Primary schools ease overcrowding with outdoor classrooms and canopies

  • One in eight primary school pupils is now in a ‘supersize’ classroom of 31+.
  • Many schools are tackling the problem with an easy and convenient solution –outdoor canopy classrooms and covered play areas.

Lack of space in primary schools is a growing problem, with class sizes seeing a steady increase over the past decade. 

Schools need solutions that are easy and affordable, leading to many looking for creative ways to  provide more room. School space experts Canopies UK have found that schools are tackling their overcrowding problems and boosting children’s well-being with an outdoor canopy – a fast and practical way to make more sheltered space.

A growing number of ‘supersize classrooms’

A 2021 study conducted by the Labour Party showed that the number of primary school pupils in class sizes of 31 or more has increased by nearly 20,000 in five years. One in eight primary school pupils is now in a ‘supersize’ classroom of 31+.

Growing class sizes cause a host of issues in schools, from staffing to budget challenges. One key problem is physical space. Primary schools must find space to cater for students during lessons, playtimes and breaktimes, in all weather.

The benefits of outdoor learning and play

One solution to overcrowded classrooms is to take learning outside. Many schools are noting a positive connection between outdoor learning and play, and well-being in primary school children. In fact, studies show that spending time outdoors can help improve children’s:

  • Language and communication skills
  • Motivation
  • Confidence
  • Concentration
  • Creativity

As a result of spending time outside, children are more likely to have improved focus and concentration during their indoor lessons. But, outdoor lessons or play can be hampered by poor weather, so schools need practical and accommodating space to make sure children are getting the most out of their learning.

Primary schools creating multipurpose space

Schools need to expand in a versatile way, and many have found that outdoor canopies offer the additional space they need. Canopies can be used for many purposes – including as covered, year-round play areas or outdoor classrooms.

Some canopies can even be fully enclosed and fitted with lighting, heating and electrics, meaning they can be used as additional interior space all year round.

Ian Hargreaves, Director at Canopies UK says: “Class sizes in schools are on the rise, and we know many primary schools are struggling to tackle the challenges that arise due to lack of space. Many schools are realising that an outdoor classroom canopy is a great alternative to an extension, as it can provide much-needed covered space at a fraction of the cost.”

Commenting further on the versatility of an outdoor canopy, Ian adds: “Schools are using their canopies for a wide range of space-saving purposes. From extra dining and learning space to a place for after school clubs and meetings, or simply a sheltered space for children to play, the room created by a canopy is invaluable.”

A covered play area for Dedworth Green First School

Dedworth Green First School wanted children to be able to make the most of their time outside during break and lunchtimes. They teamed up with Canopies UK who produced a colourful Connekt back to back canopy for the outdoor play area.

The school now has a long-lasting and maintenance-free sheltered place where children can play throughout the year without worrying about the weather. From outdoor lessons to staying dry on the playground, the canopy offers Dedworth Green First School the additional space they need.  

Schools tackle space crisis with outdoor canopies to extend their buildings.

As schools go back for the new term, many continue to face the challenges of overcrowding, with winter weather exacerbating the problem during break times. More schools are tackling their space crisis with outdoor canopies, to extend their buildings, economically, and quickly.


A growing problem


The average school class size for England has steadily increased over the last decade, with classes growing to an average of 24.54 pupils in 2020-21.


There are now almost 1 million pupils (over 900,000 according to analysis by The Labour Party) in ‘supersize’ classrooms of 31-35 pupils. The number of secondary school pupils in classes of 31+ has increased to almost one in every seven pupils.


The Department for Education has predicted that numbers in secondary schools will continue to rise as the population bulge primary schools have been experiencing since 2010 moves through the school system.


The impact of large classroom sizes on UK schools


Larger classroom sizes leave schools with resourcing, staffing and budget challenges, not to mention the pressure put on teachers, pupils, and the learning experience.


Schools must physically find the room to cater for everybody, during lessons, playtime, free time, and lunchtime.



School dining space is a major issue, say UK school leaders


Lunchtime is when overcrowding becomes painfully apparent. Making space for every pupil within the existing dining and playground space leads to common problems, including:


  • Pupils struggling to find somewhere to sit and eat
  • Canteen queues spilling into the rest of the school
  • Pupils ending up late to class or missing lunch


In feedback from senior school leaders, gathered by school space experts Canopies UK, 54% of heads said lack of dining space was a ‘major issue’ for them, with an average of 2.14 pupils to every available dining seat, across the primary and secondary schools surveyed.


Schools and colleges are extending their space


Commenting on the need to expand in a versatile way, Ian Hargreaves, Director at Canopies UK said:


“Secondary classroom sizes are set to keep growing. Schools can ease some pressure by extending their existing space and creating additional sheltered areas for seating. Outdoor dining canopies provide much needed extra space for eating and socialising, at a fraction of the cost of a building extension.”


Multipurpose space for lessons, learning, and more


Ian adds: “Creating extra room to seat pupils during lunch hours is useful throughout the school year. Beyond break times, expanding your dining space is useful for learning and extracurricular activities. Schools are using their canopies for active lessons, study groups, rehearsals, after school clubs, meetings, exams, and events like parents’ evenings.”


Schools are making their budgets go further with outdoor dining canopies


Whilst building extensions can provide a solution, they are not an economic option for every school. Outdoor canopies allow schools to get considerably more from their budgets.


Ian comments: “The cost of a canopy system is considerably less than an extension of the same size – around a third of the price. Unlike extensions, outdoor canopies don’t take months to build, and many don’t require planning applications.”


Case studies


How Winstanley College created their ‘garden room’

Winstanley College was crying out for extra dining and study space. They identified a need for a multi-purpose room that students could use during their free periods.


The college teamed up with Caterlink, their catering provider, who wanted to create more space to serve more students during break and lunchtimes.


They installed a freestanding canopy system with enclosed sides and a retractable roof. With heating and lighting, students use the space all year round. The college call their canopy the ‘garden room’ and use it for dining, studying, and parents’ evening.

A Winstanley College spokesperson said: “Our Cantabria canopy provides us with an outdoor dining area and a student space that’s used regularly by many of our students in all weathers. In the winter, it’s warm enough to use, as the glass sides keep out the cold, and in the summer, the roof and the walls can be opened back to let in the fresh air and sunshine.”


New dining hall for St Michael’s High School


St Michael’s in Chorley was desperate for additional dining space as rising numbers of pupils meant they’d outgrown their dining hall. They considered building an extension but decided to install a canopy instead. It met their budget and only took a week to install.

The canopy features a glass bespoke atrium and a watertight retractable roof. The interior provides 125m of covered space, including a hot food station catering for 1,200 pupils. St Michael’s now has a seat indoors for every pupil at lunch time.