First choice secondary school offers set to hit all-time low

Posted: 27th February 2023

The proportion of children securing a place at their first-choice secondary school is set to hit a record low, education leaders fear.

On Wednesday, families will find out which state secondary school has offered their child a place. A record number of pupils have applied for places, with the number of children looking to start Year Seven in September rising by around 40,000 to 640,000 in four years following a spike in the birth rate 11 years ago.

Prof Alan Smithers, the director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research, said the success rate could fall below 80 per cent for the first time this year because of the spike in demand if the most sought-after schools have not expanded.

“Competition for places will have been at its highest ever, with the success rate even falling below 80 per cent for the first time if more first-choice places have not been provided,” he told The Telegraph.

The proportion of pupils reaching their first choice in England declined from 85.2 per cent in 2014 to 83.3 per cent last year, having recovered from a historic low of 80.9 per cent in 2019.

Teaching leaders indicated that families should prepare for disappointment, particularly in affluent areas.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools, trusts and local authorities plan places to respond to demographic demand, but there is likely to be particular pressure on oversubscribed schools – generally those with good or outstanding Ofsted ratings located in affluent areas of the country.”

The level of competition faced by families is a postcode lottery.

National Offer Day will coincide with teachers’ strikes after the National Education Union said the action would go ahead.

The union said this week it was “prepared to recommend a pause to strikes” to its national executive committee on Saturday in a “sign of goodwill”, but only if a “serious proposal” is made to end the dispute.

But on Saturday, the NEU said it was not expecting any developments and that the strikes remain in place.

Regional walkouts by NEU members are planned for Feb 28, March 1 and March 2, with national strike action across England and Wales planned for March 15 and March 16.

Last year, the lowest first-choice rates were in London boroughs such as Kensington & Chelsea, Lewisham and Hammersmith & Fulham, at between 60.5 per cent and 62.1 per cent.

Prof Smithers said this could be attributed to the ease of cross-border movement and that six choices can be named compared with only three in other parts of the country, which increase applications.

However, in Central Bedfordshire, Rutland and the East Riding of Yorkshire, between 97 per cent and 98 per cent of families got their first choice school.

‘We do get quite a lot of anxious parents’

Simon Elliott, the chief executive of the Community Schools Trust, which runs Forest Gate Community School in Newham, east London, is preparing to disappoint hundreds of parents next week.

The school, rated outstanding by Ofsted, was put down as the first choice for a record 435 families, up from 133 eight years ago. Hundreds more have selected the school as their second choice. However, it only has 270 places.

Mr Elliott said the school has had to shrink its catchment area this year to 0.9 miles because of such high demand, even though it added 60 places in 2021.

“Sharp-elbowed people move closer to the school, which has had an impact on house prices,” he said. “But they may find they don’t live close enough.”

He said he was expecting to receive a high number of appeals after offer day, adding: “As a school, we do get quite a lot of anxious parents who want to get in but can’t. It’s not pleasant.”

Stuart Brooks, the head of Sanders Draper School in Havering, east London, said all three schools in his trust had seen record demand this year, with more families selecting Sanders Draper as their first choice than there are places available.

Mr Brooks said he was reluctant to expand the 150 places it has on offer, citing the school culture it has “worked very hard to create”, which could be put at risk by bringing in another group of pupils.

Councillors have been meeting officials this week to discuss the pressures in areas with high numbers of oversubscribed schools such as Trafford, Greater Manchester, where one in four families missed out on their first choice secondary school last year.

Parents in Bristol have launched a campaign highlighting a shortage of secondary places after complaining that only 77 per cent received their first choice last year, leaving some 11-year-olds forced to travel four miles on a bus across the city to get to school.

‘Our secondaries are already oversubscribed’

Steve Chalke, chief executive of the Oasis academy trust chain, which runs schools around the country, said some schools in central urban areas had extra capacity because people had moved away during the pandemic and not returned, while other schools in more suburban areas had long waiting lists.

Benedick Ashmore-Short, the chief executive of the Park Academies Trust, which runs schools in Wiltshire, said: “Our secondaries are already oversubscribed so this demographic bump has posed a challenge, but we have been able to be flexible and take on as many extra pupils as possible.”

The Local Government Association said the growth in academies was posing a challenge because councils have no powers to direct them to expand. They are also unable to open new schools.

Cllr Louise Gittins, who chairs the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “Councils need these powers as soon as possible to ensure as many children as possible get the places they want.” Local authorities have added 65,000 secondary places to existing schools since 2018, she said.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Last year, 94.4 per cent of applicants for a secondary school place received an offer from one of their top three choices, while 83.3 per cent were offered their first-choice secondary school.

“Pupils are also vastly more likely to be receiving a place at a good school than they were 10 years ago, with 86 per cent of schools rated good or outstanding now compared to 68 per cent in 2010.

“We have already created over one million places in the last decade – the largest increase in at least 20 years. We also announced nearly £530 million to provide both primary and secondary places needed for 2023, and £940 million for places needed for 2024 and 2025.”

Source: First choice secondary school offers set to hit all-time low (

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