Families still struggle to find primary school places in English cities

Number of first-choice offers for September falls in London, Manchester and Birmingham

Families in major English cities are still struggling to find places in their preferred primary schools, with demand remaining high in local authorities including Manchester, Birmingham and several London boroughs.

Despite a levelling off in the number of children enrolling for their first year of formal schooling aged four or five, many councils across England reported rising numbers of applications for about 700,000 primary school places this September.

On national primary school offer day, London’s local authorities announced a one percentage point drop to 85% in the proportion of families who were offered their first preference, while there was also a slight dip in those receiving any of their top three school choices compared with 2018.

There was a similar outcome in Manchester, where 91% of families were offered their first preference, a fall of almost two percentage points compared with last year, and a similar rise in the numbers offered schools they did not name in their applications.

In Birmingham, almost 89% of more than 14,000 applications received their first choice of school, a sharp drop compared with 2018, while about 300 families were given alternative places by the council or had their applications deferred. The council said a change in its calculations made it difficult to compare this year’s results with previous years.

Anntoinette Bramble, the chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said councils across England had invested in offering 800,000 more school places since 2010, to match the country’s growing population.

“Councils and schools work extremely hard to try and ensure that as many pupils as possible are allocated their first preference,” Bramble said.

Several councils announced improved results, with up to 89% of families receiving their first preference in Essex and Kent. In Bradford, nearly 96% gained their first preference, while Leeds also recorded an improvement, with 88% of first choices.

In more rural areas, parents were far more likely to gain their first preferences, including nearly 97% in Devon.

But in areas where the school-age population has continued to grow, the pressure on places remains strong. In Norfolk, where the number of applications rose above 9,000 this year, the proportion gaining their first choice fell to under 93%.

London’s central admissions authority – which handles the process for 32 London boroughs and the City of London – had to deal with more than 96,000 applications for reception places. More than 2,000 families failed to receive an offer for any of up to six preferences.

“While the total number of primary school applications received in London this year was slightly lower than last year, pressure on different schools and local authority areas can vary,” said Sara Williams, the chair of the Pan London Admissions Board.

“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.”

The worst-affected boroughs were Kensington and Chelsea, where two out of three applications received their first preference, and Hammersmith and Fulham, where three out of four did so.

In both cases, the success rate was lower than in 2018. Overall, approximately 96% of London families received one of their top three choices.

Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said improvements in the schools system meant they were now “unrecognisable” from those that today’s parents attended.

“What this means in practice is that even in instances where parents aren’t getting the news they hoped for today, the likelihood is that their child will be attending a school which will provide a first-class education,” he said.


Richard Adams Education editor

The GuardianTramp

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