Opinion – Rethinking School Catchment Areas: A Leap Forward in Primary Education

Hi everyone, I’m James Rix, co-founder and CEO of Reading Mate, the minds behind Reading Hub and Little Reads.

Though my background is in mathematics, not traditional education, my journey over the past three and a half years has woven through the corridors of over 600 schools, enriching my understanding of the educational landscape.

This blog is my weekly space to share ideas – some might call them radical – that I believe could significantly advance education in our country. It’s a blend of an outsider’s perspective, a mathematician’s logic, and insights gained from hands-on experiences in the educational field.

Join me as we explore possibilities that could reshape the way we think about learning and teaching.


Today, I want to delve into an idea that could revolutionise the way we think about primary education: expanding school catchment areas and investing in school transport infrastructure. It’s a concept that’s as bold as it is beneficial, and I believe it’s time we gave it serious consideration.

Why Expand Catchment Areas?

Currently, in the UK, primary school catchment areas are relatively limited. This often means parents have a choice of 3 to 6 schools. But what if we could double this choice? Imagine the possibilities if a child’s potential school options increased to 6 to 12, just by expanding catchment areas.

Doubling catchment areas could lead to a more diverse selection of schools, each with unique specialisations and programs. This diversity would enable parents and children to find schools that truly align with their educational needs and aspirations.

Specialisation and Competition: The Catalysts for School Improvement

Expanding catchment areas isn’t just about offering more choices; it’s also about fostering specialisation and healthy competition among schools. 

When schools specialise, they focus on particular strengths or themes – be it arts, sciences, sports, or technology. This specialisation allows schools to tailor their curriculum and resources towards specific areas, potentially leading to higher quality education in those fields.

Moreover, competition can act as a driving force for improvement. Schools, in their effort to attract students, might invest more in their unique offerings, teaching quality, and facilities.

This isn’t about pitting schools against each other; it’s about encouraging a culture of continuous improvement and excellence.

Imagine a scenario where children’s interests and learning styles are matched with schools that specialise in nurturing those areas. A child passionate about the arts could attend a school with a strong arts program, while another whose strength lies in science could go to a school with a robust STEM curriculum.

This alignment not only enhances learning outcomes but also ensures that we meet the diverse needs of all children, regardless of their interests or levels.

The Mathematics of Transport:

I hear you ask, “But what about the logistics?” Here’s where it gets interesting.

We currently don’t have specific data on the UK government’s spending on primary school transport logistics.

But let’s play with some numbers for a moment. Suppose 20% of the 4.7 million children in state-funded primary schools use school transport. Doubling the catchment area could increase this to 40%, involving around 1.88 million children.

Cost Analysis of Expanded Transport:

  • Initial Investment in New Buses: Let’s assume the initial setup cost for each new bus is around £100,000. If each school district needs an additional 10 buses, and we have 100 districts, the total initial investment would be £100 million.
  • Annual Operational Costs: Estimating £30,000 per bus for annual operational costs (fuel, maintenance, driver salaries), and with 1,000 new buses, we’re looking at £30 million per year.
  • Extending Free Transport: If we cover transport fees for the current paying students (assuming 50% of 940,000 children pay an average fee of £200), this would add up to £94 million per year.
  • Total Transport Costs for Increased Number of Children: Considering the cost increase to £500 per child per year for 1.88 million children, the total would be around £940 million.

Overall Estimated Expenditure:

  • Initial investment in new buses: £100 million
  • Annual operational costs for new buses: £30 million
  • Covering transport fees for currently paying students: £94 million
  • Total transport costs for the increased number of children: £940 million

Therefore, the total estimated expenditure for the first year, including the initial investment in transport logistics, would be approximately £1.164 billion. In subsequent years, without the initial bus purchase cost, it would be around £1.064 billion.

Budget Consideration:

To put this into perspective with the broader education budget, the total funding for English schools for 5-16 year olds was about £53.5 billion in 2021-22. 

My proposal would mean an approximate 2.17% increase in the overall education budget for the first year.

For subsequent years, the ongoing increase would be about 1.99% per year. This ongoing cost accounts for the annual operational expenses and the cost of extending free transport to all eligible children, excluding the initial bus purchase.

Why This Investment Makes Sense:

This might seem like a huge sum, but let’s consider the long-term benefits. We’re investing not just in buses and routes, but in our children’s future and in making education more accessible and equitable. Improved transport infrastructure ensures that every child, regardless of their location, can access the best education available. It’s a commitment to an inclusive future where distance is no longer a barrier to quality education.


In summary, while the initial investment might seem daunting, the long-term benefits – educational diversity, improved accessibility, and enhanced school choice – far outweigh the costs. This is about more than just numbers; it’s about shaping a future where every child can thrive in an environment that suits them best.

Let’s not shy away from big ideas, especially when they have the potential to bring about positive, lasting change in our education system.

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