Signs that more families missing out on first choice primary school

Smaller proportions of children are gaining places at their first choice of primary school in many areas of England, a survey suggests.

Early figures also indicate that in some parts of the country, up to one in six families have missed out on their top pick, rising to more than one in four pupils in some London boroughs.

Hundreds of thousands of families across England are finding out what primary school they will be joining this autumn, on what is commonly known as National Offer Day.

Findings from a PA survey of local authorities show that, of the 67 councils that gave comparable data, 36 (54%) have seen a fall in the proportion of pupils getting their first choice compared to last year, while 25 (37%) have seen a rise and six (9%) have seen no change.

In addition, of 62 councils in England that gave information on application numbers, 34 (55%) have seen at least a slight increase in applications this year, while 28 (45%) have seen a drop.

Across the capital’s 33 boroughs, 85% of families were given their first choice of primary school this year – a fall on last year. More than one in seven (15%) did not get their preferred school.

Kensington and Chelsea had the lowest proportion of children getting their top choice at 70.5%, and in Hammersmith and Fulham just 73.3% secured their first preference.

Meanwhile outside London, only 83.4% of children got their first preference in Reading, Berkshire, a fall on last year, while in Birmingham, among all applicants, 87.7% got their top choice, also a drop on 2019.

Among the areas where very high proportions of pupils have achieved their top choice are North East Lincolnshire, where 97.5% got their first pick, and the East Riding of Yorkshire, with 97.1%

England’s school system has been put under pressure in recent years due to a rise in the school-age population.

This has been fuelled by a spike in the birth rate in the early 2000s that has now made its way through primary schools and is moving into secondary schools.

Official data shows that, last year, 90.6% of pupils were offered their first choice of primary school.

Cllr Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Councils and schools work extremely hard to try and ensure that as many pupils as possible are allocated their first preference.

“Councils have a track record of doing everything they can to rise to the challenge of ensuring no child goes without a place, having created more than 800,000 new places since 2010.

“We will continue to work with the Department for Education (DfE) to try and ensure that there is capacity to deliver the additional places needed by 2021/22.”

The DfE has changed its rules this year amid the coronavirus pandemic so that parents unhappy with their school place will not have to make an appeal in person.

Appeal panel hearings will be able to take place “in person, by telephone, video conference or through a paper-based appeal”.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said feelings of anxiety among families waiting to find out whether their child has secured their first choice of school will be “heightened by the confusion and uncertainty caused by coronavirus”.

He added: “It is vital that no child going through the primary admissions process this year should be disadvantaged. For those families not getting their first choice of school, the appeals process will be going ahead, albeit virtually.

“This process must be as robust as ever and be made clear to parents.”

School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said: “This is an unprecedented time for families but, despite this disruption, parents across England will still find out which primary school their child has been offered a place at in September.

“This is a key milestone for families and they can be reassured that the vast majority of children will receive an offer from their first choice of school.”