8 min read

Primary school poker

Some news stories are perennials. Whether it’s the heartwarming story about the first baby born in a New Year, tales of Bank Holiday traffic gridlock, or pictures of bikini-clad beach bodies sunning themselves on the first hot day of the year. And so it is, that at this time of year, headlines about parents not getting their child into the primary school two minutes round the corner are sure to appear.

A child playing with a jar and pens, with numbers in the background.

Securing a place

Any parent whose child has reached school age will be familiar with the angst of securing a place, especially if you live in a highly-populated area where shortages are commonplace. For single form entry schools, where siblings get a priority, the number of places on offer can come down to just a handful.

I remember when I was waiting to hear if my firstborn had secured a place at our local primary school, I’d walk to the school nursery with him every day, looking at the ‘For Sale’ signs in houses closer than ours, dreading they’d sell to a family with children his age. The prospect of failing to get your desired place can induce a kind of madness!

And it looks like future parents are going to find it even tougher. On Tuesday 23 April, 2013, the London Evening Standard’s splash screamed “118,000 Pupils Without a Place by 2016”. The article pointed to an ‘unprecedented crisis’ in London, as the shortfall of places is predicted to reach chronic levels thanks to a baby boom – combined with the recession – and the consequent reduction in outward movement from the city by young families.

“118,000 Pupils Without a Place by 2016.”

School expansion

While London is invariably seen as a microcosm unto itself, school expansions to accommodate more children, with families appealing over places, discussions about the possibility of going private are repeated in households up and down the country.

The expansion process is rife with difficulties as I’ve witnessed firsthand when my kids’ primary school expanded from two to three-form entry. While the local council and headteacher supported the move, there was a vocal band of parents who were vehemently against it. It was a divisive and unsettling time for parents, both within the school and those hoping to get in. We’re half way through the process and the new facilities are fantastic – on which I think pretty much everyone agrees, no matter which side they were on initially. But expansion is disruptive and a new, larger school has a different atmosphere for better or worse.

Maybe bigger primary schools will become more the norm.

Rising birth rates

Nationally, birth rates are rising: from a recent low in 2001 to 2011, the number of births has risen 22% to reach 723,913 according to the Office of National Statistics. This is the highest number of live births since the boom in 1972 when there were 725,440.

This has a significant impact on education, not least at a time when the school system is changing so considerably and public finances are so restricted. Local government planning departments use these figures, combined with local data, to determine how many places are required. In some areas though, space is tight, which may limit expansion possibilities. Building new schools is expensive and academies are under no obligation to expand – as they are out of local authority control. This will work its way through the primary sector and ultimately into the secondary.

Appeals against state primary school allocation increased 11% in 2011, to almost 47,000 for the 2010-2011 year. Even though more parents are challenging schools over their decisions – especially at the primary stage according to these figures from the Department for Education – there is a physical limitation that can’t be overcome. The pledge of a limit of 30 children per class is already being stretched in some instances.

And then, for those with the money and inclination, private schools are an option to escape this state-place panic. But the financial burden of this choice should not be underestimated, and parents opting for this type of education need to plan financially. Fees have risen 68% in the past 10 years according to the Independent Schools Commission. For a private day pupil you can be paying in the region of £3,400 per term (for borders it’s £7,800) so families need to think very carefully about this type of education and whether the family finances are robust enough to support it through 12 or more years of schooling.

Written by Jane Bainbridge

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