The popularity problem: schools at the extremes

30th October 2015 at 00:00
Too few applications can cause headaches – but so can too many

Tomorrow is the official national deadline day for applications for secondary school places. The travails faced by parents in negotiating a system that appears to offer choice but amounts to no more than the right to state a preference are well known.

But the process also has huge consequences for schools and their teachers. Department for Education data for 2014-15, requested by TES, suggests that some state secondaries are likely to be flooded with more than 1,500 applications. Others may struggle to attract even a tenth of that figure.

Parents can list up to six preferred schools. Yet 24 secondaries in England received fewer applications for September 2014 than the places they had available, even when all preferences were included.

And this spells trouble, according to Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“If you are undersubscribed, you are going to have to make quite difficult curriculum decisions because of funding,” he says. “If the school rolls are falling and budgets are already squeezed, then this will impact staffing numbers as well. It is going to put the schools under great pressure.”

Having spare capacity can also leave a headteacher in a position where they are taking pupils that no other school wants. That can lead to a deteriorating reputation, making it even more difficult to attract pupils and good staff and plunging a secondary into a “sink school” spiral of decline.

The other side of the story

The difficulties caused by having too many applications are less well documented. But popular schools face their own burdens, from vast numbers of appeals to having to organise mobile classrooms and extra open evenings.

Up to 17 children have been competing for each place at the most oversubscribed schools, according to the DfE figures (see graph, below).

Bradford Girls’ Grammar School in West Yorkshire – until recently a fee-charging independent – was the most oversubscribed state secondary in England last year. William Hulme’s Grammar School in Manchester, another independent that has just become state-funded, also makes the top 10.

William Hulme’s received 1,189 applications for 115 places – more than 10 children for each place. It introduced an additional 30 places in 2014 – a policy that is continuing this year.

Principal Peter Mulholland tells TES the school is also planning to meet local demand with a new two-form primary, a bespoke sixth-form centre and refurbished secondary facilities. But the extension works have been a “challenge”, he says, with mobile classrooms being used in the interim.

“We are trying to do all this with minimal disruption to learning,” Mr Mulholland adds. “We have got to make sure we increase and maintain our high standards, enhance our facilities and, while we are growing, ensure that the students have the same opportunities.”

Heads at oversubscribed schools also have to spend a lot of time dealing with a high number of appeals. Mr Lightman describes it as a “very time-consuming” process. “These appeals have to have someone present who is senior and knowledgeable, and that is often the head,” he says. “The process can take days, even weeks, to prepare for.”

Official figures show that 54,600 admission appeals were made by parents in 2014-15, compared with 50,553 the year before – a rise of 8 per cent.

John Walker, a specialist consultant at, says appeals will continue to rise with the growth of academies, because parents are confused about the variety of admission authorities and rules in one area. “All of them can have a very different set of rules and parents can feel at sea,” he says.

Too in demand

Aside from the northern former independent schools, the DfE figures suggest that competition for state secondary places remains most fierce in London. Harris City Academy Crystal Palace in South London was the second most sought-after school last year, with 2,019 applications for 177 places.

West London Free School in Hammersmith received nearly 10 applications for each place, with 1,130 parents putting it down as a preferred school. Hywel Jones, headteacher of the free school, had to run an extra open evening this year to cater for just under 2,000 visitors – 600 more than last year.

Demographics mean that pressure for the most popular secondary schools will only increase, according to experts. Peter John, London Councils’ executive member for children, skills and employment, tells TES that London will need another 34,000 places to keep up with current projections.

But despite all the difficulties that schools face with expansion, the issue of oversubscription remains, Mr Mulholland admits, a “nice problem” to have.

Schools with the highest number of children competing for each place*

1. Bradford Girls’ Grammar School – 17 applications for each place

2. Harris City Academy Crystal Palace, South London – 11 applications

3. Seven Kings School, Ilford, East London - 11 applications

4. Hockerill Anglo-European College, Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire – 11 applications (without boarding)

5. Herschel Grammar School, Slough, Berkshire – 10 applications for each place

6. William Hulme’s Grammar School, Manchester – 10 applications for each place

7. Dixons City Academy, Bradford – 10 applications

8. West London Free School, Hammersmith – 10 applications

9. Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School, Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands – nine applications

10. Sir John Cass Redcoat Church of England School, East London – nine applications

Schools with the lowest number of pupils competing for each place*

1. Lynch Hill Enterprise Academy, Slough, Berkshire – 0.15 applications for each place

2. Churchmead Church of England (VA) School, Slough – 0.64 applications

3. Khalsa Secondary Academy, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire – 0.65 applications

4. University Academy Liverpool – 0.66 applications

5. Brighton Aldridge Community Academy, Brighton – 0.72 applications

6. Risedale Sports and Community College, Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire – 0.77 applications

7. Hamilton Community College, Leicester – 0.88 applications

8. Bloxwich Academy (formerly The Mirus Academy), Walsall, West Midlands – 0.92 applications

9. The Taunton Academy, Somerset – 0.93 applications

10. Milton Keynes Academy, Buckinghamshire – 0.93 applications

* Figures take into account all preferences made by parents. Numbers are rounded

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