Two Mile Ash School in Milton Keynes has been rated “outstanding” for nearly two decades – despite the fact that, according to official guidelines, it is bursting at the seams.
The junior school is more than 80 pupils above its Department for Education capacity. And it is not alone. Last year nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of primaries in England were at, or above, their official capacity.
Two Mile Ash has made a virtue of its predicament, introducing a secondary-style subject-based timetable so that it can make the most of the rooms it has available for teaching. “It is a very creative use of space,” explains headteacher Sarah Bennett.
School leaders all over the country have had to innovate and adapt not only their buildings but their pedagogy to cope with the bulge in primary pupil numbers.
But it does not appear to have done schools any harm – certainly not those under the greatest pressure. All the 14 primaries that are more than 75 pupils above capacity in England have current Ofsted judgements of either “good” or “outstanding”.
In one sense, this is unsurprising: good schools tend to be popular with parents. But it is an indication of how adaptable schools can be.
“I’ve just had the hall carpeted,” said Simon Beardall, headteacher of Ridgeway Primary School near Sheffield. “We can’t use it as a hall. We have two classes there with a partition down the centre. That gives us two more classrooms.”
PE takes place in the nearby community centre, lunch is eaten in the classrooms, and for the daily assembly, classroom chairs and tables are stacked and the partition is rolled back. Even the staffroom is sometimes used as a teaching area.
The official capacity of a school is calculated according to a government formula that takes into account the physical size of its buildings and the layout of its classrooms.
At Ridgeway, the square footage of the 140-year-old building allows it to take a total of 105 pupils. That works out at 15 per class for the one-form-entry primary. But for many years, it has had teaching groups of about 30.
Despite the school operating at nearly double its capacity – with 208 pupils according to the latest DfE figures – standards have risen. Last year, 97 per cent of pupils achieved the expected level 4 in reading, writing and maths at age 11.
Last week was national primary offer day, when 600,000 four-year-olds were placed in schools around England. Statistics from last year show that 84 per cent of parents in total got their first choice of school, but, in some areas, the proportion was much lower.
At Two Mile Ash, Ms Bennett points out that the demand is not just for places, but for places in particular schools.
“We had an ever-increasing demand,” she said. “We were going to appeal and not winning the appeals. So we made a decision that we would have six forms of entry.
“We are very committed to the community we serve. I don’t think there’s many in the catchment area that don’t get a place.”
To fit everyone in, the junior school uses many smaller rooms for teaching. To make this work, normal classes of about 30 are divided into smaller groups for some subjects, with specialist teachers and a secondary-style timetable.
This doesn’t begin immediately: in Year 3, there are 28 children in a class and a specialist teacher is used only for PE. But by Year 6, the children move to different classrooms for small-group work in the core subjects and have specialist teachers in music, languages, PE and art.
“It means they have to get used to moving around the school – and remembering to take their pencil case with them,” Ms Bennett said. “We can be very creative with space. We have small rooms that are set up as a classroom with interactive whiteboards, but are just a quarter of the size of an ordinary classroom.
“We have made every available use of space that we can. We have got a lot of children, but it doesn’t feel we are at bursting point.”
In Hull, Steve Kernan, head of Newington Academy – based in a Grade II listed Victorian building – takes a similar approach.
“We have small groups of pupils constantly moving in between the classroom and breakout and intervention rooms,” he said. “It is a dynamic approach to learning.”
The school had 270 pupils in May 2015 – 98 above its official capacity. Last year, 40 arrived as mid-year admissions.
Mr Kernan said that the approach was developed as the numbers started rising. “It is chicken and egg,” he added. “Neither came first. We had the foresight to look at what was coming down the line and see that the primary curriculum was moving away from levels and towards greater depth and mastery.
“We’ve steered our curriculum that way because we knew we had to change the way that we used classroom space.”
But there is a limit even for the most innovative schools, according to Ms Bennett: “We have done what we can, but now when we say we are full, we really are full.”