Primary school applications fall during coronavirus pandemic

Covid-19 said to have caused ‘turbulence’ in applications process

Kate Ng
Saturday 17 April 2021 00:47
A child maintains social distancing measures while taking part in a lesson at Earlham Primary School in London, England
A child maintains social distancing measures while taking part in a lesson at Earlham Primary School in London, England

Higher proportions of children are gaining places at their first choice of primary school in many areas of England amid a fall in applications during the coronavirus pandemic, figures show.

Findings from a PA survey of local authorities show that, of the 76 councils that gave comparable data, 57 (75 per cent) have seen a rise in the proportion of pupils getting their first choice compared to last year, 17 (22 per cent) have seen a fall, while two (3 per cent) have stayed the same.

Only 13 per cent of children who applied to start at a London primary school this autumn missed out on their top choice, seperate data published by the Pan London Admissions Board revealed.

Primary schools in the capital received 90,907 applications this year, equivalent to a 7 per cent fall on from the previous year.

The admissions organisation suggested that disruption caused by Covid-19 may have meant families missed the application deadline.

But application numbers may have been affected by longer term impact of the pandemic, such as families moving out of the city due to changes in their circumstances and working patterns, it added.

It also said that a declining birth rate and localised effect of the UK leaving the EU in some areas may have impacted the number of applications.

Of 71 councils in England that gave information on application numbers to the PA survey, 63 (89 per cent) have seen a fall in applications this year, while 8 (11 per cent) have seen a rise.

In 2021, 87 per cent of families living across London’s 33 boroughs were given their first choice of primary school, compared to 85 per cent in 2020, the figures show.

But there were significant differences between London boroughs, according to a breakdown of the data, with a third of children missing out in some places.

Kensington and Chelsea had the lowest proportion of children getting their top choice at 66.4 per cent, and in Camden, 77.8 per cent secured their first preference.

Barking and Dagenham had the highest proportion of first preferences at 94.4 per cent, followed by Newham at 93.1 per cent.

Martin Pratt, a spokesperson for the Pan London Admissions Board, said: “This year the admissions process has gone smoothly and nearly 89,000 parents will receive an offer of a preferred school place in the capital - with 79,000 of those being for their first preference school.

“The significant reduction in total applications is due to a range of reasons, including short and long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Boroughs are supporting schools to deal with this challenge and ensure school places continue to be available where there is demand.

“Clearly it is important that councils have the powers and flexibility to meet the needs of our youngest residents. Each London borough has an admissions team and we are ready to help parents if they have any queries.”

England's school system has been under pressure in recent years due to a rise in the school-age population.

This has been fuelled by a spike in the birth rate in the early 2000s which has now made its way through primary schools and is moving into secondary schools.

Among the areas where very high proportions of pupils have achieved their top choice are Northumberland, where 98.4 per cent got their first pick, and Devon with 97.7 per cent - both areas saw a rise on last year.

Meanwhile, in Hartlepool, Durham, 98.5 per cent of families secured their number one choice, wh per centle 97.5 per cent were successful in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

In comparison, in Southend in Essex, only 85.4 per cent of children got their first preference, a fall on last year, while in Liverpo per centl, 85.9 per cent got their top choice.

Meanwhile, in Hertfordshire, only 87.3 per cent of children got their first choice of primary school.

Official data shows that, last year, 90.2 per cent of pupils were offered their first choice of primary school - which was down slightly per centon 90.6 per cent in 2019.

Baroness Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association's (LGA) children and young people's board, said: "Choosing the right school for your child is one of the most important things a parent will do and this time of year can be extremely stressful.

"Everyone wants their child in a school where they can be happy, safe and reach their full potential.

"Over recent years, councils have created hundreds of thousands of extra primary school places. This is a demonstrable record that they are doing everything they can to rise to the challenge of ensuring no child goes without a place.

"Every child should have a fair chance of getting into their parents' preferred school and councils and schools work extremely hard to try and ensure that as many pupils as possible are allocated their first preference."

Last year, the Department for Education (DfE) changed its rules amid the pandemic so that parents unhappy with their school place would not have to make an appeal in person.

The temporary change has been extended until the end of September 2021 due to coronavirus restrictions.

Appeal panel hearings will be able to take place "either in person, by telephone, video conference or through a paper-based appeal".

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the school leaders' union NAHT, said many families applying for places for this autumn will have been unable to visit the school in person due to Covid-19.

He said: "It is vital that no child going through the primary admissions process this year should be disadvantaged. Support must be in place for families to navigate what can be a daunting process."

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