Increased choice of school places - it's a myth. (But you probably knew that anyway).

(49 Posts)
icecreamsoup Sun 27-Apr-14 19:11:27

(Following up on another thread here and many more threads on the same subject .....)

There has been a lot of news coverage recently about shortages of school places, due to rising populations. We all know that's leading to increased competition for admissions, but I reckon it's not just about increasing population - there's something else going on too, and we'd be noticing increased competition even if the population was static.

That's because, since at least 1996, the Government has been trying to reduce surplus school places.

Surplus school places are a waste of public money, so it makes sense to decrease surpluses. The trouble is that recent Governments have also claimed to be increasing "Choice" at the same time. Basic common sense says to me that increased Choice is impossible if surpluses are being decreased. It would be lovely if we could all choose between our nearest local school, and at least one other attractive school that was further away, but for everyone to have that choice Local Authorities would need to significantly increase surpluses. Otherwise, for each family who chooses a place that isn't their nearest local school, another is potentially denied a choice that is their nearest local school.

The reductions in surpluses are being audited closely, and current national targets for surplus school places are in the 5% - 10% range (see Q62 here), which is meant to facilitate some choice. However, the social consequences of the policy aren't being audited as far as I know.

Where I live the target surplus is actually 0%, because its an affluent borough which strategically relies on people who don't get a high state preference going private instead. That means that each year many families have an anxious wait for other families to reject their state offer for a private one. A lucky few do have a choice of more than one state school. The vast majority don't; they get their nearest school, and an increasing number don't even get that - they are simply allocated the unwanted places of those that did have a choice.

A few days ago there was a news item about how private schools in London are booming, despite the recession, and despite increasing quality in the state sector. I think they are simply thriving on the back of the increased competition for state places.

So, is growth of the private sector being driven by Government policy to reduce surpluses? Is that a good thing because more people using private schools saves more money for the State? Or is it a bad thing, because increasing privatisation undermines the State school system?

Whenever I hear a politican advocating "increased choice", I add the words "... for some people" to the end of the sentence, because in that context the idea doesn't seem quite so attractive!

tiggytape Mon 28-Apr-14 10:32:21

Logically you are right.
There can only be true choice in the system if we accept less popular schools being left half empty.
At the moment there are schools which very few parents list as one of their preferences. Sometimes this is based on outdated reputations but sometimes there are good reasons for wanting to avoid those particular schools.

However in most cities the number of school places barely matches the number of children needing a place so people get allocated schools they don't want else 100's of children would have no place whilst 100's of school places would stand empty.

Add to that the flip side. There was a Bristol School this year with 4000 applicants for 40 places. In less extreme forms, this is replicated in every town. You could double or triple the number of places at some very popular schools and still never meet the demand. When every parent in a town wants 1 school and rejects the other 4, it just isn't possible to grant them all what they want.

icecreamsoup Mon 28-Apr-14 10:43:17

"There can only be true choice in the system if we accept less popular schools being left half empty. "

Yes, that is part of the tacit rationale to my LA's target surplus of 0%. If they sanctioned a surplus of 5%, it would always be concentrated in one or two unpopular schools, which would suffer further as a result.

The problem is, like many LAs they are also claiming to be supporting and increasing choice at the same time. They're not.

DeWee Mon 28-Apr-14 11:57:36

One of the problems with saying parents have a "choice" is that some parents hear it as "I can choose any school, anywhere, and I have a right to that".

Unfortunately, that isn't really possible even without the extreme example of 4000 applicants for 40 places-our local infants frquently has 90 first choice applicants for 60 places. There is not space for extra classrooms, and 45 in the classrooms would be unworkable.

But when parents hear "choice" and put down as their 3 options schools all over 5 miles away, all of whom are oversubscribed to a point of accepting children from less than a mile-and then start shouting "unfair" and "I didn't have a choice"-yes they did have a choice, but not a free choice of all schools in the country.
The local paper has a story this week of a dad who hasn't got his first choice junior school and he doesn't know how he'll manage because he's at a school 3 miles away... However in the article it states his first choice is linked infant school given priority, and very unusual to get in from where he is, even at the infant level. He has got his second choice, and the school hasn't moved since he applied. And there is a school much closer than either, which he would get into as he is very close to.

I was wondering though now most applications can be done online, whether they could add an app that assesses the schools you put down. If on the basis of the last year (or 2-3) you would have got none of your choices it would flag it up.
So it would say eg. "Warning: Using the applications from 2014 and 2013 you would get a space at none of these schools. Do you wish to reconsider your application?"
And perhaps list local schools that would have given a space. That way people could be prepared more, plus would be able to look at the schools where there may be spaces and possibly end up with a choice of school, although not necessarily the first choice.

icecreamsoup Mon 28-Apr-14 12:13:32

"I was wondering ... whether they could add an app ..."

Sounds like a good idea DeWee. Anyone willing to develop one might even get funding for it via this scheme.

icecreamsoup Mon 28-Apr-14 12:18:31

In fact it looks like someone has already thought of it - see the info on "illustreets for Education".

TheDoctrineOfSnatch Mon 28-Apr-14 18:57:25

The issue with it being an officially linked app is that people might try and use it as the basis of an appeal "the app promised me!"

I always try and use "preference" not "choice" when posting on this subject.

PiqueABoo Tue 29-Apr-14 09:09:16

I can point to several schools that were closed in a couple of towns around here 6-7 years ago precisely because of that surplus issue. Some are now being reopened again as free-schools.

There is no choice here unless you move to a more expensive area or prefer a struggling school. Ultimately everyone seems to prefer a very small number of schools that are perceived as the very best so "choice" wouldn't work even if it were genuine.

prh47bridge Tue 29-Apr-14 10:17:21

Choice only works if there is a surplus of places and/or popular schools are able to expand to meet demand. As things stand many popular schools are happy to sit back with a huge waiting list showing how successful they are. And there are, of course, many people (some of whom have posted on Mumsnet) who are dead set against allowing new schools unless there is a shortage of places in the area, even if all the existing schools are failing.

TalkinPeace Tue 29-Apr-14 10:36:32

My local secondary school has 400 empty places. grin

DH worked in the Welsh Valleys where every tiny hamlet had its own primary school of around 15 to 30 pupils, but talk of getting them to merge or even federate caused uproar

On the other hand, a primary school north of here dropped to 15 pupils (potential of 110) about six years ago and now due to house sales in the area is fit to bursting.

MumTryingHerBest Tue 29-Apr-14 10:51:33

The area I live in there is a projected short fall of secondary school places for the 2014-2015 allocations. It's looking like there won't be any choice for a number of children in the local area regardless of preference.

Whilst an app. could, for some, be useful in making realistic choices, it is not going to help in the areas where there are simply not enough school places. I wonder how many parents would end up selecting schools many miles from where they live due to the app. prompt, only to find that their nearest school adds a bulge class. Consequently they miss out on one of the bulge class places as they didn't know this would be an option at the time of application - they simply selected other schools on the basis of the information they were given at the time of application. I would imagine this would lead to a fair number of appeals as they could claim the information they were given was misleading.

TalkinPeace Tue 29-Apr-14 11:38:00

Round here the App would just tell us what we all already know.
There are two schools that have lots of spaces.
Both are sponsored academies of an evangelical nature.
All the other schools are full.

icecreamsoup Tue 29-Apr-14 11:38:47

Good point about the bulge class uncertainties mumdoingherbest.

As a basic high level principle, it seems to me that everyone should have a right to be allocated their nearest school, and anything over and above that should be considered a privelege that can only be accommodated once everyone else's rights have been met.

Of course the reality would be more complicated than that, because schools and populations aren't evenly distributed, but it's a starting point. If the system was being designed cleanly from scratch, and all of the schools were community schools, it would be the obvious place to begin.

The LEA round my way spent years insisting that there was a surplus in my town, and so refused to allow successful schools to expand. Only to realise two or three years ago that there is actually a shortfall... They had to expand two primaries at first, now have moved on to another two.

Parental choice was always a lie anyway, but you are right that the drive to abolish theoretical surpluses counteracts any supposed element of choice.

TalkinPeace Tue 29-Apr-14 11:53:03

icecream
In Southampton, where I live, we have two Catholic schools, one of which has removed its religious admission criteria. Apart from them every state school is comprehensive so the catchments flex as the demographics change.
The huge problem brewing is that there is no secondary school in the City Centre (it was sold for housing 20 years ago) and now there are thousands of kids living in the centre ....
The LEA could easily fill a 200 per year Comp but is not allowed to build one.

All of the schools around the edge of Southampton are also comps so the admissions system is much simpler than in places like London.

tiggytape Tue 29-Apr-14 11:57:15

Nearest school allocations would be impossible in many regions.

A school with an intake of 60 might be the closest school for literally hundreds of children in densely populated areas yet have no room to expand. This could become the case almost overnight when new housing is built all on one site creating hundreds of homes closest to 1 school.

If it was a 'right' not just a priority to get the most local school, some existing schools would have to take extra pupils despite having no room to expand.
This may mean tearing up the class size laws and accepting 40+ children per class in reception or having a staggered school day with half the school attending 8am-1pm and the other half attending 2pm-6pm. This has been considered already in some places.

If it was just a priority but not an absolute right, the same would happen as happens now. 100 children live closer to school A than any other. Only 60 get a place.
The remianing 40 are way down the list for school B because school B prioritises children for whom it is their closest school

TalkinPeace Tue 29-Apr-14 12:00:59

Then houses should not be allowed to be built without infrastructure provision :
developers should be forced to cough up s106 money to BUILD the school that the people who buy their houses will need.
Basics of the planning system.
When councils built estates they had to build schools.
Same should apply to developers.

But under p-p-pickles, they are allowed to release the s106 money AFTER they have completed the development - which may be ten years after the first people move in.

uiler123 Tue 29-Apr-14 12:04:20

The admissions system may be simpler in the Southampton area but nonetheless there are quite a number of parents who don't understand it.
It's not true that everybody knows that the desirable schools in Romsey/CF etc are full. I know of several parents in Shirley and Eastleigh (Southampton side) who listed Thornden as 1st choice and Kings as 2nd, and were surprised not to get in either and to be very low on the waiting lists.

TalkinPeace Tue 29-Apr-14 12:06:10

uiler
but I bet they put Upper Shirley or Toynbee third (we only get three choices) and so got a place at a reasonable school.

I believe it is the case that the government has banned councils from opening new schools - the only option is free schools.

tiggytape Tue 29-Apr-14 12:12:03

The pressure to build houses is equally strong.
There are local targets to be met and councils are under a lot of pressure to consent to all schemes.
At the same time they have no power to direct more schools to be built. LAs cannot choose to open new schools, only expand existing ones which isn't always possible and is often very unpopular.

Whilst local people often object to housing, they generally don't get much say over the matter. But with schools, they fight even harder and seem more able to block things or at least delay them.
They complain about the traffic of being on a school run route. They complain about noise and litter and parking and pollution and say the choice of site is all wrong....

When it comes to expanding schools, the parents of current pupils may fight it. People already at school want to preserve their friendly little classes with lots of outdoor space. People with no school for their child want the local schools to be forced to take 120+ in every year group.

In the big scheme of things, people worried about school places are in a minority. And even the ones campaigning madly this year cease to campaign quite so much about it as soon as their own children have places so there is no continual pressure for this.

uiler123 Tue 29-Apr-14 12:19:40

Nope, they put Romsey/MB third and got nothing they wanted. The Eastleigh parents could probably still get Toynbee (I think?) but they don't consider this a reasonable choice.

I also know one mother living in CF just out of catchment who was surprised her child didn't get Thornden as he is "so bright", so much brighter than the kids in his primary who got into Thornden... it seemed to have passed her by that Thornden has a comprehensive admissions policy.

icecreamsoup Tue 29-Apr-14 12:29:03

edam said " I believe it is the case that the government has banned councils from opening new schools - the only option is free schools."

Yes, although LAs can actively coordinate free school proposals, and have a minority stake in the Trust, as they're doing in North Kingston. There's no excuse for sitting back and doing nothing.

TalkinPeace Tue 29-Apr-14 12:30:20

TBH that is really silly of them.
The rules are clearly stated on all of the info packs.
We have catchments here.
If you put your catchment school on your form you WILL get a place.
I put my catchment school when I went through the process, even though I'd have Home Ed rather than sent them there.

icecreamsoup Tue 29-Apr-14 15:47:56

Tiggy, you're right about the transient nature of school place politics, but I think the pressure is building as those surpluses decrease. People who are worrying about Reception places now, will be casting anxious eyes ahead towards secondary transfer, and starting to realise that forward planning is going to be needed to accomodate everyone. They have time to lobby for that.

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