National Offer Day: 90,000 children 'to miss out on preferred secondary school place'

In just 12 months, the proportion of Year Six pupils winning a place at their first choice school has fallen. Credit: PA

Parents in many areas of England are finding it tougher to get their child into a favoured secondary school than they were a year ago, with 90,000 expected to miss out on their first choice.

In just 12 months, more than half of the nation's towns and counties have seen a fall in the proportion of Year Six pupils winning a place at their first choice school, according to analysis of government data.

Two out of three local authorities have witnessed a drop in the percentages of children gaining a place at any of their chosen schools in the past five years.

It has been suggested that England's top secondary schools are becoming the preserve of the middle classes who can afford to pay a premium to live in the right area.

Children across the country will find out today which secondary school they have been allocated for this autumn, known as National Offer Day.

When applying to secondary schools families list a number of choices, in order of preference, on application forms.

The Good School Guide has predicted that 90,000 pupils will miss out on their first choice.

New research shows poorer youngsters are less likely to win places at the 500 comprehensives which get the best GCSE grades, including English and maths.

These secondaries are significantly more "socially selective" that the average state school, a study by the Sutton Trust suggests.

It warns that these schools admit around 9.4% of pupils eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) - a key measure of poverty, compared to 17.2% attending the average state school.

"There is a marked difference in the proportion of pupils from poorer backgrounds attending the top 500 comprehensives compared to the national average when based on the 5A*-C English and maths measure, with FSM rates just over half of the national average in comprehensive schools," the report says.

Around half of this gap is down to schools having catchment areas that have lower numbers of disadvantaged pupils, but the rest is due to social selection, researchers argue.

The study also finds that there is a house price premium of around 20% attached to living in the right area for a top comprehensive school. A typical house in one of these catchment areas costs around £45,700 more than the average property in the same local authority.

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This means pupils whose families can afford to buy in these coveted areas are more likely to get a place at one of the top secondary schools, effectively pricing poorer youngsters out.

There have been continuing concerns about a squeeze on school places, caused in part by a recent rise in the birthrate, that is now seeing its way through into secondary schools.

Council chiefs said they are doing all they can to create enough school places, but warned they are doing so "with one hand behind their backs" as they need more powers to open new schools and force academies, which are not under their control, to expand.

Press Association analysis of Department for Education (DfE) data, shows that last year, 80 out of 151 local councils (53%) saw a drop in the proportion of pupils given their first choice of secondary school, compared with the year before, while 68 authorities (45%) saw a fall in the percentage given one of their overall preferences.

Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said: "Creating an extra 300,000 primary places over recent years is a demonstrable record that councils are doing everything they can to rise to the challenge of ensuring no child goes without a place.

"However, as children move on to secondary schools, the majority of which are now academies, councils are working with one hand behind their backs to help as many as possible receive a place at their first-choice school.

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"If they are to meet the demand for secondary school places, then existing academy schools should be made to expand where required, or councils should be given back the powers to open new maintained schools."

A DfE spokesman said: "The proportion of parents getting a place at their first choice of school remains stable, and last year almost all parents got an offer at one of their top three preferred schools.

"Nearly 600,000 additional pupil places were created between May 2010 and May 2015, and the Government is now pushing ahead with the creation of a further 600,000 new school places as part of its wider £23 billion investment in the school estate up to 2021."

Justine Roberts, chief executive of parenting website Mumsnet, said: "School place allocation is all about where you live, and parents' experiences differ accordingly.

"In a survey of our users last year, 56% reported not having a 'real' choice when it came to schools their children had a realistic chance of getting into; in areas where popular schools are over-subscribed, Mumsnet users report finding the process pretty darned stressful.

"What people want is real choice, effective around the country. We can't have that without more investment in schools."