Ideas for handling increasing pupil numbers

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
The two classrooms on stilts above the playground at St Mary Magdalen's – one of the solutions to help the school cope with rising pupil numbers (Photo: St Mary Magdalen’s/Ruth Mulholland Photography)

Is your school site constrained? Is your school roll rising? From travel plans to making the most of your playground space, National Leader of Education Helen Frostick discusses how to cope with increasing pupil numbers when space is already tight

Many schools, already tight for space, have become part of borough-wide school expansion programmes due to a shortage of primary school places. Shortages in primary school places has resulted in part due to an ever-growing population, but also because of capital spending cuts and a freeze on new builds.

Academies and free schools are beginning to ease the pressure on places but there are few schools, if any, that have not had to expand in some shape or other across the whole borough of Richmond upon Thames where my school, St Mary Magdalen’s, is situated. This is the case in many boroughs across the country.

A new building

St Mary Magdalen’s has expanded over the last four years to provide an additional 60 places. The school is located in a typically restricted, urban area. This necessitated a clear Travel Plan to secure council planning permission for a new build.

On a listed site, enclosed by houses and cemeteries, the architects had the challenge of where to build an additional two classrooms. Many schools have accommodated bulge classes in demountable classrooms in the playground.

However, St Mary Magdalen’s playground was far too small to enable this option to be viable.

Added to that was the fact that there would be more pupils to accommodate at playtime. The architects ingeniously opted to build two classrooms on stilts above the playground. This ensured that the playground maintained maximum playground space, while providing much needed shelter.

The size of the shelter provided an outdoor learning space, which further enhanced educational provision for the early years Foundation Stage. Soft play surfacing underneath the shelter also provided a Gymnastics Zone.

Playtime considerations

Committed to making the challenge of expansion into a positive experience we decided to work hard to make the playtime experience even better for the children. A Playground Committee was formed, comprising of one governor, one member of the teaching staff, one member of the support staff, representatives from the school council and a member of the administration team.

Their first goal was to apply to Sport England for a “Primary Space Installation” as part of Sport England’s Primary Spaces programme of development inspired by the 2012 Olympic Games. Sport England has pledged to invest £18 million of National Lottery funding to improve primary school PE, sport and activity facilities.

The fund is designed to provide outside multi-activity areas which can be used both within the curriculum and out of school hours. As well as providing sports facilities, staff are also given information on how best to use the new facilities. This fund builds on and complements the government’s Primary PE and Sport Premium.

The school was successful in its application and was able to select from a number of components and options that could be easily incorporated into small spaces on primary school sites such as ours. These components were designed to be added to current playground areas to enhance them, providing facilities that are low-cost but give a degree of enclosure, colour and innovation.

Elsewhere, the playtimes at St Mary Magdalen’s are now staggered, which has in fact opened up the whole playground, where it used to be separated into infants and juniors.
The Sport England grant facilitated the painting of four “Four Square” courts which children of all ages enjoy. We have zoned the playground into: sponge ball area, skipping ropes area, “Craze of the Week area”, quiet area for drawing and reading, gymnastics area, and sport of the week on the pitch (depending on the season).


Jenny Moseley training on “Better Lunchtimes, Better Behaviour” for all lunchtime supervisors, was a further part of re-evaluating the play provision for the pupils. This training re-energised the staff and instilled in them a true value in the work they were doing. At the same time the Pay Committee of the Governing Body agreed to regrade their job descriptions in recognition of their excellent work. A pay rise is very motivating.


Communication with our stakeholders was a big part of the successful integration of the additional pupils. The staff, parents and governors alike were concerned that the school would lose its tight sense of community. The governors invited questions from the parents and worked hard on comprehensive answers to each question that arose.

Space was a key worry for the parents; would they still be invited to class assemblies as with the extra pupils would they still fit in the hall? How would the infant nativity be organised? How would playtimes be managed? How would lunchtime be managed?

School Travel Plan

The school is situated in a quiet residential area and there were concerns that the extra families, potentially travelling from further afield, would bring extra congestion issues with more families opting to travel by car.

The School Travel Plan was an excellent tool to tackle this issue and prove that the school would do its very best to allay transport fears. The school actively works hard to reduce travel to school by car. Many creative schemes have been employed to keep this aim at the centre of school life.

The school designated a member of staff as the “School Travel Plan Champion”, who ensures that the plan is incorporated into our wider School Development Plan. Termly School Travel Plan meetings bring together governors, staff and pupils from the school council. From these meetings new initiatives are devised to encourage the vast majority of parents to use sustainable travel to and from school. These have included:

  • Monthly Golden Boot Award for the class with the highest proportion of pupils not travelling to school by car.
  • A Park and Stride incentive –Walk to School on Wednesday.
  • The establishment of further bike and scooter storage.
  • A PTA-organised Family Fun Run/Sponsored Walk Event to emphasise the importance of a healthy way of living and to encourage walking to school.
  • A Biker’s Breakfast morning for year 6 pupils upon completion of their Cycling Proficiency Training.
  • Expanding year 6 cycling training to year 5 and Bikeability training for reception.
  • Scooter training for year 2.
  • Pedestrian training for year 3.
  • To encourage the use of public transport we publish bus and train information and facilitate this on our school website.
  • Our commitment to greener travel is emphasised on our website.

School Development Plan

Good, effective communication with our staff, parents and pupils is the key to making our School Travel Plan a working document aimed at reducing travel to school by car. Visual planning has also played a role in bringing a sense of focus throughout the school. Following work by the governors and staff a five-year plan was transformed in to a visual School Development Plan.

The theme is a voyage to “Planet Platinum” with the five key goals across the top of the plan broken down into year-by-year missions. As part of this mission, the playground development was an engaging way to include the parents who enthusiastically raised funds for additional extras such as trim trails and a climbing wall.

Finding creative ways to accommodate the additional pupils, while keeping all stakeholders on board, has been a challenge but has resulted in an even stronger sense of community.

  • Helen Frostick is a National Leader of Education and headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s Catholic Primary School in south London.

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