Methodology

Schools, pupils and their characteristics

Published

Data collection

Census collections

Schools and local authorities are required to provide the Department for Education (DfE) with a school census return (using a DfE-designed survey instrument) covering a wide range of information on the characteristics of schools and the pupils within them in January each year. Additionally, independent schools, general hospital schools and alternative provision provide (via the local authority) details on the number and characteristics of their pupils at this time. 

Guidance on what is collected in each of the censuses can be found at the links below: 

School Census Guidance 

Independent School Census Guidance 

General Hospital School Census Guidance 

Alternative Provision Census Guidance 

Timeliness

The proposed month of publication is announced on gov.uk at least twelve months in advance and precise dates are announced at least four weeks prior to publication. In the unlikely event of a change to the pre-announced release schedule, the change and the reasons for it would be announced. 

The figures in ‘Schools, pupils and their characteristics’ are initially available internally approximately two months after the census data collection is completed and the data has been cleaned. The pre-announced publication date is chosen in order to allow enough time to produce and quality assure all the tables in the release, but ensure that the data is still current and relates to the academic year in which it was collected.

The most recently published data is from the school census which took place on 18th January 2024. 

Cross border movement

The main figures presented in the publication and data report geography based on where the pupil attends school, rather than where pupils live. The School Census collects further information about individual pupil residence and this data is used to produce the Cross Border Movement data. Pupils educated in independent schools are not included in this data and only figures for primary, secondary and special school pupils are published routinely.

Figures given at national or regional level are summaries of the number of pupils living in that country or region who are known to attend school in a different Local Authority (LA) in England to the one in which they live. A proportion of pupils at schools in England have resident postcodes which do not correspond to an English Local Authority area, either because the pupils live outside the boundaries of England or the postcode is not recognised. These unknown cases are denoted in the data in columns referring to country, region and la as ‘:’. The data shows the Local Authority in which these pupils are attending school. More than 99% of pupils attending state schools in England have resident postcodes indicating that they also live in a Local Authority in England.

Sex and gender

From the 2023/24 academic year, the gender data item has been replaced by a new sex data item.

This change is being rolled out across all DfE collections over the next year or so. We collect the sex data item (a value which identifies the sex of a person as recognised in law) on a mandatory basis and schools are required to record it as ‘F’ female or ‘M’ male except for rare instances where the legal sex of a pupil cannot be established by the school. 

For publication purposes the historical gender variable and the new sex variable have been conflated into a single time series. This reflects the fact that gender was previously stipulated to be coded as ‘F’ female or ‘M’ male and the overwhelming majority of pupils were recorded accordingly. 

A gender ID data item has been created so schools, children’s homes, local authorities and other institutions can record gender identity for local use, should they wish to. We will not collect this data item.

Eligibility for free school meals 

The headline eligibility for free school meals is based on all pupils of all ages at the school. The underlying data includes a measure ‘number of pupils known to be eligible for free school meals (Performance Tables)’. This is based on full-time pupils aged 0 to 15 and part-time pupils aged 5 to 15 at start of school year. This corresponds broadly to pupils of compulsory school age and is the measure reported on Get Information About Schools (GIAS): Get Information about Schools - GOV.UK (get-information-schools.service.gov.uk). Infant (Reception and Key Stage 1) pupils who are eligible by virtue of the income criteria are included in counts of FSM eligible pupils. FSM eligible does not include infant pupils who receive FSM solely by virtue of the Universal Infant Free School Meal (UIFSM) policy. 

Eligibility for free school meals during the previous six years

Some aspects of school funding are calculated using the number of pupils who have been eligible for free school meals (FSM) at any point during the previous six years. The data for these calculations is taken from the school census. Pupil records are matched so that the same pupil can be identified across census sweeps and a cumulative record of FSM eligibility produced. The matching takes place after the main publication and these statistics showing FSM eligibility over an extended period of time are added into the release at a later date. 

Young carers

Information about young carers has been collected in the January school census since 2023. Schools other than nursery schools are required to return counts of pupils who have been identified as a person under 18 who provides or intends to provide care for another person (which isn’t to a contract or voluntary work), and to record whether they have been identified as such by the school (including by the pupil) or by a parent/guardian. 

Alternative provision

Prior to January 2023, the publication included figures for pupils being taught via alternative provision arranged by the local authority (collected via the alternative provision census) and pupils being taught in pupil referral units (collected via the main school census.) From 2023 the publication also includes figures for pupils attending alternative provision arranged by their school, collected via the main school census. At the same time, the term ‘pupil referral unit’ has been replaced with ‘state-funded AP schools’ – this is purely a change of terminology, the category ‘pupil referral unit’ has always included alternative provision free schools and academies. 

Accuracy and reliability

For the school census return, all schools that are open on school census day, which falls on the third Thursday in January, are required to submit a school census return via their local authorities. Similarly, all open registered independent schools and general hospital schools are required to submit their respective returns, and all local authorities are required to submit details of their alternative provision in the alternative provision census.

For the school census and alternative provision census, data are loaded directly into the DfE bespoke data collection system; COLLECT (Collections On-Line for Learning, Education, Children and Teachers). The data pass through several phases of checking and data cleaning. The data loaded into COLLECT have been subject to a pre-agreed series of validation checks to aid the submission of accurate data. Extensive guidance and support is provided to schools and local authorities to help them ensure the data they provide is as accurate as possible. The guidance aims to reduce the impact of any local variations by collecting data in as consistent a format as possible, and by having extensive phases of checking and sign off

The independent and general hospital school census returns are either loaded directly into COLLECT by the schools themselves, or they submit a paper version of the return to the department, where it is then loaded into COLLECT on their behalf. The school is then asked to check that the data has been loaded correctly into COLLECT

Consistency

Since the 2019/2020 academic year publication in June 2020, the data has been disseminated via the Explore education statistics tool. In producing the data for this tool, a number of minor revisions have been made in order to make the data as accessible and transparent as possible.

Pupil counts

The ‘Total’ of all pupils can vary depending on the selections made by the user. Free school meals, language and ethnicity are not collected for independent schools, therefore any breakdowns of these statistics will not include independent schools in the ‘Total’ or denominator for any percentages.

Previously, published statistics were in some cases limited to state-funded primary, secondary and/or special schools. These school types are available for selection and consistent figures can still be produced. However, it should be noted that any ‘Total’ includes all school types available for selection, including non-maintained special schools and state-funded alternative provision schools (previously all labelled pupil referral units). 

Class size 

From 2019, the number of pupils in key stage 1 and key stage 2 classes includes those in both state-funded primary and secondary schools. In previous statistics releases, these figures did not include secondary pupils for academic years prior to 2018/19. The data included in the Explore education statistics platform includes the number of pupils in key stage 1 and key stage 2 classes in both state-funded primary and secondary schools, for all years, therefore some minor differences may be found when comparing time series.

Figures for primary or secondary only are available and can be produced using the table tool. 

General hospital schools

General hospital schools return data through the general hospital schools census. These schools are included under state-funded special schools in any counts within this publication.

Funding and accountability

Data from the census are used for funding and school accountability. As the funding and accountability systems are similar for all schools it is unlikely that these cause significant bias in the data reported. As funding or accountability processes change it is possible that schools increasingly focus on ensuring certain items within the census are accurate and up to date. When such changes occur we carefully monitor the data provided by schools to try to detect changes in data caused by the changes in the funding or accountability regime. There are no planned revisions to this Statistical Publication. However, if at a later date we need to make a revision, this will comply with the departmental revisions policy.

Disclosure control

The Code of Practice for Official Statistics requires us to take reasonable steps to ensure that our published or disseminated statistics protect confidentiality. 

The data published in this release does not reveal the identity of individuals. Where there is a single pupil with a particular characteristic, prior knowledge of that circumstance would be required to determine which pupil it is. We deliberately avoid crossing multiple characteristics in this release, in order to ensure that knowing one piece of information about a pupil would not reveal any further information. By doing this, we can avoid suppression or rounding which means that all published tables at local or national level should be calculable from the published underlying school level data. This in turn means that the practical utility of the statistics, particularly the school level data, is not constrained.

Annexes

Definitions

The pupil characteristics data in this release are submitted to the department by schools as part of the school census collection. The definitions of all the characteristics are listed in the school census guidance

Coverage

The submission of the school census returns, including a set of named pupil records, is a statutory requirement on state-funded schools under Section 537A of the Education Act 1996. A census return is required for all schools in January each year. This is to ensure schools provide pupil level data in a consistent manner that can support comparisons. 

Completion of the school level annual school census by registered independent schools is a statutory requirement under the Education (Independent Educational Provision in England) (Provision of Information) Regulations 2010

The submission of the alternative provision census returns, including a named set of pupil records, is a statutory requirement on alternative provision providers under the Education (Information about Children in Alternative Provision) (England) Regulations 2007

Help and support

Contact us

If you have a specific enquiry about Schools, pupils and their characteristics statistics and data:

School Census Statistics Team

Email: schools.statistics@education.gov.uk
Contact name: School Census Statistics Team

Press office

If you have a media enquiry:

Telephone: 020 7783 8300

Public enquiries

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

Telephone: 037 0000 2288

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