Mental health

Special schools ‘bursting at seams’ – but DfE doesn’t collect the data

Heads say the system is 'completely overwhelmed'

Heads say the system is 'completely overwhelmed'



Special school heads say their classrooms are “bursting at the seams”, but government does not collect data to monitor how the sector is coping with rising demand for places.

The number of pupils with an education, health and care plan (EHCP) has risen from 237,000 in 2015-16 (2.8 per cent of all pupils) to 326,000 this year (3.7 per cent).

An EHCP is a legal document that sets out the extra support a pupil must receive. 

It’s not the local authority’s fault, it’s the whole system

However there are just 32 more special schools now than in 2015.

New Bridge School in Oldham, one of the largest special schools in the country, has 530 on its roll, against a local authority-commissioned figure of 419. The school has nearly doubled in size in eight years. 

Graham Quinn, chair of Special Schools’ Voice and chief executive of New Bridge Multi Academy Trust, said the pressure is “here and now”.

“We’ve been able to manage teaching spaces – it’s the communal spaces that have started to be more challenging like dining rooms, toilets and corridors.”

‘The system is completely overwhelmed’

Non-statutory government guidelines suggest how much space is required depending on pupil need.

For example, children with autism may need more personal space so are usually taught in groups of six to eight.  

At The Willows, a school for children with moderate learning difficulties in Rotherham, the smallest classroom should have 10 children, but it now has between 12 to 14.

Graham Quinn

It had a capacity of 120 last year, but took on 164 children.  

Headteacher Rachael Booth said they are “bursting at the seams …It’s not the local authority’s fault, it’s the whole system.”

Market Field School in Essex has 320 Children this year, despite a capacity of 250 which had recently been increased following a building extension. It has up to 16 children in classes where there should be 12, said headteacher Gary Smith.

Michael Merrick, executive headteacher of two primary schools in Cumbria, said more children needing specialist support are having to stay in mainstream classrooms for longer. 

“The system is completely overwhelmed,” he said. “Schools are doing their best, but more and more children are missing out on the specialist provision they need.”

The percentage of pupils with an EHCP in mainstream schools increased from 48.7 per cent in 2019-20, to 50.4 per cent last year.

Source: Special educational needs in England, Department for Education

Publicly available national data on the Get Information About Schools website (GIAS) suggests 330 out of 806 special schools had more students on their rolls last year than their capacity. Five per cent (38 schools) had more than 40 pupils extra.

DfE doesn’t collect capacity information

However Schools Week has established this data likely far underplays the outlook as while the DfE does collect headcount data through the census, special schools do not have to supply capacity information. 

For instance, the capacity listed for New Bridge School on GIAS is 300 – a figure six years out of date that is nearly a third short of the actual capacity. 

Read the nine-page investigation here

The DfE said councils, who sign-off special school capacity numbers, are “best placed” to say how many spaces are available.

But Jo Hutchinson, a director at the Education Policy Institute, said government “needs to make sure that it is able to offer maximum support where needed, and having the right data that offers a full picture on the provision of places is an important part of that”.

The DfE spokesperson added they are working with councils to “better understand demand for SEND provision as we consider how we can best support the sector going forwards”.

Government has committed £2.6 billion of capacity funding for new school places for children with SEND over the next three years.



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3 Comments

  1. Dominic Wall

    This absolutely reflects the situation in Bradford, where all eight special schools have expanded in the last three years and are over-capacity, with the LA predicting growth in demand for places in special schools of 100-120 p.a. for the next three years.

    That’s the average number of places in a special school in England, a whole new school needed every year for the next three years…..

  2. Peter Endersby

    They have just over six weeks to get that SEND review in or they will be completing it after school. It must offers real solutions to the crisis in funding in SEND and not just cost cutting time and motion studies. We have suffered enough cuts please put in on a reasonably sustainable financial footing to ensure SEN pupils get what they legally deserve, costs have gone through the roof. if they launch any further consultations or studies we will collectively scream. They have had the extension of all extensions to get his done.