Warnings of four-year-olds with no school to go to may be an exaggeration, but Britain needs more places even so

In theory, the notion is certainly a good one. In practice, however, details need fine-tuning

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On the first ever “national offer day”, hundreds of thousands of parents will find out today whether their children have places at their preferred primary school. But with up to 80,000 four-year-olds expected to miss out on their families’ first choice, for many the testing business of applications is only just beginning.

In part, the problem simply reflects the steadily rising population. But the scramble for places is also a consequence of greater parental engagement in recent years. Even as an area’s best-regarded schools are receiving a glut of applications, other local institutions, with weaker reputations, are seeing no such rush.

But to note the contribution of a less accepting culture among parents does not diminish the seriousness of the situation. Indeed, as this newspaper reports today, the Children’s Commissioner is warning of a de facto school-starting age of two because youngsters are being enrolled in the nurseries of top-performing primaries in the hope of receiving preferential treatment if – or when – admissions for four-year-olds are over-subscribed. While the Department for Education advises against such practices, the rules are vague enough for them to be widespread, playing to the strengths of the sharp-elbowed and risking the inclusivity of Britain’s primary schools.

The Government had hoped that a single offer day would make the application process less “confusing and stressful”. In theory, the notion is certainly a good one; later decisions from local authorities leave little time for appeals to be launched or acceptable alternatives found. In practice, however, details need fine-tuning. Disrupting holiday plans by fixing on a date in the midst of the Easter break was hardly helpful. Worse, today’s offers (or lack thereof) come so close to the four-day Easter weekend that the unsuccessful will be left waiting for the best part of a week before they can get on with finding a back-up; again, hardly a recipe for less stress.

The good news is that such criticisms are easily remedied, by moving next year’s date forward. Yet the central difficulty remains. And although both central Government and local authorities agree that there will be places for all (just not necessarily at their families’ preferred schools), the situation is far from satisfactory even so. A hasty building programme, tacking on extra classrooms, may help ease the strain in particularly congested areas. But cramming more pupils into institutions designed for fewer is no real solution.

Even if critics’ dire predictions of four-year-olds with no school to go to in September are an exaggeration, bottlenecks in supply still need addressing. It is not enough to hope parental pressure will force under-performing primaries to up their games. In an ideal world, excess demand alone would do the work, and a number of free schools have opened where there is acute shortage. But the system is too unpredictable to be relied upon; areas needing extra places do not necessarily have enough parents willing to back a free school. Meanwhile, although academies are at liberty to expand to fill the gaps, local authorities are not. It is time for the Government to re-think such restrictions. If Britain needs more primary places, it should not matter how they are provided.

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