Insights into England’s School Capacity & SEND Provision Challenges

In a recent release of data by local authorities in England, insights from the annual School Capacity (SCAP) survey conducted as of May 1, 2023, have provided crucial updates on the state of education across the nation.

The report reveals a significant increase in the number of school places since 2010, totalling 1,187,401, with primary places showing a rise of 721,718 and secondary places increasing by 465,683. Furthermore, compared to the previous SCAP survey, there has been a net change of 25,425 additional school places, comprising 948 primary and 24,477 secondary places.

Analysis of the data exposes challenges in school capacity. While primary schools have shown a slight improvement, with 17% operating at or above capacity, 23% of secondary schools are operating beyond their intended limits.

Insights from the capacity survey shows that England reported nearly 9 million state-funded school places in 2022/23, with approximately 5 million allocated to primary education and 4 million to secondary education. Notably, the rate of primary school expansions has slowed due to declining birth rates since 2012, prompting a shift in focus towards expanding secondary school capacity.

Moreover, approximately 18% of state-funded schools are operating at or above capacity, a statistic that has remained consistent over the past year. Most of these schools are exceeding their capacity by a margin of fewer than 10 pupils.

In a significant move towards enhancing support for special educational needs (SEN) provision, the Special Educational Needs Data Collection and Analysis Programme (SCAP) has, for the first time, incorporated data on SEN provision in its 2023 report. This data aims to aid both the Department for Education (DfE) and local government bodies in effectively identifying the current landscape and anticipating future requirements for specialist school placements.

Published as official statistics in development, these figures have been developed under the guidance of the Head of Profession for Statistics.

Local authorities have provided data on the capacity of special schools, SEN units, and resourced provisions in mainstream schools, as of May 2023, adhering to the guidelines outlined in the data collection framework. Notably, this capacity encompasses post-16 provision in secondary specialist settings but excludes independent or alternative provisions.

Local authorities have reported the capacity of 1,077 special schools as of May 2023. These include 197 primary, 275 secondary, and 605 all-through special schools, encompassing various educational setups such as local authority-maintained special schools, special academies, and non-maintained special schools.

The reported capacity amounts to 148,000 special school places, with 60,000 allocated to primary and 88,000 to secondary education. However, the pupil enrollment figures from the May 2023 school census indicate a total of approximately 152,000 pupils enrolled, comprising 58,000 in primary and 94,000 in secondary education. This suggests an approximate surplus of 4,000 pupils, attributed partially to schools operating at or above capacity.

Local authorities have also provided insights into SEN units and resourced provision within mainstream schools. Data from May 2023 indicates capacity in 1,631 mainstream schools, comprising 1,060 primary and 571 secondary institutions.

Reported capacity includes 9,000 places in SEN units, with 6,000 allocated to primary and 3,000 to secondary education. Additionally, there are 18,000 places in resourced provision, with 10,000 in primary and 8,000 in secondary education. However, corresponding pupil enrollment figures for these provisions are not available from the published school census.

Responding to the new figures, Rob Williams, a senior policy advisor at the school leaders’ union NAHT, has raised concerns about the growing disparity between the rising number of pupils with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and the available resources. Insufficient provision of special schools has resulted in many children being placed in mainstream schools ill-equipped to meet their needs adequately.

He said: “These figures reflect the complete mismatch between the needs of the growing numbers of pupils with SEND and the funding available to schools and local authorities to support them.

“This means too many children are unable to get the education they need in the right setting at the right time.

“There are simply not enough special schools for pupils who need more specialist support. Many children are therefore instead being placed in mainstream schools which may themselves be over-capacity, and may not have the staff, expertise, or resources needed to offer the best possible education and support.

“Urgent government action is needed to address this worrying situation and ministers must go much further in boosting funding for SEND education.

“The plan for more special school places is welcome, but it will take some time before those new settings come into existence. In the meantime, the government must ensure that sufficient high-needs funding is put into every type of school so they can maximize the support they provide to pupils with SEND.”

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