Dealing with the pupil places shortage

Written by: Beth Walton | Published:
Image: iStock

With pupil numbers on the rise and many schools already oversubscribed, Beth Walton looks at how we can manage the issues that come with an overcrowded system

It has been reported that an extra 880,000 school places will be needed by 2023 and that primary schools are currently under the most pressure. However, 2,740,000 secondary places were required last year and this figure is expected to rise in the coming years, to 3,287,000 by 2024 – an increase of 20 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, the latest State of Education survey by The Key confirms that the issue is firmly on the minds of secondary school leaders.

Our survey, completed by 1,188 school leaders across England, reveals that more than half (52 per cent) of secondary schools received more applications last year than they had places for in September 2015.

Eight in 10 (82 per cent) leaders in these schools said that they would find it difficult to meet the additional demand, citing insufficient school budgets, recruiting more staff and lack of space for additional buildings as their main concerns.

At The Key, we see these concerns reflected in the questions school leaders ask us – such as whether a school must accept certain pupils and when a local authority’s direction to accept extra pupils can be challenged.
With this in mind, here are some practical considerations and tips for schools dealing with increased demand and growing pupil numbers.

Be clear on your admissions procedures

If you are in an academy, voluntary aided or foundation school, your trust or governing body is your admissions authority and oversees your admissions procedures. Your school will also set its own published admission number (PAN) and cannot be directed by the local authority to accept more pupils.

If your school was oversubscribed this year you may be in the midst of responding to disappointed parents, preparing for appeals, and creating waiting lists. Having in place clear admissions arrangements, with oversubscription criteria, is not only a statutory requirement but will be particularly useful to you now. Your arrangements should be fair, legal, transparent and available to parents.

If you are in a community or voluntary controlled school, the local authority processes applications and allocates places for you. Your local authority can direct you to accept more pupils (see the School Admissions Code), which you must do except in very limited circumstances. The local authority may also direct your school to accept additional “bulge” classes to accommodate unplaced pupils.

Adjust the school day instead of the site

As pupil numbers grow, schools may find themselves dealing with a school site which does not seem like it can accommodate any more pupils. However, adjusting your use of the site could be just as effective as having a new building. You might consider staggering the timetable, so that breaks are at different times for different year groups. Alternatively, the school day itself could be staggered, with sixth-form pupils starting and finishing later than everyone else.

Large increases in pupil numbers could create health and safety risks, particularly concerning the flow of pupils around the school. To address these you might allocate additional staff to supervise breaks, and ask parents not to park directly outside the school gates to minimise traffic. You might also consider implementing a one-way system in corridors to ease congestion between lessons.

Seek support for capital building projects

If you simply don’t have enough space, there are some grant-funding schemes for capital building projects. The Condition Improvement Fund supports expansion projects in “good” and “outstanding” academies and sixth forms that need to increase the number of admissions to the main year of entry, or address overcrowding. The Wolfson Foundation also funds capital projects for state-funded secondary schools and sixth-form colleges.

Funding may not be the only off-putting aspect of capital building works – the prospect of educating pupils on a building site is not exactly appealing, and there are important factors to consider such as safeguarding, health and safety and procurement practice.

The National College and Scottish government have published research and resources for staff managing school building projects, and maintained schools may be able to get practical guidance from their local authority. The Education Funding Agency also has an essential guide to maintenance for schools.

Extended services and transition activities

The rising demand for school places means some pupils will be attending a school far from home – sometimes with a lengthy morning commute or parents who cannot pick them up at the end of the day.

Offering extended services, such as subsidised transport, for those who travel in from a similar area or breakfast and after-school clubs, can make this easier for everyone. If your club accommodates any children who do not attend the school, it may count as a community facility on which you can make a profit.

Primary-to-secondary transition activities can also help pupils to feel settled more quickly. Many schools already hold transition days, but if you have pupils who will be coming from far away you could liaise with their current school to negotiate the best times to hold events, and potentially offer transport.

  • Beth Walton is a researcher specialising in school administration and management at The Key, which provides leadership support to schools. The Key’s State of Education report will be released next month.

Further reading and resources


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