The proportion of 11-year-olds securing a place at their first-choice secondary school over the past year has dropped amid rising demand for places, according to figures published today.
This year saw the highest number of applications for a secondary place since records began 10 years ago, with 582,761 submissions – an increase of 3.6 per cent on last year by the Department for Education.
And the proportion of first preference offers dropped to 82.1 per cent, from 83.5 per cent in 2017, DfE figures show.
The proportion of pupils offered a place at any of their preferred schools also dropped slightly to 95.5 per cent in 2018, from 96.1 per cent the year before.
The figures show greater pressure on secondary school places as the population bulge shifts through primary schools.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College leaders, said the pressure on secondary places is only set to intensify, with more than half a million additional secondary places projected to be needed in the next seven years.
He said: “It is of paramount importance that the government ensures sufficient numbers of good school places are provided to meet local needs.
"This is particularly challenging in a complex and fragmented system. The government has to work closely with local authorities and existing groups of schools to ensure that children are able to access places in good local schools and that no money is wasted on places which do not meet demographic needs.”
Today's figures have triggered calls from local authorities to have greater powers to force free schools and academies to expand and to open new council-maintained schools where needed.
Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said councils lacked sufficient power or influence to improve the situation, seeing as nearly 70 per cent of secondary schools are now academies or free schools, free of local authority control.
He said: “Councils must be given powers to force schools to expand if a local agreement cannot be reached voluntarily where this is in the best interests of new and existing pupils.
"Most academies will be keen to work with their local authorities, but in the minority of situations where this isn’t the case, appropriate powers are vital to ensure all children get a suitable place.
“Councils should also have the lead role in judging and approving applications for new free schools to make sure they’re appropriate for communities, and will need to be able to place vulnerable children in the schools that can offer them the best support."
On powers to open new local authority maintained schools, Mr Watts added: “It makes no sense for councils to be given the responsibility to plan for school places but then not allowed to open schools themselves.”
The figures were published amid frustration by many education unions at the £50 million of funding allocated to grammar school expansion at a time when critics say increased pressure on places across the board means the money should be focused in areas where they are most needed.
Today's figures show significant geographical variation, with London having the lowest proportion of first preference rates accepted. Hammersmith & Fulham offered the fewest for the third year running, with just over half (51.4%) of 11 year olds getting their first choice school. Not far behind was Kensington & Chelsea (54.3 percent), and Lambeth (55.2 percent).
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, warned that the government must also address the falling numbers of teachers at the very time that the secondary pupil population is rising.
Applications for secondary places have shot up by 16.6 percent over the five years. The union’s recent Leaky Pipeline report highlighted the difficulties some school face in filling teaching vacancies, leaving an increasing number to rely on supply teachers.
“This is an issue which isn’t going away,” said Mr Whiteman. “Until the government gets a grip on where new school places are needed and takes responsibility for recruitment across all areas of the country the annual anxious wait for families will always be a problem.”
While pressure on secondary places will have led to many disappointed families over their first choice school, more primary school children had their first preference accepted, the figures show.
These rose slightly, from 90 per cent in 2017 to 91 per cent this year, as did those having any of their preferences accepted – from 97.7 per cent to 98.1 per cent.
The figures reflect the fact that applications for a primary school place dropped by 2 per cent on last year to 608,180 applications – the lowest seen in the five years that primary level figures have been collected.