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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007, 16:43 GMT
How many get first school choice?
By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website

Children who are changing school in England are about to learn where they are going next September. How many will be happy with the decision is unclear.

The Department for Education and Skills collects statistics on almost everything to do with schools.

So it is surprising that it does not know how many get their first choice.

When asked, the department said in a statement: "Official surveys by the DfES show that 96% of parents nationally are offered a place at a school for which they expressed a preference and 85% are offered the school they most want."

This sounds as though it carries out continuous monitoring of the situation. It does not.

The basis of this is not "surveys" but a single survey conducted on the department's behalf by Sheffield Hallam University and the Office for National Statistics.

That was seven years ago.

Prof John Coldron, who led the work, believes the situation has changed since.

Appeals

The department also says: "The number of admissions appeals is falling nationally both at primary and secondary level."

graph of trend in secondary admissions appeals
The trend in secondary admissions appeals in England
This is true. It does collate and publish those statistics annually - although the way the total number of admissions was counted changed in 2001-02.

Back in 1993-94 there were 584,252 admissions to secondary schools. In 24,581 cases (4.2%) parents lodged appeals, 72.2% of which were regarded as serious enough to be heard by appeal panels.

The percentage who won their cases was precisely one third: 33.3%.

By 1999-2000, there were 60,454 appeals out of 628,613 admissions (9.6%). The proportions heard and succeeding had remained more or less the same: 72.7% and 32.2%.

The number of appeals peaked in 2002-03, when there were 69,550 or one in 10 of all admissions.

The success rate was up a little, at 33.5%.

Satisfaction levels

Since then the number of appeals has fallen a little.

But so has the number of pupils, so pressure on the available places would have decreased and arguably one would therefore expect fewer disputes.

In 2004-05, the last year for which figures are available, the provisional data show 62,750 appeals lodged or 9.3% of all admissions.

More than ever were successful: 35.7%.

A comparison with Scotland is striking, by the way. There, most people accept the place allocated by their local authorities.

In 2004-05 there were 7,955 placing requests, as applications for specific schools are known, for the first year of secondary school - out of almost 59,000 pupils in the year group.

Most requests were granted and there were only 360 appeals - of which just 24 (6.6%) were successful.

The Scottish Executive has proposed changes. It says its research shows many people believe there is "a serious imbalance of power" between councils and parents.

'Disenfranchised'

The level of appeals is only one indicator of satisfaction, but other studies bolster the findings.

A survey by ICM for the Teachers' TV network found one in 10 children had failed to get into the school of their choice.

ICM Research interviewed a random sample of 800 parents with children currently at secondary school in the UK, by telephone, during September 2006. Nearly a third of parents said they felt disenfranchised by the process.

Six out of 10 of those who had not got their child into their first preference school did not think they had had a choice, and regarded the decision as beyond their control.

in England, Mori carried out a study for the DfES itself, into parental perceptions of a range of recent education initiatives. It was done in December 2005 but has just been published.

The researchers organised eight discussion groups, four in London and four in Manchester.

Parents tended to be satisfied with the schools their children attended - they believed they provided a good, well-rounded education.

Real choice?

But choice was "a key area of debate".

Crucially, because standards between schools were seen to vary, participants did not feel able to make a meaningful choice.

Yet they also did not want to have to become what the researchers called "educated consumers" of education.

They worried that being given "choice" meant they would have to become "experts" in schools to make the right decisions for their children.

Some also detected a logical flaw in the possibility of expanding places in good schools.

They feared this could lead to a reduction in the pupil-teacher ratio - so the school would no longer be as good as it had been.

A survey of some local authorities by the Daily Telegraph found that in Birmingham, the biggest urban authority, 33% of children failed to get into their first choice secondary school last year.

Across London, one in every 14 parents failed to get any of their six choices last year.

In Liverpool, 18% failed to get into their first choice school.

In Manchester, however, only 7% failed to win a place at the school of their choice.

Realistic choice?

But all such figures need treating warily, especially with the decline of "first preference first" systems, outlawed by the latest government rules on admissions.

Under first preference first, a child who lives far away from a school can be offered a place over a child who lives nearer - but has put it as their second or third preference.

With the equal preference or "preference blind" system, the key is whether a child meets the admissions criteria - the schools do not know where in the order of preference they were placed, so cannot say "put us first or we will not give you a place".

One result of this is that more parents make what admissions officers regard as unrealistic first preferences - if they live too far away, for example - because they have nothing to lose.

Statistically they might not get their first choice - but statistics cannot readily show that they never had a chance of doing so.




SEE ALSO
Schools to give places by lottery
28 Feb 07 |  Education
Split on school places lottery
28 Feb 07 |  Education
Lottery of school places backed
29 Sep 05 |  Education
School selection comes under fire
26 Feb 07 |  Education
School admissions rules finalised
10 Jan 07 |  Education

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