Thousands of parents have not yet found a state primary school for their children for the start of the new school year in September. A survey completed by 59 of the 150 local councils in England revealed that more than 3,600 parents were still on their books as having not yet accepted a state school place. A handful, just over 100, had not even been offered one.
If this picture were reflected across the country it would mean that about 9, 000 parents are facing a dilemma over school places for their children.
Statisticians say a rise in the birth rate has created the need for an extra 256,000 primary school places by 2015. The Department for Education insists that an extra 190,000 places will have been created by this September, and £5bn is earmarked for new school places by 2015. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced in last week's Spending Review that a further 500,000 school places would be created between 2015 and 2021.
Margaret Morrissey, of the parents' pressure group Parents Outloud, said: "I've been involved in education for 20 years and every year it gets slightly worse. What is so soul-destroying and so distressing is that it doesn't seem to matter which party is in control – none of them are interested enough to go on and solve this."
Local authority officials pointed out that many of those still on their books might have abandoned their search and decided to opt for an independent school, or to educate their child at home – an alternative which has grown in popularity with up to 80,000 parents now doing it. Some officials argued that, as they were still keeping places open at schools where parents had refused to send their child, it was wrong to say those children did not have a school place. However, Mrs Morrissey said: "That sounds like Stalinist Russia speaking – there is this school place and you will go to it even though we know you don't want to send your child there."
The figures will fuel the controversy over the shortage of primary school places which re-emerged last week with a highly critical report from the influential Commons Public Accounts Committee. This said that many schools had been forced to abandon library spaces, music rooms and playgrounds to build emergency classrooms. The report criticised the Department for Education under successive regimes and councils for not responding quickly enough to rising birth rates between 2001 and 2011.
Some applications for a school place remain unsettled because local authorities are not convinced they are bona fide, believing the parent may have put down a false address or rented a property near the school to get their child into a school with a good record.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "We are building more free schools, letting the most popular schools expand and intervening to drive up standards in weak primaries which have thousands of empty places simply because parents don't want to send their children there."