Shrinking catchment areas squeeze out parental choice

26th February 2016 at 00:00
As the secondary population booms, more schools are requiring prospective pupils to live less than 1km away

England’s bulge in pupil numbers means that the catchment areas of an increasing number of state secondaries are becoming smaller than ever before, according to a new analysis seen by TES.

Tuesday is national secondary offer day, when thousands of parents will find out if their children have secured their preferred place. But many are likely to miss out, despite living less than a kilometre away from their chosen secondary. As population growth moves from primary to secondary schools, admissions cut-off distances are shrinking, new figures from the FindASchool website reveal.

The research finds that last year, at least 29 secondaries had cut-off distances of less than 1km. And in the vast majority of these (25), the distance had shrunk since 2014.

At Quarrydale School in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, families had to live within 187m of the school in order to secure a place, according to the website.

Ed Rushton, founder of FindASchool, said that such small distances were more common for primary school admissions but were still “unusual” for secondaries. But he added that he expected the trend to grow unless more schools started adopting lottery admissions systems or gave less priority to siblings or pupils from feeder primaries.

“It’s likely that these distances will end up shrinking in many cases,” Mr Rushton told TES. “But the wider concern is that there is an increasing number of oversubscribed schools now, which means there is an increasing number of people who are not getting the school that they want.”

Oversubscription on the rise

Data from his website shows that a hundred extra secondary schools have become oversubscribed, according to the latest available annual figures – rising from about 1,300 schools in 2014 to 1,400 in 2015. That represents an increase from 43 to 47 per cent of the English state secondary sector.

Last year, almost half of pupils in some parts of the country missed out on their first choice of secondary school. The pressure was most acute in London, where almost a third of children ended up missing out on their first choice.

As the distances become more squeezed, some secondary schools – such as Reach Academy Feltham, West London (see box, “Winning the lottery”, opposite) – and local authorities have amended their admission policies in an effort to prevent the problem from escalating any further.

Impact on ‘life chances’

Rising demand for places can lead to parents resorting to paying higher rents and mortgages for houses near popular schools to ensure that their child gets a place.

Justine Roberts, Mumsnet co-founder, said: “Lots of parents believe that getting into the right secondary will have a big impact on their children’s life chances.

“Many Mumsnet users say that they know of parents who’ve tried to bend admissions rules. The apparent failure to accommodate need in some locations results in a lot of anxiety for families.”

Ed Vainker, principal and co-founder of the Reach Academy, told TES that he had heard anecdotally of parents choosing to move closer to the all-through school to increase the odds of their children getting in.

But now, some children living further away from the school will have the same chance, thanks to the admissions ballot that the school has now introduced.

“We felt that this was the fairest system and would ensure that our pupil population stayed true to the vision that we set out originally,” the headteacher said.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Every parent should have access to a good school place for their child. Despite rising pupil numbers, 95 per cent of parents received an offer at one of their three preferred schools last year.

“The government doubled the funding for school places to £5 billion in the last Parliament, which has helped create half a million new school places. A further £7 billion has already been committed to create even more places over the next six years.

“We are committed to opening 500 new free schools this Parliament – delivering more choice and opportunity than ever before for thousands of parents.”


The headteacher’s view: ‘It costs tens of thousands of pounds’

Since becoming a state-funded academy in 2013, the formerly independent Liverpool College has become the most oversubscribed school in Merseyside. Here, principal Hans van Mourik Broekman reveals the extra pressures that popularity brings.

Our registrar is booking the rooms for admissions appeals, the annual schoolfunded burnt offering on the altar of government guidance.

These rooms have been the setting for 220 appeals in the past three years – more each year and 87 in the last year, each one meticulously prepared, each one a work that takes hours, only a handful of which are ever successful.

Our independent clerk, the fairest of men, insists, quite rightly, that all of the code, the law and the guidance is followed. For example, the kind, professional and trained panel eat their school-funded lunch at a segregated table.

The whole process, including staff and administration expenses can cost an oversubscribed school tens of thousands of pounds, about half of which is typically refunded by a grant from central government.

Raging at this cost, the time, the ineffable inefficiency of it all, is a scream into the outer reaches of the universe.

Apparently, it has to be this way. Appellants may appeal to all schools that did not offer them a place – many appeal to three. Anyone can appeal, just as anyone can complain, at any time, for any reason, with several options for further appeals beyond the first case.

And why not? It is difficult to argue against the pursuit of perfect and absolute justice, but should not someone count the cost of this semi-judicial ziggurat of papers, hearings, clerks and tears?

A longer version of this column will appear in the TES EdBiz supplement on 11 March

Winning the lottery

Reach Academy Feltham opened in 2012 to serve a “high-need” community.

The free school will try to preserve that goal by selecting some children by admissions lottery, rather than just on a distance basis, from September.

The change came after its primary catchment area shrunk by more than three-quarters, to less than quarter of a mile, in three years. The all-through school also has one of the smallest secondary areas, according to the FindASchool analysis (see data, above).

Reach Academy was undersubscribed at secondary level after opening in 2012, but demand increased after Ofsted judged it “outstanding” in 2014. Last year, the school had 491 applications for 60 secondary places. Admissions appeals have also risen – from none in 2012 to 40 last year.

Ed Vainker, principal and co-founder of the school said that “more professional families” were moving into Feltham because of its “excellent transport links into London”.

“We wanted to be as fair as possible and could see the area around the school gentrifying as other parts of the community did not,” he told TES. “We wanted to maintain a location-based criteria and so decided to have a priority admissions area and then a random allocation for all families living within that area.”

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