Two-thirds of special schools full or over capacity, new data shows

New data published after Schools Week investigations into bursting special school classrooms

New data published after Schools Week investigations into bursting special school classrooms

Around two thirds of special schools are full or over capacity, new government statistics have suggested after a Schools Week investigation revealed a lack of data on the issue.

Department for Education data shows there are approximately 4,000 more pupils on roll in special schools than reported capacity. 

Schools Week investigations revealed the DfE did not collect central data on special school capacity – despite soaring numbers of pupils with education, health and care plans. 

In 2022, we exposed how 54 per cent of special schools had more pupils on roll than the number commissioned by their council. 

Special school leaders told us how they were forced to cram pupils into converted therapy spaces and staffrooms.

Following our investigation, DfE confirmed it would collect data on special school capacity from summer 2023. 

The data, published today, stated there were 148,000 special school places reported across 1,077 schools. However, the actual number on roll was 152,000 as of May last year. 

“This means that there are approximately 4,000 more pupils on roll in special schools than reported capacity.

“This is due to the number of schools at or over capacity (around two thirds)”, DfE said. 

This compared to 17 per cent of mainstream primaries and 23 per cent of secondaries being full or over capacity.

‘Capacity failure having profound impact’

Simon Knight, co-headteacher at Frank Wise School in Oxfordshire, said his 120-place school has already had 160 consultations from councils for placements since September. 

“The failure of effective capacity development in the specialist sector is having a profound impact on children, families and schools,” he said.

“Insufficient capacity within the system increases pressure on schools to admit pupils beyond planned numbers, pitting the legally protected rights of those already having their needs met within the school against the legally protected rights of those who require their needs met who are not in a school.”

The government is investing £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to increase special school and alternative provision capacity, including expanding existing schools. 

But promised new special free schools – including the 15 announced at the spring budget – take years to open, with many delayed.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL leaders’ union, said the new schools “will not meet the needs of children currently in the system who are unable to access the support they require, and neither will the government’s planned reforms of the SEND system which are also some years away from delivery and are underfunded”. 

But DfE also said the special schools figures may “be a result of the way capacity has been measured which does not take account of type of need”. 

DfE said due to the “varied nature” of SEND provision, “there can be high amounts of local variation that national figures do not capture”. 

There was a primary special school surplus of about 1,700 places. DfE said this could be a result of how the total capacity of all-through special schools has been “apportioned between the primary and secondary phases”.

DfE also said the figures are “official statistics under development” and they expect the data quality to improve overtime. 

Warren Carratt, CEO of special school Nexus MAT, said it was “progressive that the
department are now starting to collate this data. But it is also an exercise that is chronically overdue and it just isn’t good enough that the figures are ‘official statistics under development’ with data quality expected to improve over time.

“While we wait for that, the front line is facing more and more overcrowding of its schools and families are having to wait longer and longer for places.”

Carratt said this could also “shockingly” suggest that special schools are underfunded to
the tune of £40 million – as councils do not have to pay place funding if a school is full.

This is something the government’s SEND safety valve programme “actively encourages’
among councils with large deficits, he added.

According to the data, Essex was the most over capacity, by 389 places. This was followed by Lancashire, at 378 places. 

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