Thousands in England still losing out on first-choice primary school

Call for better long-term planning to deal with increased demand for places but problem easing in some areas, figures show

Thousands of children are continuing to lose out on getting their first choice of primary school in some areas of England, although the problem is getting better in some parts, according to figures from local authorities.

About 600,000 families found out on Tuesday whether their four-year-olds had been awarded a place in reception class at their first choice of primary school in September.

On what has become known as national offer day for primary schools, councils including Birmingham, Kent, Brighton and Hove and Essex reported that a higher proportion of parents had got their first choice of primary school than last year.

There was still disappointment in areas of high demand for primary places, where parents have failed to get a place at their top choice, with some failing to get into any of their preferred schools.

Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, called for better long-term planning for school places to deal with increased demand. “The government’s own figures show that an extra 750,000 school places will be needed in England by 2025, to meet a 10% rise in pupil population,” he said.

“There is a desperate need for long-term planning that spans all sectors. With the massive increase in pupil numbers and over-stretched budgets, we cannot afford inefficiency and conflict.”

Primary offers

In recent years, councils have been under severe pressure to provide thousands of extra primary school places in response to a population bulge, which is beginning to feed through to secondary schools in England.

In Birmingham, where applications were down by 1,000 this year, almost nine in 10 parents (87.4%) were offered a place at their first choice of primary, up from 85.6% last year.

Despite the improvement, more than 500 Birmingham children (3.5%) did not receive an offer of a place at any of their preferred schools – down from 800 last year – while almost 500 (3%) were offered places at schools outside Birmingham.

In the absence of effective local planning, Hobby said new schools were not always being commissioned in areas of greatest need. “Schools in areas of high demand are being forced to expand, having to find new places, classrooms and funding, potentially over-stretching capacity and causing teaching quality to drop.”

In Bristol, where applications have risen 5% in the past five years, 96% of parents were offered one of their top three choices, with 86% of parents being offered their first preference school, in line with last year’s figures. Those who were not offered one of their preferred schools fell to just over 3% (192 compared with 253 last year).

Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers.
Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

In the past few years Bristol city council has provided 10,000 additional primary school places to meet rising demand. Paul Jacobs, the service director for education and skills, said: “Our forecasts now show that we should be able to meet demand to 2020 and beyond.”

Across England about one in nine families did not receive a place at their first preference last year; in London the figure was one in six.

London also experienced an overall increase in the percentage of parents getting their first choice of primary school for their child, but in some boroughs where there is high demand there was widespread disappointment, with as many as three in 10 families failing to get their first choice.

Last year 84% of London families got their first choice, which rose to 86% this year in the context of a 4% drop in the number of applications, which have fallen from 103,329 last year to 98,951.
In Kensington and Chelsea, just 68.3% of parents got their top choice – in Hammersmith and Fulham it was 76.7% – and across the capital 2,500 children failed to get a place at any of their preferred schools. Sara Williams, the chair of the Pan London admissions board, said demand for primary school places in London had increased by 5% since 2011.

“Overall, there has been a slight fall in demand for reception places since last year, but the pressure on London schools to deliver places for children across the capital due to start school this September remains. We will be keeping an eye on birth rates and patterns of population growth, but we expect demand for primary school places to continue at least at current levels and demand for secondary school places to grow considerably in the years ahead.”

Peter John, the deputy chair of London Councils and executive member with responsibility for schools, added: “As councils have the legal duty to provide school places, we strongly believe that government should work more closely with us to deliver the school places needed by children across the capital as well as devolving funding for the free school programme.”

Nearly 90% of pupils in Brighton and Hove applying for primary school places for September were offered their first preference – up by more than two percentage points from last year’s figure.

In Kent, a record 97% of children were offered one of their preferred primary schools, the highest recorded percentage since coordinated primary admissions began. According to Kent county council (KCC), 16,855 children were offered a place at one of their preferred schools with 15,429 being offered their first choice – a 2% improvement on last year’s figures.

Nevertheless, more than 400 Kent families did not get a single offer from one of their preferred schools, often because they had failed to use all available preferences. Patrick Leeson, KCC’s corporate director of children, young people and education, said: “Unfortunately, each year a small minority of pupils are not offered a school of their choice. We do encourage families to use all the preferences available to them so that they have a better chance of securing a preferred school.”

Similarly in Essex, a record percentage of children were offered a place at their parents’ first preference of primary school. According to Essex county council, 89.3% of children due to start reception in September have been offered their parents’ first preference – up from 87.4% last year.

While there were celebrations on social media from parents delighted to be offered their top choice, there was also disappointment. On Mumsnet one despondent mother said her son had been attending a nursery at a Catholic school in Manchester, but she had just found out he had not got a place in reception. Instead he had been given a place at a school a 10-minute drive away. “Absolutely devastated, been sat here crying,” she wrote.

Provisional analysis of 50 local education authorities (LEAs) by the Press Association suggested that the proportion of children getting a place at their first-choice primary school has gone up this year from last year’s official figure of 88.2% to 91.1%.

Just 15 of the LEAs included in the sample, which represents just under a third of all local authorities in England, reported a drop in the percentage of pupils getting a place at their top choice. The largest fall was in Northumberland, where 88.8% of new primary pupils got their first choice, down from 94.7% last year.
The largest increase was in Kingston-upon-Hull, which rose from 87.5% last year to 94% in 2017, and Redcar and Cleveland in the north-east saw the highest overall percentage of students getting their first choice place at 97.85%.

One mother of four-year-old twins in Hertfordshire was devastated to find out that neither of her children had got a place at any of the four schools they had chosen. She was so upset by the news she had to be sent home from work.

“I’m absolutely dumbstruck. We moved into the area two years ago and paid a premium of £50,000 on our house to be in the catchment area of the schools we wanted.

“We’ve been waiting all day for this email to come out. My husband logged on and told me. I said: ‘You’re joking? That’s not possible.’ It was like our worst-case scenario. The twins understand what’s happening. They’ve seen mummy crying.”


Sally Weale and Richard Adams

The GuardianTramp

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