Figures on percentages of pupils offered places at their first choice school are among the widely reported education statistics that appear every spring. They are also some of the most misleading.
Changes to local government boundaries, the presence of selective schools, the size of an authority relative to the number of secondary schools within its boundaries, and the academies programme, are all some of the factors that can distort the outcome. Add in the distribution of faith schools and single-sex schools and the picture can be muddied even further.
For instance, in Slough, there are three community comprehensive schools, but one is a girls' school; four selective schools, of which one is a Roman Catholic school; a further Roman Catholic secondary school; a Church of England school; a foundation school, and finally an academy.
With that mix, it is perhaps not surprising that only 41.7 per cent obtained a place at their first choice school. Generally, smaller authorities, those with selective schools and those with a greater number of faith schools and single-sex schools face greater pressure on places from parents. Hence the need for new ideas, such as the ballots introduced by Brighton and Hove.
Over the next few years, the pressure for school places will be felt more keenly in the primary sector. The lack of strategic planning of these places is one of the failures of a market-driven education system. Unfortunately though, these statistics rarely point that failure out in a manner parents and teachers can readily understand.
John Howson is a director of Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education.