More than half a million children, including the prime minister’s daughter Nancy, will find out on Monday whether they have got into the secondary school of their choice.
After the open days, the form filling and an agonising wait, parents in England will begin to receive email notifications on Monday afternoon, and letters later in the week, informing them which school their child will go to in September.
For many there will be disappointment that they have not got into their first choice. In London, where an extra 3,000 children have been seeking places this year, competition has been fierce with 84,140 pupils making the transition from final year of primary to secondary school this September – an increase of 3.9% on last year.
Outside London pressure on places is less intense, although in many areas there will be children who do not get into any of their named preferences. At the most popular schools an appeals process will then kick in, as children who have missed out on their choice make a final attempt to secure a place, but chances of success are slim.
Among readers of parenting website Mumsnet, tension has been mounting in online threads as what has become known as national offer day approaches. “I am dreading it,” writes one parent. “My child really has his heart set on his first choice, and I keep trying to prepare him for the inevitable, and play it down. But still ... can’t wait to get this process over with!”
Another writes: “Dreading it because it reminds me DS [darling son] is going & I’m sure secondary will be a disaster, wherever he goes.”
Rachel Burrows, editor of rival site Netmums, said the process for finding a secondary school had never been more difficult for parents: “There has never been such a variety of different schools for parents to choose from – but it has never been harder to get your child into the school you want.
“The rising birthrate, immigration and parents who can no longer afford to school their children privately have all contributed to making the competition for school places tougher than ever before.
“The days when children simply went to their closest local school are over. Now parents pore over Ofsted results and can compare academies, free schools, religious schools and those under local authority control before making a decision.”
Late last year, David and Samantha Cameron – looking for a place for their oldest daughter – went to see a number of highly successful state schools in central London, among them Grey Coat Hospital Church of England school for girls, which already counts Michael Gove’s daughter, Beatrice, among its pupils.
They also considered Lady Margaret C of E academy for girls in west London (like Grey Coat it is rated “outstanding” by Ofsted) whose alumnae include journalist and broadcaster Janet Street-Porter. “I started in the first year as a bespectacled, well-behaved swot, and left the upper-sixth for university a fully fledged rebel,” she recalled.
A more detailed picture of how many of the 550,000 children in their final year of primary school have got into their first choice will emerge later on Monday as local authorities publish figures. The problem of finding a secondary school place will intensify in coming years as the current high number of school of primary school age pupils feeds through into secondary education.
The problem will be most severe in the capital where, according to the 2014 Do the Maths report by the London Councils, it is estimated that a further 87,000 places in primary and secondary will be needed to meet rising demand by 2018.
The squeeze will be felt elsewhere, particularly in major cities, as a result of a rising birth rate related to a 6% increase in the number of women of child-bearing age since 2003, plus more older women having babies.
According to official figures, in 2014 85.2% of pupils got a place at their first choice, down 1.5% on 2013, meaning that around 77,100 youngsters (14.8%)missed out last year, compared with around 66,500 (13.3%) the year before.
Around 95.5% of 11-year-olds got one of their top three preferences, down from 96.5% in 2013, and 96.8% were given an offer from one of the schools they listed as a preference, down from 97.8%.
New analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA) of Department for Education figures suggests a third of local authority areas will need to provide a total of 80,716 new secondary places by 2019-2020.
A Department for Education spokesperson said billions of pounds had already been invested in hundreds of thousands of new school places. “We want to give every family the choice of a good local school, where their child can gain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in life in modern Britain.
“Our plan for education is helping to create thousands of high-quality new school places to create capacity and give parents the choice they deserve. Since 2010 the government has invested more than £5bn to create more than 445,000 new school places – more than double the amount invested in the previous four years.
“We are also increasing the number of good school places available by tackling underperformance, responding to parental demand by allowing innovative new schools to open under the free schools programme and allowing good schools to expand without the restrictions and bureaucracy they have faced in the past.”