Guest blog: Primary school admissions - time for a shake-up?

(40 Posts)
JessMumsnet (MNHQ) Mon 22-Apr-13 16:39:06

Last week, many parents in London found that their child hadn't been offered their first choice of primary school - and others, that their child had been offered no place at all. In today's guest blog Prof. Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research explores what went wrong - and says it could be time for a shake-up of the admissions procedure.

What do you think - have you been affected by the shortage of places? Is it time to move away from 'parental choice', perhaps towards a lottery system? Let us know on the thread - and if you blog on this issue, don't forget to post your URL.

"Way back, before the Thatcher years, getting into a primary school was so simple. Almost everyone was happy to send their sons and daughters to the local school. There were few perceived differences between schools and nobody worried about them.

Now for a conscientious parent it can be a major undertaking. Researching numerous schools. Drawing up a list of preferences. Trying to increase the chance of getting into the first choice by moving nearer, regular church attendance or making a special case. Even then the offer may be for a school far away that was never considered.

In London this year 19 per cent of parents did not get their first choice and 5 per cent did not get any of the up to six preferences they listed. For them it will be a matter of agonising over whether or not to appeal, with the prospect looming of an anxious summer to see if they have made it up the waiting list.

What happened? Parental 'choice' is what happened. It was introduced by the Thatcher government in an attempt to drive up the quality of education by giving parents more say. Money followed pupils so that a school's funding depended on the number of pupils that it attracted. In order to get information to parents, school results and inspection reports were published.

What followed is what we have today. Word gets around that School A is very good and School B is a bit rough. Not surprisingly, every parent who cares tries to get their child into School A. There are many more applications than places so some parents end up being offered a place in School B, which is likely to have more than its fair share of children whose parents could not be bothered. The lucky parents whose child got into School A were selected by an arcane set of rules revolving around distance from school, whether there were brothers and sisters at the school, religious faith, social needs and medical needs.

That is the annual round of primary school admissions. But overlaying it and making things especially difficult at present is the sharp increase in the birth-rate. It has gone up by 22 per cent in England in the past decade, with rises of 50 per cent or more in some parts. The number of babies born to women in their early thirties is the highest on record.

The demand for school places seems to have caught the government by surprise, even though the birth-rate gives five years warning of the likely requirement. The unpredictable element seems to been new arrivals to the country. Foreign-born mothers now account for about a quarter of births. Immigrant families also have a greater tendency to move around, needing to join a school during the year.

Increased demand has meant adjustments to the system. In some cases, this will have benefitted parents because the number of places in popular school schools has been increased so that there is a greater likelihood of getting the first choice. But when your son or daughter gets there they may find themselves in a crowded or temporary classroom. The classes may be larger so that the teacher has less time for each child, or perhaps in order to keep class sizes down teaching assistants assume a greater role. The very quality that drew you to the school may be under strain.

There is no going back on parental choice, even if is only the power to express a preference. The genie is out of the bottle. It is very popular especially with those parents who know how to get their child into the school they want. They would be very reluctant indeed to hand back the control they have to some remote authority. No government would risk losing their votes.

But plainly a system running on parental preferences is not working as well as it should. It causes a lot of anguish among parents and wide differences have grown up between schools. There has to be a better way. It is not enough to leave school places to the market. Paradoxically, freedom to choose a school with a reasonable hope of success means there has to be more central planning and regulation.

The planning must ensure that there are enough school places within each locality, with sufficient slack to allow flexibility. The regulation must ensure that there is the opportunity of a primary school place close to home for every eligible child. This could be achieved, in part, by the government acting to re-establish catchment areas. Some schools would still attract more applicants than they had room for. Allocating the available places would be difficult. But there would seem to be two options. One would be to re-draft the admissions code so that it was less gameable, and came to be accepted as fair. The other - more radical solution - would be to draw lots."

Professor Alan Smithers is Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham. For more information, visit

OP’s posts: |
JaquelineHyde Mon 22-Apr-13 17:21:20

A better solution would be to stop grading schools and creating the competition to get into certain schools. Or better still fund the Primary (and Secondary) education system better so that sink schools don't exist in such extremes.

If either of these were achieved then parents wouldn't feel driven to fight for places at certain schools as education provision would be adequate at several schools instead of just one in every ten.

Blu Mon 22-Apr-13 17:26:36

1. Quoting stats like this is meaningless without an analysis of why parents didn't get their first choice. I know parents who didn't get a first choice, who put completely unrealistic preferences for the first 3 places or more (e.g faith schools but not meeting criteria, wildly over-subscribed schools miles away), and parents who didn't get ANY school despite putting the 6 closest including unpopular 'satisfactory' schools, because they live in a black hole. The preference system means that the best thing to do is play your wild card, your 'no chance of getting in' school in position one, and parents who live right on the doorstep of a good local school may well use the first 5 places on wild cards, knowing that the 6th is a dead cert. So lack of a first choicce place is not necessarily an indicator of massive unrest.
2. The Ofsted grading system leads parents to believe that they MUST compete for an Outstanding school, even if the local 'good' school is a cracking school and just right for thier children. London is subject to a competitive frenzy, for some reason. Probably because the schools are geographically closer together because of the density so it feels more possible to choose a school a catchment or two away.
3. There seems to be no strategy about matching provision to need. Free schools can go more or less where thay like and the LA has no influence in getting a school sited in a black hole, Because Free Schools seem to focus on a particular bee in bonnet rather than filling lack of provision. I think i am right in saying that East Dulwich is gettiing not one but TWO bilingual German schools, not because there has been a demand from a German community or any specifically German orientated employment opportunity in the area but just because German is an interest and specialism of the highly motivated parents who got the bid underway. Is this sensible?

Schools are improving - London is the place you are most likely to be able to place your child in an 'Outstanding' school, I think. Or is that Lambeth? the SITING of new schools should match the areas where there are 'Black Holes'

Drawing lots could possibly result in the majority of children going to schools miles from where they live. Suppose you lose the ballot for every school you choose? In a lottery surely huge numbers of parents would enter the draw for the fashionable beacon school, leaving local residents to that school with a hugely disadvantaged chance of a place?

What seems to cause massive unrest and dissatisfaction is the worry that your child mighht not get a place at all, and the shrinkiing catchments for popular schools (look into the way temporary rentals increase the number of siblings exponentially year in year) which make it very hard to guess whether you might be ok with your choices or not.

From readng MN and various local forums, although the offers period is very stressful most people do end up with a school hey are happy with. Sometimes by having been more open minded when they actually experienced a school rather than just judging it by it's ofsted rating.

nextphase Mon 22-Apr-13 17:40:41

Agree with blu. We got our 3rd (and final) choice - because if we didn't put the other 2 schools above, there was no way we would get in. So we got our 3rd - but ultimately what I was expecting, choice.

Disagree with drawing lots. Agree with closest WALKING distance - not as the crow flys!

But ultimately we need to make EVERY school a good school, so there isn't the unbalanced demand. And we need to remove the other things which unbalance the choice - so round here, people choose the school on the availability of before and after school care - be that in nurserys who will drop off there, or with before and after school clubs.

We also need to remove the pre-schools who have massively more capacity than the reception - ie we have a 90 place preschool for a 30 place reception. Where is the sense in that?

notfluffy Mon 22-Apr-13 17:47:11

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Phineyj Mon 22-Apr-13 17:53:54

As about 50% of families will have a single child in years to come I think we could consider removing sibling preference while possibly introducing school buses to assist parents whose children are placed at different schools (this would also massively reduce congestion in suburban areas). Also it seems extremely odd in this day and age that so many state schools are allowed to select on religious grounds. My DD is ineligible to go to fully one third of the state primaries in our area because of this, yet I rather doubt one third of local residents are committed Christians. It would also be sensible to change the law that prevents LAs building new schools directly in areas of need.

Blu Mon 22-Apr-13 18:04:15

I agree distance should be by walking route.

My nearest primary has 'children for whom it is the nearest school' rather than children who live nearest, and then children who live closest. But that is probably because where I live in S London I would actually have a genuine choice of 4 local schools on distance had I applied this year.

I only have one child, but think there has to be sibling priority at primary level.

notfluffy Mon 22-Apr-13 19:01:44

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Littlefish Mon 22-Apr-13 19:18:56

I think that sibling priority should only exist for those in catchment. If you choose an out of catchment school for your older child, then that is your choice, but you should not get priority for your subsequent children over single children living in the catchment.

Littlefish Mon 22-Apr-13 19:19:48

I meant single, or oldest children living in catchment.

notcitrus Mon 22-Apr-13 19:21:59

I agree sibling priority is needed at primaries, despite it and Christian priority meaning ds didn't get into our nearest school. He didn't get into the next nearest either, down to sheer numbers - friend who lives half as far away is over 80th on the waiting list!

Most people would be content if they thought they could get into their nearest school. Could catchment areas be reintroduced or is the rate of growth of numbers just too huge?

joshpettitt Mon 22-Apr-13 19:32:18

Message deleted by Mumsnet for breaking our Talk Guidelines. Replies may also be deleted.

MintyyAeroEgg Mon 22-Apr-13 19:56:03

Its exactly the same with secondary schools. Can we please take this in to account?

Wishiwasanheiress Mon 22-Apr-13 20:27:21

Er curious as to why siblings take priority. I mean I understand obvs the practicality of 3kids 3 schools however its discriminating against onlies. Either all subscribe to same rules or ur suggesting separate rules for onlies. It must be fair for all. And yes if queried I would quite happily threaten suing to gain fairness. I have two children. My parents had such a conundrum when I was young both at primary then secondary levels! That's why were I in that boat I know how I would behave, they had to in 80's. nothing's changed.

knitcorner Mon 22-Apr-13 20:38:21

As a parent, I would prefer not to be given a choice, all I I want is a place at my closest primary school, and for that school to be good.

Please make it happen!

notfluffy Mon 22-Apr-13 20:42:58

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

Littlefish Mon 22-Apr-13 20:54:30

Notfluffy - but if you choose to send your child to a school out of catchment, then why should the siblings take priority over children who live in the local area and are part of the community.

tethersend Mon 22-Apr-13 20:56:47

I agree with notfluffy- retaining the sibling rule is important.

However, I live in a borough which has just re-introduced catchment areas, and although frustratingly this put us out of catchment to our nearest school, it put us in the catchment of another which we had not considered due to distance. I think the system could have worked very well if the borough had gone with their original plan to use random allocation as a tie break criterion; however, it seemed to have bottled it at the last minute and used 'distance to nearest alternative school' instead, which effectively brings back the distance cut off.

tethersend Mon 22-Apr-13 21:00:08

I should add, the sibling rule is not applied in my borough if the child attends an out of catchment school.

tethersend Mon 22-Apr-13 21:04:08

Wishiwasanheiress, there is no discrimination against onlies- the eldest child of a sibling group is the 'only' in every family.

clam Mon 22-Apr-13 21:06:03

I can't see how you could make a charge that a sibling rule discriminates against 'onlies' stick. Because all those parents with more than one child had the same issue when their oldest child applied in the first instance, with no older sibling to help.

weasle Mon 22-Apr-13 21:36:32

I agree with knitcorner, no choice but nearest school which is good enough. Same as for hospitals.

We live 400m from an outstanding school with a 60 intake. No chance of getting in as hoards of people rent for a year on the road of the school, get one child in then move away, drive to school and get siblings in. I walk past them all in their big cars every day as I walk past that school to go to one a mile away.

I definitely feel siblings should only get priority if you live near the school still to stamp out the cheating practice locally. Primary school kids should be able to walk to school for lots of reasons, not least their own long term health.

Phineyj Mon 22-Apr-13 21:59:03

Why wouldn't school buses work in London? Not being stroppy, but genuinely curious as London is full of buses already, just not the supervised sort the Americans have. I can see it would be impractical in the countryside where people are much more spread out, but the pressure on schools is not so great there anyway.

tethersend Mon 22-Apr-13 22:12:17

But how near is 'near'?

A family could find themselves living in the same house they lived in when oldest child gained a place, and be too far away for youngest to get in by the time they apply.

What about the siblings of those in higher priority categories such as statemented children, children in care or those who obtained a place under the med/soc category?

knitcorner Mon 22-Apr-13 22:20:46

phiney if every child in London went to their nearest school, they would be able to walk there. No need for school buses, no need for commuting of any kind for children under 11, no clogging up of public transport and no traffic congestion.

We live on top of each other, there are plenty of local schools, we just can't get in any of them!

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