In the United Kingdom (UK), full-time education is compulsory by law for all children between the ages of five (four in Northern Ireland) and sixteen. In England, the so-called compulsory school age (CSA) has been extended to eighteen for those born on or after 1 September 1997. Consequently, every child in this age range is entitled to a school place and local authorities have a statutory responsibility to provide sufficient school places to meet local need. This presents a complex challenge to school place planners, those individuals charged with providing the evidence to support investment (or divestment) in school infrastructure and services. Demographic pressures, driven by natural change and migration, and the continuing uncertainty associated with the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU), plus ongoing directives from central government to the organisation and structure of the school system, contribute to a complex and ever-changing environment for education planning.
Responsibility for children’s services and education in England at the national level lies with the Department for Education (DfE) who mandate each local authority (county, unitary authority, London borough or metropolitan district) to monitor the balance between pupil numbers and school places, identifying and managing pressure points and surplus provision where necessary. The DfE’s Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) manages the annual budget for state-funded education, a proportion of which is allocated to meet each local authority’s evidence-based requirements. “Effective pupil place planning is a fundamental element of the local authority’s role as strategic commissioner of good school places. It is underpinned by strong use of relevant data drawn from a wide variety of sources.” A robust analytical capability for understanding historical demographic trends and the subsequent impact upon pupil numbers is essential to each local authority’s school place forecasting. Converting historical evidence into forecasts of pupil demand, whilst also accounting for the potential pupil impact of planned school changes, provides the critical intelligence to drive investment in state-funded school facilities. The requirement for the best quality analytics, combining accurate and timely data with robust scenario planning capabilities, has never been more important. Planning support systems (PSS), whilst taking a variety of forms, are a fundamental component of the school place planning process, developed and maintained to varying degrees of sophistication by all local authorities in England.