Thousands miss out on first-choice primary school

Labour says academies plan will make situation worse, after one in six families in some areas fail to secure place at preferred primary

Tens of thousands of children failed to get into their first-choice primary school on national offer day in England, and Labour have said that the situation will only get worse as a result of government plans to make all schools academies.

In London, where demand for primary places is highest, one in six families learned on Monday that they had failed to get a place for their child at their preferred primary from September. In some areas of the capital, including Kensington and Chelsea, one in three children failed to get their first option, though overall the figures in London showed an improvement on 2015, with 84% of families getting their first choice, up three points on last year.

In other areas of high demand, where schools and local authorities have been grappling with a surge in pupil numbers in recent years because of a population spike, there was widespread disappointment. In Reading, only 78.6% won a place at their favoured school, leaving 1,756 children with their second choice or worse. In Birmingham it was 85.6%, leaving one in seven families disappointed.

Families in some parts of the country were far more likely to get their top choice. In the East Riding of Yorkshire, 95.9% of children got their first choice, in Hartlepool it was 96%, and in Redcar and Cleveland 97.8% got their favourite primary.

Although official final figures will not be available for some time, the Department for Education expects the situation to be largely the same as last year, when 87.8% of families were offered a place at their top choice of primary. But the shadow education secretary, Lucy Powell, said a growing number of parents would be disappointed that their child had missed out on their preferred school, and condemned the government for restricting local authority powers to provide places.

“The number of pupils is rising, yet at the same time as the increase in demand, the government has tied the hands of councils and local areas and made it harder for them to properly plan for school places. Their policy to force all schools to become academies will make this even worse,” she said.

“A fair school places system requires proper planning and coordination. Ministers must reverse their decision to cut out local communities from place planning, whilst removing the bureaucracy that councils face when it comes to opening and expanding schools.”

One of the problems arising for families as a result of the high demand for places is the splitting of siblings between different schools. In Newbury, west Berkshire, some families who already have one child at the popular Falkland primary school discovered on Monday that their younger siblings had failed to get a place. Thirteen siblings are on the waiting list of 50 at Falkland, which means 13 families are now contemplating a complicated school run to get their young children to different schools miles away from each other.

One mother, whose daughter started at Falkland two years ago, found out that her younger son had failed to get a place and would start instead in September at a village school two miles away. “It’s not a great situation,” she said, though her son had got into their second choice. “It’s going to be a juggle.”

She has been able to walk her daughter to school, but will now have to negotiate with her employer to allow her to spread her three-day week over four days so that she has time to do the extended school run by car.

The sibling issue arose because three years ago the local authority asked Falkland to accommodate a one-off “swell year” owing to the increase in pupil numbers. The younger siblings of those children are now in need of places.

Many disappointed parents will be considering appealing. Luke Knowles, a veteran of national offer day, described the whole experience as “harrowing”. Last year he applied for a place for his son Lewis at three schools within walking distance of their home in Sutton Coldfield, in Birmingham. When it came to national offer day, Lewis didn’t get into any of his preferred choices and was offered instead a place at a school just under two miles away.

Knowles, who is registered blind and required a school within safe walking distance, appealed and won, but only after spending hundreds of pounds on legal advice from an education law expert at solicitors Simpson Millar, plus additional specialist advice on disability rights.

“A lot of people who lived in the same road as us were offered the same school, rather than their choices. What had happened is that the boundaries for the nearby schools had shrunk, which left us and six other parents in a black spot.

“We were lucky enough to be in a position to afford legal advice,” he said. A lot of other parents have had to settle for schools they had not wanted their child to attend, while keeping their names on waiting lists in the hope that a place will become available elsewhere. “A lot of parents are still haunted by it,” said Knowles.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Despite rising pupil numbers, 95.9% of parents in England received an offer at one of their top three preferred primary schools last year. We have spent £5bn creating places between 2011 and 2015, which helped to create 600,000 new places between 2010 and 2015. 400,000 of those places were primary – and 100,000 primary places were added in 2014/15 alone.

“Our white paper reforms will ensure we continue to spread excellence everywhere by putting control in the hands of the teachers and school leaders who know their pupils best, alongside new measures to more swiftly tackle failing and coasting schools.”


Sally Weale Education correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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