differ to the National Pupil Projections published annually by the Department for Education due to methodological and timing reasons. 

Local authorities supply the department with their own low-level planning area forecasts using their own methodologies that are based on a variety of local factors (including ONS data on live births, local migration patterns, pupil yield from housing developments and data provided by local health bodies). These are then added together to create the national figures shown in the ‘School capacity’ release. 

National Pupil Projections are calculated at national level only and are based on ONS age-based projections, adjusted for school years; they also use historic population and birth data from ONS and the department’s school census figures.

The pupil forecasts within the ‘School capacity: Academic year 2022/23’ release are comparable to ‘National pupil projections’ which was updated on 19 October 2023. The projections were based on Greater London Authority projections, ONS dynamic population model and ONS monthly births data up to and including June 2022 and School Census data up to and including January 2023. 

They provide national pupil projections by actual age whereas the School Capacity publication provides local authority forecasts by national curriculum year group. Differences in the methodologies used by individual local authorities for pupil number forecasts mean that the national totals in the school capacity release will differ from the national-level projections, but the trends in both are broadly similar.

Although the trends are similar, the number of pupils is projected to peak the same year for primary and the peak is three years earlier for secondary in the national pupil projections. This difference is partly due to methodological differences mentioned above, and partly because there is an element of double counting in the school capacity national forecasts. This is because forecasts are provided by local authorities for the highest predicted point within the academic year. There will always be more demand when these forecasts are summed to a national level, compared to national pupil projection. Pupils move between local authorities throughout the academic year so could be double counted in the forecasts. Whereas national pupil projections are based on the number of pupils in schools in January, by age as at the previous 31st August, therefore should not be affected by this. Pupils in schools in January, by age as at the previous 31st August, therefore should not be affected by this. 


Capacity for mainstream schools

The number of places the school can provide for. For local authority-maintained schools, capacity is defined by a physical measurement and calculated in the net capacity assessment

For academies, including free schools, capacity is reported as per their funding agreement, subject to any information that the local authority holds in addition. The funding agreement provides the framework for the academy or free school to operate in. An academy’s funding agreement is usually based on the last net capacity assessment prior to conversion, but may have been updated if the school has expanded or school accommodation has been removed.

Where an academy has repeatedly operated an admission number higher than the capacity figure in the funding agreement, and the local authority is assured it will continue to do so, the academy’s capacity reported in the School Capacity Survey can be based on the published admission number (PAN).

There may be cases where the academy’s pupil admissions are higher than the funding agreement and published admission number. In this case the academy may well be able to physically accommodate the pupils, but the higher admission numbers would not have been used to determine school capacity if there was uncertainty as to whether the higher pupil numbers would continue. 

Capacity for specialist provision

This is the first year we are collecting capacity data for special schools and SEN units and resourced provision within mainstream schools. 

As special schools sit outside the admissions code, and have a duty to admit pupils for whom the school is named in their EHC plan, we recognise that some special schools will not have previously attempted to assess or define their available capacity. For the purposes of reporting capacity data local authorities should therefore rely on the following sources of information in respect of the special schools in their area.

Special School Net Capacity Assessment is preferred. If a special school net capacity assessment is not available, local authorities  can rely on other sources of data when reporting capacity of their special schools. In rough order of preference, these data sources might include:

  • Any capacity figure for the school that may have been agreed as part of a significant change request, either as a prescribed alteration to a maintained school or as part of request for a significant change to an open academy. 
  • The school’s 'planned number of places’ as per the schools funding agreement (academies only)
  • The number of ‘funded places’ as agreed as part of ESFA’s High Needs Place Funding process (academies and institutions funded by ESFA directly only)
  • Typical operating figure – any capacity figure that may be used or understood locally e.g. to help inform pupil placements and local strategic planning.
  • A school’s self-reported capacity as captured in Get Information about Schools.

Key sources of capacity information for SEN units and resourced provision are likely to include:

  • The recorded capacity of any SEN unit or resourced provision that may be recorded in the academy’s funding agreement (academies only)
  • The number of ‘funded places’ agreed with the local authority as part of their  high needs place funding process. 
  • A typical operating figure – any capacity figure that may be used or understood locally e.g. to help inform pupil placements and local strategic planning.
  • The maximum number of EHCP pupils the provision could accept before it would impact the schools ability to admit pupils without EHCPs up to its stated mainstream PAN.
  • The capacity of any SEN units or resourced provision as captured in Get Information about Schools.
  • Alternatively, local authorities may need to request this information from schools directly.

Local authority planned places

Additional places - permanent places that will not move through the school with a specific cohort.

Bulge places - temporary places used to accommodate large cohorts. They move through the school as the cohort progresses.

Places to remove - places local authorities plan to permanently remove from their school capacity.

Mainstream pupil forecasts 

Number of pupils expected to be educated in state-funded mainstream schools, provided by local authorities. Primary forecasts include year groups reception to year six only, and secondary includes year groups seven to thirteen only.

Pupil number on roll

Pupil number on roll is the number of sole registered  and dual main registered pupils attending a school as reported via the school census. 

Number on roll in this publication relates to pupils in reception year group and above.

Planning areas

Planning areas are groups of schools, often (but not exclusively) in a similar geographic area, reflecting patterns of provision. The planning areas for primary are different to the planning areas for secondary. All-through schools, middle-deemed primary schools and middle-deemed secondary schools may be assigned both a primary and a secondary planning area. 

Resourced Provision (RP)

Is where places are reserved at a mainstream school for pupils with a specific type or types of SEN, but who are taught mainly within mainstream classes but require a base and some specialist facilities around the school.

Schools at or over 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. This does not mean the school is overcrowded. The reported capacity figure may not reflect the entirety of a school’s physical space, and therefore in some cases the number of pupils on roll can be higher than the capacity figure, without the school being overcrowded. 

Special Educational Needs (SEN) units 

Are special provisions within a mainstream school where the children are taught mainly within separate classes. 

Unfilled places

The number of unfilled places is the extent of capacity above number on roll. A school is identified as having unfilled places if the capacity is higher than the number of pupils on roll.

Help and support

Contact us

If you have a specific enquiry about School capacity statistics and data:

Pupil Place Planning team

Contact name: Simone Cardin-Stewart

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If you have a media enquiry:

Telephone: 020 7783 8300

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If you have a general enquiry about the Department for Education (DfE) or education:

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