Too many pupils, too few schools…

How many primary schools do we need to build, where and how much will it cost? 

 Following last week’s reports that there will be a shortage of primary school places in the next few years I wanted to try and work out what this means in reality. How many primary schools do we need to build, where do we need to build them and how much will it cost?

Firstly let me set the scene, over the last five years the primary school population has increased by around 10% or approximately 421,000 pupils and the numbers are going to continue to increase. The latest predictions from the DfE indicate that over the next five years there will be a further increase of 375,000 pupils. Common sense indicates that this will be an issue. After all, I can remember plenty of news stories about the need to reduce class sizes and the problems of oversubscribed schools but I can’t remember anyone talking about spare capacity in schools. It sounds like we don’t have much capacity. Does the data show this?

School Capacity from a National Perspective

The DfE also produces statistics on school capacity so it should be relatively easy to work out. If we take total number of school places that we have today and take that away from the number of pupils that are expected to be over the next few years we should have a rough and ready number.

 Nat Table

The results from this calculation in the table above indicate that there will be a problem in 2016/17 which continues to get worse into 2017/18. By 2017/18 we will have a national shortfall of 155,337 places.  To put this number in context 155,337 school places is the equivalent of 5,178 extra classes or 246 three form entry primary schools.

This type of national statistic is useful but only to an extent, as it does not provide us with a full picture. It is perfectly possible to have a surplus number of places across the country but still have children without a school place in one particular region. This is because children are not taught nationally but locally. So although there may be excess spaces in Cumbria or Oxfordshire those places are of no use to a child London.

School Capacity from a Local Perspective

Fortunately, the DfE also publish statistics by Local Authority and these show a subtly but very importantly different picture.  Of the 152 Local Authorities, 101 are facing capacity problems which means that in 51 Local Authorities there will be no need to build schools in the short term.

Following on from our national calculation to work out how many school places are required it makes sense to try and do the same thing but on a local level (local school capacity – local projected school population = surplus or deficit of school places). We have included a table below with the top ten authorities by the number of extra classes they need to accommodate.

Local Table

This shows how acute the problem can be at a local level. Local authorities such as Croydon will need accommodate a huge number of extra pupils. There are a range of options that Croydon or other authorities could use to deal with this problem from extensions to existing schools to moving pupils to neighbouring boroughs (something that is easier in London than elsewhere). Nevertheless, whichever way you look it is 451 classes is the equivalent of just over 21 three form entry primary schools which is an enormous burden for a single Local Authority.

The local issue is also important for another reason, as we have established because children must be taught locally that means the capacity must be local which means an excess in capacity in one area is of no use to a Local Authority in another. Consequently we will actually need more classes that the national calculations indicate. In fact, according to my calculations, we will likely need 7,247 extra classes or the equivalent of 345 three form entry primaries.

How much will that cost?

The website published an article which outlines the cost of a three form entry primary school based upon the Education Funding Agency’s (EFA) baseline design. Now it is worth noting that this estimate is a couple of years out of date, but I don’t think that detracts from the overall point.

Their estimate indicates that a three form entry primary school will cost around £5.99M for construction alone. Our own research indicates that the process of opening a school costs around £300k on top of that. So we are looking at around £6.3M per school¹. If we multiply the number of schools that according to our calculations are required by 2017/18 the government will need to set aside £2.17bn to build them.


The data does appear to demonstrate that there will be a shortage of primary places but it is important to note that it will not affect all areas equally. Some will face enormous problems whilst others will have no need to act at all.


Tom Goldsmith – Business Development Director

Tom runs Educate’s project management, business continuity and procurement services.

0203 422 1653

¹ does provide a set of adjustment factors to account for it being cheaper to build a school in the North West rather than London. For this article we have not accounted for regionally to keep our calculations straightforward.