Thousands miss first secondary school choice as demand rises across UK cities

Camerons among families awaiting offer as figures show intense competition for school places in urban areas

Tens of thousands of children have missed out on their first choice of secondary school this year as pressure on places mounts, with almost half failing to get into their top preference in some areas of London.

Early figures suggest that disappointment among children and their families will be most acute in larger cities, including Birmingham as well as the capital where demand for places is particularly intense as a result of the rising birth rate.

Outside urban areas one in seven pupils have missed out on their first choice of school according to early estimates, though in some areas of the country, including Cornwall, East Riding and Cleveland, virtually every child has got into their top preference.

More than half a million children anxiously went home at the end of school day on Monday – otherwise known as National Offer Day – to find out what secondary school they would be going to in September.

Among those applying for a secondary school place this time round is the prime minister’s daughter Nancy Cameron, who is expected to go to a central London girls’ comprehensive.

A Downing Street spokesman said: “Like tens of thousands of other parents, the prime minister and Mrs Cameron expect to hear which secondary schools have offered a place to their daughter Nancy. If she gets more than one offer they will make a decision in due course.”

Parents around the country were quick to log on to their computers to find out results, prompting mixed reactions. “Offer day has been largely okay for us,” said one Essex mother. “We applied to a feeder comprehensive, but I never take anything for granted and so didn’t with this.

“It was a relief when my child got first choice and it was lovely to see her best friend did, too. So there was none of that ‘watch what you say at school’ type of thing which so many of my London friends had, where competition is fiercer.

“But I didn’t announce the result on Facebook either, mindful that not everyone gets their first choice.”

According to the Pan London admissions board, 68% of children in the capital got their first choice, with 88% offered a place at one of their top three schools.

In Birmingham, where 14,625 of the city’s pupils applied for a secondary place, just over 10,000 (68.5%) got their first preferred school, according to a survey of local authorities by the Press Association.

In Buckinghamshire, around one in four children failed to get get their first choice; there were similar figures for pupils in Bristol and Sandwell, while around one in five missed out in both Warwickshire and Bracknell Forest.

Helen Jenner, chair of the Pan London Admissions Board said more pupils in the capital had been offered a school place of their choice than last year but secondary schools were starting to experience the same pressures as primary where a rise in the birth rate has caused a population bulge.

Among the most competitive boroughs was Hammersmith and Fulham where just 55.02% got their top preference, along with 57.82% in Wandsworth; in contrast in in Bexley, 77.52% got their top choice and in Havering it was 76.44%

“London’s schools have long been recognised as the best in the country, with outcomes well above national levels, which means that parents are keen to secure a place for their children in the capital,” said Jenner. “However, demand for places is growing, as we are beginning to see the pressure on primary schools transfer to secondary.

“London boroughs are working with schools to expand the number of places they can offer, but the higher cost of land and construction in the capital means this is often difficult and expensive.”

Pupils who have not been allocated a place at one of their chosen schools have either been offered an alternative or will shortly be advised of their options. Many will also choose to appeal, prolonging the uncertainty even further.

This year’s statistics will only add to growing concerns about the crisis in school places. David Simmonds, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and young people board, said: “Councils and schools have been doing everything they can to provide places, in some cases going to extraordinary lengths, to ensure no child goes without.

“Today parents find out which school their child will be attending and those families which applied to oversubscribed schools will know how anxious the wait can be. Under our plans, every child would get a place at a good local school, but we need government to address this urgently.

“Our fear is that we will reach a tipping point when councils or schools cannot afford the massive cost of creating places or find the space necessary for new classes.

“The government needs to commit to fund the creation of school places and hand councils the powers to open new schools, for both primary and secondary-age pupils, before time runs out. Councils face a challenge creating places on time and in the right places when their hands are tied by red tape and they are short of money to do so.

“Councils, with their school place-planning duties, also need powers to compel academies to expand where this cannot be achieved by negotiation, so no child is without a school place.”

According to Ofsted’s 2014 annual report, England’s schools are going to have to provide places for an extra 880,000 pupils by 2023.

Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers said: “This is an anxious time made far worse by the lack of coherent planning to ensure enough school places for children and young people both at secondary and primary level.

“Insufficient provision for the school population is not a surprise; it has been clearly signalled and warned about for years. The current system of allowing free schools costing millions of taxpayers money to open in an ad hoc fashion depending on the wishes of small groups of interested individuals simply exacerbates the school place crisis.”


Sally Weale, education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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