Our latest blog is inspired by recent work we have been undertaking; supporting Local Authorities in reviewing the capacity of their existing estate, comparing it to their projected future needs and identifying solutions to align the two. Read on if you want to know more about how we approach this…

Tonight, hundreds of thousands of parents will be anxiously checking their emails in the early hours – to find out if their child has gotten into their primary school of choice.

If the outcome follows the pattern of secondary school national offer day (1st March) then the chances of securing that desired place are high. In Hull – this year, for the third year in a row, the number of pupils receiving a place at their first choice secondary school rose, and now stands at 88%.

For most people, this is where their involvement with, and therefore any thoughts of, the pupil place planning world starts and stops. In this blog, we seek to demystify the process and reveal a bit more about what goes on behind the scenes, year in year out.

Year In, Year out? Yes, it’s an ongoing process:

Schools aren’t just opened and then left to get on with the job of educating children. Each year every Local Authority must submit an information return known as school capacity survey (or SCAP) to the Department for Education (DfE).

This return contains information on school’s current capacity (the number of pupils the space available can accommodate), future forecast pupil numbers, and details of funding they have spent on school places in the last year.

How do you work out current capacity?

The DfE publish a series of documents, known as Building Bulletins, which provide guidance on spatial standards for mainstream and special schools, across all age ranges. These are used in 2 ways – (1) to calculate the size of any new school (based on how many pupils it is being designed for) and (2) – in reverse – it can also be used to see how many pupils can be accommodated within existing schools – both on a classroom by classroom and whole school level.

It is important to recognise that schools require more than just classrooms to be successful places to educate children from – the building bulletins include a range of non-teaching / support spaces that a school needs, and these need to be factored into the capacity calculations. It’s no good overloading a building with more classrooms if the children have nowhere to eat/ do PE or for the administrative tasks associated with running a school to take place in.

What about forecasting?

There is no standardised official approach to pupil place forecasting. Most Local Authorities use various methodologies to combine a mix of historic trends (such as what percentage of pupils from a certain primary school attend a certain secondary, current nursery and primary school numbers), with current population birth rate data, and migration trends, as well as factoring in known housing developments.

It’s not an exact science though, and one of the complicating factors is parental preferences. In theory a Local Authority might have enough places to accommodate all the pupils it is responsible for, however, this does not account for current “popularity” trends – with some schools being oversubscribed and others less so. The tricky part is, therefore, to match capacity to demand on a school-by-school basis.

What if there aren’t enough places?

The Local Authority has a statutory duty to ensure there are sufficient school places for all pupils in its area. But they aren’t required to do this alone. There is an expectation that Academy Trusts work collaboratively with LA’s to support them in fulfilling this duty, and look at ways they can increase capacity, the number of pupils they admit or admit more pupils than their regular intake.

Conversely, all parties should not seek to expand a school and should look at alternative uses for the estate, in areas where there is surplus capacity. Periodically, the DfE uses the SCAP return data to allocate funding to local authorities, to create new places. The choice of how to spend this money – by remodelling, extending or creating new schools – is left to the LA to decide for themselves, to best fit their local needs. Alternatively, local groups or trusts can apply to DfE to open a new free school if they feel there is a specific need for a certain type of places in their local area.

In a nutshell:

Pupil place planning and provision is a statutory function that remains with Local Authorities, despite the academisation programme, and an ongoing cycle of forecasting, delivering, re-forecasting and right sizing the estate.