Ministers plan to send capacity checkers into all secondary schools to see if they can fit in more pupils.
Local authorities could then use the updated numbers to force schools to take more pupils, documents obtained by Schools Week reveal.
Government officials also believe the checks would help to boost funding – as schools could take in more pupils – and would relieve pressure on the government to build new schools to meet any rise in pupil numbers.
A pilot involving “net capacity assessment” (NCA) visits in more than 200 mainstream schools found 6,000 potential extra places, the documents show.
‘Critical we have accurate figures’
The Department for Education now plans to carry out two years of assessments at 4,500 secondary and special schools from May next year.
Simon Lindsay, the department’s stakeholder manager, told the Schools and Academies Show last month: “Capacity data is so important. It underpins decision-making at every level. It’s critical we have accurate figures.”
Lindsay said the government “just don’t know enough about capacity in special schools”. As revealed by Schools Week, the DfE will start to record capacity figures after revelations that heads have been forced to cram pupils into converted therapy spaces and staffrooms.
Secondaries would be prioritised because of increased place pressure in recent years, he added.
Slides from a government presentation earlier this year showed officials were concerned about “significant levels” of difference between the DfE’s annual School’s Capacity and Places (SCAP) survey.
At present local authorities fill in a survey on what they believe are place numbers and unfilled spaces in their primary and secondary schools.
The latest SCAP results from May last year show that one in five secondaries in England were full or over capacity.
Schools will be ‘encouraged’ to accept visits
Officials will contract “data collection organisations” to measure room size and usage with an updated net capacity assessment tool and methodology.
Visits will not be mandatory, but officials will “strongly encourage” schools to take up the offer. Funding sign-off is expected early next year.
The DfE said visits could help to save money.
For instance, schools could identify where additional pupils could be accommodated without the need for major building work. It also meant funding for new school places was “targeted most effectively”, the DfE told Schools Week.
Documents presented to councils in June show officials “envisaged” local authorities would use the assessments as evidence in objections against academies unwilling to increase their published admissions number (PAN).
The government’s white paper pledged a beefed-up role for councils over admissions, including “backstop powers” to force trusts to admit children and the ability to challenge a school’s PAN if an increase was needed to provide “sufficient places and no suitable school otherwise agrees to provide them”.
The DfE did not respond to questions about whether this was still the plan. The schools white paper proposals are still in limbo after the recent political upheaval.
MATs ‘not confident’ on accuracy
In total, 268 schools, mainly secondaries, were visited during the pilot between November last year and February.
Before the pilot, a third of responsible bodies – such as councils – were not confident about the accuracy of their pupil capacity figures. MATs were likely to be the least confident, Lindsay said.
After the pilot, 89 per cent of schools were happy overall with their site visit. But 20 per cent – particularly special schools – suggested site visits out of term time to avoid disruption.
Many responsible bodies saw the programme as “an opportunity to endorse” capacity data used for their PAN.
Hayley Dunn, a business leadership specialist at the school leaders’ union ASCL, hoped the programme led to “positive decisions” in the best interests of pupils and staff, such as the need for additional places for some schools.
But she said the condition of school buildings should also be considered, with schools given further capital funding to address problems.
Visits must also “take into account the infrastructure and resources schools have available to ensure pupil needs are adequately supported”.
The DfE is also hoping to release a new NCA tool for local authorities to measure special schools, which will also be included in the SCAP survey from next year.