100,000 families refused first choice of secondary school

• London children hardest hit by intense competition
• Some schools still use lottery admissions system

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Nearly 100,000 families have missed out on their first choice of secondary school this year amid intense competition for places at high performing state schools in England, a Guardian survey has found.

London children are worst hit with nearly half of parents in some areas of the capital being denied their first choice school. Yesterday was "national offer day", the deadline for councils and schools to allocate secondary places. Parents who have not already been informed by email will receive letters in today's post telling them which school their child has got into.

All of the estimated 560,000 pupils who have applied this year are guaranteed a place at a state secondary from September but in parts of the country where the credit crunch is fuelling applications from pupils who might otherwise have gone to private school, competition has become tougher.

Areas with high performing schools and grammar schools are particularly affected. Outside London that impact has been offset by a decline in the population of 11-year-olds, easing pressure on places.

The Guardian contacted 150 local authorities in England. By last night 107 had responded. In some parts of the country applications have declined - fuelled by the dip in the population - but nearly 100,000 families will still have to settle for second best.

Based on the evidence from 107 authorities - including every London council - 81% of families got their first choice school.

The survey reveals stark regional differences. In Wandsworth. Buckinghamshire, Southwark and Lambeth 55% of parents got their first choice schools. In Westminster the proportion getting their first choice has slipped from 65.6% last year to 64% this year. But over 97% of pupils in the more rural areas of Cornwall, Northumberland and Wakefield got their first choice and in Suffolk the figure was nearly 99%.

Separate research published yesterday by academics at the London School of Economics reveals that 6% of schools now use the controversial lottery system as part of their admissions process.

The report, commissioned by the Research and Information on State Education trust, argues that schools which control their own admissions - including academies, faith schools and some very popular foundation schools - should be stripped of that right after it found abuses in the system. An admissions code introduced two years ago has stopped most discriminatory methods of selecting pupils and has forced schools to prioritise children in care, it found.

The government's crackdown on covert forms of selection over the past few years has coincided with more and more high-performing state schools, faith schools and academies giving priority to pupils with talent in the schools' specialist subject, such as music, science or sports. The main charge against the admissions process is that it is still too complex for many families to understand - and faith schools were found to be the worst offenders.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry, the schools minister responsible for admissions, said: "Admissions authorities must ensure their arrangements are not unnecessarily complex so as to disadvantage certain families."

Nick Gibb, the shadow schools minister, said: "The scandal is that there are not enough good schools that parents are happy to send their children to. That's why every year there's this angst about which school children have got into."

Admission control

The most popular state schools in England are increasingly demanding pupils display a talent for music, science or sport in order to secure a place, according to new research. A government crackdown on covert forms of selection has coincided with more high-performing state schools, faith schools and academies giving priority to pupils with talent in the schools' specialist subject, LSE academics found. A minority of schools continue to break the new rules, for instance by asking questions about parental occupation and marital status. Some schools have replaced interviews with "pre-admissions meetings". The survey of 3,134 schools revealed 6% use lotteries as part of the admissions process, and 5% select some pupils by aptitude - up from 3% in 2001.
Polly Curtis


Polly Curtis and Anthea Lipsett

The GuardianTramp

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