‘Frenzied’ fight for school places reaches new level

11th March 2016 at 00:00
Families hedging their bets by sacrificing huge deposits and putting children through numerous entrance exams

Parents are forgoing thousands of pounds and putting their children through multiple entrance exams just to increase their chances of a place at the most-sought after independent schools, TES can reveal.

Families are playing the system by applying to as many as nine schools, paying often non-refundable deposits of up to £1,600 each for places that their children may never take up.

Schools say that the insurance practices adopted by panicked parents are hindering their planning for the next academic year and have even led to playground arguments between some competing adults.

On Monday, many independent secondary schools found out how many parents had accepted their offers of a place for a 10- or 11-year-old. But, despite the exams and interviews needed to win these places, more and more are being rejected by parents who end up with several offers on the table.

Heads say that it is becoming increasingly common for families in London to “spread their bets”. David Goodhew, headteacher at Latymer Upper School, a private school in Hammersmith, told TES that five years ago, parents were applying for approximately three schools, but that this has since tripled.

“It makes it hard to organise offers. If you get it wrong you could get a bulge year or get too few financially,” he said.

The rising number of applications, combined with more affluent parents accepting offers that they will not take, is also causing problems for other families who are left waiting.

Mr Goodhew said he was concerned by “the anxiety and heartache” that parents and children put themselves through with multiple exams and applications. “Parents are at their wits’ end. It is the impact on kids and the nerves of parents that is worrying,” he said.

This anxiety seems to have been heightened by some parents holding on to places for longer to give themselves more time to decide which school is better for their child, or to see if their preferred school makes an offer.

“People are leaving it until the last minute to think about it and, in some cases, to ‘show off’ that they have got five offers,” Mr Goodhew added. “There is some trophy hunting going on.

“We have had reports of ‘altercations’ in some playgrounds between parents, with one parent accusing the other of holding on to offers that they have no intention of accepting, thereby preventing others from taking up a waiting list place,” he added.

Currently there is nothing in the code of practice – agreed by five independent school associations – to prevent parents accepting more than one place. Instead, more schools have put non-refundable deposits in place to try to halt the practice, but this has not stopped affluent parents from hedging their bets.

Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council, told TES that the best way to control the upward trend of parents holding on to places is for “prep school heads to have a good and trusting relationship with both their pupils’ parents and with senior schools” in order to help guide parents and senior schools accordingly.

He said: “Multiple deposits are not a new phenomenon but they have become more common. Sometimes this reflects understandable uncertainty about which school will be the best one for your child.”

Catchments have narrowed

Neil Roskilly, chief executive of the Independent Schools Association, believes that the situation may have become “more acute” this year as “state school catchments have narrowed and parents are often just looking for a good school” regardless of whether it is state or private. He added that it may have become “more frenzied” because of rising affluence, a growing economy in the South, and “a growth in the population cohort” entering formal education.

The trend of accepting up to three offers is not only occurring at senior schools, according to education consultants. Rajni Jayasekera, who advises parents in St John’s Wood and Hampstead, said that it had become “quite a big problem” at prep schools. “Some parents will go as far as to pay multiple deposits just to have enough options to choose from,” she said.

The founder of mumsinthewood.com added: “Some schools are starting to cotton on to this and have begun including terms and conditions to the effect that parents who pay a deposit when accepting a place become liable to also pay the first term fees, even if the place is then not taken up at a later date.”

It has been suggested that schools should come up with rules together to discourage the practice. But according to Mr Roskilly, there’s “no appetite” for this idea among schools.

TES understands that a coordinated system similar to Ucas has been suggested before but some headteachers are sceptical. “People are wary about being seen to collaborate on something that is financially sensitive,” Mr Goodhew said. “Even if it was like Ucas, it would still be five offers. And not all schools have common entrance exams: it would be hard to persuade them to do that.”


Entrance tests could increase to ‘whittle down’ applicants

As the number of applications to private schools in London grows, more tests could be introduced.

This year the Latymer Upper School had approximately 10 applications for each place at 11+. The number of applications over the past five years has risen by 71 per cent, from approximately 700 for 1,200.

If the applications rise by another 100 in the next few years, the school will have to change its admissions process, the headteacher David Goodher told TES. “We are at the upper limit of what we can accommodate,” he said.

“We may have to introduce pre-screening tests to whittle down the numbers.”

But the headteacher is concerned that these tests could give an unfair advantage to overly keen parents. “The fear is that if you bring in pre-screening tests then you may not have a level playing field.

“These tests claim to be tutor-proofed but experience of it may help. I have heard of parents applying to grammar schools they are not eligible for so that they can practise these tests.

“It may disadvantage those who have not had the practice.”

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