How reliable are the school oversubscription numbers if they include applications from parents who ranked the school lower than first place?

Janet Downs's picture
Nineteen of the twenty-four free schools have received more applications for places in September 2012 than are available, according to figures in the Independent. “On average, primary Free Schools attracted more than twice as many applications for the number of places available. The secondary, or all-through, Free Schools, on average received well over three times as many applications for the places available.”

Lord Hill says these figures prove how popular free schools are. However, it’s unclear whether the free schools attracted more interest than non-free schools when figures for the latter are not published alongside. And how accurate are these oversubscription figures if they include every mention of a school regardless of its position in parental ranking? Is it really a sign of popularity if a school is ranked third?

But these figures are being used to show the popularity of free schools over other types of school. However, it can’t be the case that only nineteen of the 20,000 or so state schools in England attracted more than twice as many applications for the number of available places. For example, in Hammersmith and Fulham 7 out of 8 local secondary schools are also oversubscribed – it’s not just the West London Free School (WLFS).

The Independent reveals that 1,078 parents applied for the 120 places at WLFS. This is a truly impressive figure which has already been well-publicised and much-quoted. However, the Independent also disclosed that “More than 250 parents put the school down as their first choice.”

If the Independent’s figures are correct, then 728 of the parents put WLFS somewhere between second and sixth choice (H+F allows parents to rank six schools in order of preference). Three-quarters of the parents who named WLFS, therefore, did not put the school as their first choice. This puts the 1,078 figure into perspective.

That’s not to say that having twice as many first-choice applications isn’t encouraging. However, it is the 1,070+ figure that has been widely broadcast and used to show that WLFS was “deluged” with applications – nine pupils applying for every place. But according to the Independent this flood of applications comprised only about 250 who named the school as top choice – that’s just over two pupils for every place.

When Government ministers, heads and chairs of governing bodies use oversubscription figures as evidence of the popularity of particular schools then readers should be wary. If these figures include every mention of the school regardless of the school’s preferential position then perception of a school’s popularity can be skewed making it appear more popular than it actually is. The only true figure of popularity can be the number of parents choosing a school as first choice.

It’s worth remembering that a majority of parents received offers for their first choice secondary school in March 2012. Government statistics found, “Outside London, nearly 88.5 per cent of parents were offered a place at their first preference school… For Greater London, this figure is 67.5 per cent.” The data showed that “A further 7.8 per cent of families were offered a place at their second preference school and 95.9 per cent were offered a place at one of their three preferred schools. In total, 97.6 per cent of families were offered a place at one of their preferred schools.”

Perhaps it’s time to take oversubscription figures with a pinch of salt if they are used primarily to “prove” popularity of popular types of school, or one individual school. The real usefulness of accurate oversubscription figures is to establish whether there is a need for extra school places in an area. They have been debased for propaganda purposes.

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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 10:19

While there is a lot in what you say here Janet, I think it is over-stating it to say only first choices matter.

I know that some parents use their first choices to apply to some ideal school that they know they have about as much chance of getting their child into as they have of winning the lottery. Their thinking is - just as you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a ticket, you won't get your kid into X unless you apply. Sure it's unlikely, but you have to maximize the opportunities to strike lucky.

Given that these first choices are pretty capricious, the serious thought and agonizing goes into choices 2 and 3.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 10:28

This is an excellent point Janet. These numbers should not be used to illustrate popularity when there is nothing against which to benchmark them.

For example there is a town in my area with five secondary schools. Parents are allowed to preference up to five schools. The majority name all five schools. Which means that the least popular school in the town with reducing numbers and poor results will appear to be massively oversubscribed on the basis of all preferences. Sure some parents who actively don't want that school don't name it all all - but not that many.

This is yet another example of how the government is prepared to mislead the public in order to promote its policies.

I'd like to see a proper analysis of preferences to see whether there is any statistically significant difference between the number of parents preferencing free schools and academies and those preferencing other maintained schools (where they are still available, which is still around half of all secondary schools and about 96% of all primary schools, although you could be forgiven for thinking they no longer existed at all by looking at the DfE website).

Guest's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 11:19


That's very interesting, however as I am sure Janet would say it meaningless without the link to show your evidence. Could you provide this please. Name of town, schools and how many applications each received should illustrate your point.
I know this is the standard expected by Janet.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 13:27

Given the content of this post it's unlikely Sarah has those figures Guest. She doesn't need them to make her point. If you have any reason to believe any of the things she says are likely to be untrue you should say which and why.

Guest's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 13:45


If what sara said is true she will be able to prove it. If she made it up to support her point then she will be unable to. It's that simple with evidence.
My own feeling is that it will be clear to see the ranking of the 5 schools in a town by the raw oversubscribed figures. Sara will no doubt clarify.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 15:04

I totally agree that assertions should be backed up with comprehensive evidence. Which is why it is meaningless for the government to publish information about a free school in an area without publishing the benchmark data for other schools to demonstrate whether the level of preferencing for the free school is significantly different - they are attempting to argue that those schools are very popular to prop up their policy choices but are only telling part of the story. The onus is on the government to do this and if you are interested in that evidence I suggest that you submit a request to the admissions team in the area of these particular free schools and ask for the full preferencing data so that we can all do the maths. I might actually do that myself.

I think it would be quite improper to name in a public forum the schools in my area from which my example was drawn although the information would be readily available to any parent on request - it isn't routinely published and the data that goes to the Schools Forum and council members is generally based on percentages of preferences satisfied rather than the raw data. I'm not troubled about whether you will draw the conclusion Guest that I have 'made it up' to support my point - I simply used it as an example of how you could potentially mislead the public by selectively quoting statistics out of context and that the total number of preferences expressed for a single school says precisely nothing about either its popularity or the quality of the education it offers. You would have to know as a minimum the size of the cohort, all the preferences expressed that year and what the rankings were - and most importantly the local context, where parents make complex choices about which schools to preference and in what order to try to achieve their desired outcome. Sometimes the results can look quite odd unless you understand what parents are trying to achieve/avoid! Parents are generally advised to name as many preferences as they would be prepared to consider to try to ensure that they are not offered a place at a school that they do not want. Hence parents often use most or all of their preferences. Sometimes they don't bother naming a particularly popular school because they know they have no chance of a place - in other cases they preference that popular school anyway. It's a complex matter.

This inevitably means that in areas served by a number of schools even the least popular would appear to be massively popular if you counted all those who had expressed a preference (even if it was a fifth preference) and then quoted that figure in isolation. You don't need to know the names of the schools to understand that principle and I'd prefer not to name them.

You say 'it will be clear to see the ranking of the 5 schools in a town by the raw oversubscribed figures' - you make my point for me. Yes it would - so why didn't the government do that?

Guest's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 15:48


Rather hypocritical standards you seem to happy apply when making a point.
Not sure what you are trying to do here - it seems you want to waste public money working out how popular schools are based on their various rankings etc and then admit it would be a waste of time without knowing the context etc.
Parents are more intelligent and understand the nuances of getting into schools than you seem to think.
Is there really a problem with new schools,regardless of type, stating they were over subscribed?

This site appears to be looking for any stick it can find to attack local schools they deem to be unacceptable. Let local parents decide.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 19:20

I don't want to waste public money (don't get me started on what a waste of money it is opening schools where there is no demographic case of need for them!), I simply expect politicians to be honest and not to seek to mislead the public. If they don't intend to publish all the information about preferencing then they shouldn't refer to it at all. Parents certainly are intelligent - but not necessarily well enough informed to understand why the information they've been fed by this government tells half truths and sometimes outright lies.

Local authorities are required already to publish data about schools which are oversubscribed. And they will do that when a free school has actually been in that position - not before any child has been registered on its roll. This aggressive promotion of free schools at the expense of existing maintained schools is really very sad - what about the 96% of primary schools which are not free schools or academies - where's the mention of how oversubscribed many of those excellent schools are?

Nobody here is attacking local schools - they are attacking a government aiming at destroying and fragmenting an education system for ideological reasons.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 16:21

I think the point about the unreliability of oversubscription figures can be made using a hypothetical situation.

A town has 3 secondary schools each with room for 100 pupils per year. There were 300 pupils needing places for Sept 2012. Each parent is allowed to rank the schools in order of preference. Every parent names each school in order of their preference but not necessarily in the same order. As each school has been named once, it could be interpreted that each school had 3 applications for each place. That tells us nothing about the popularity, or otherwise, of the three schools. We would need to know which school had the most first choice applications in order to judge which school was the most popular.

Much publicity has been made about the oversubscription figures of certain schools including splashing it over the media. The public need to be told if the figures are based on how many times schools were mentioned by parents rather than how many parents named the school as first choice. Calculating the figure on the number of mentions will inevitably be more than the figure calculated using first choice.

It is misleading to trumpet the popularity of a school using the number of mentions because some of the mentions could have put a school as their least favourite choice. That's where the problem lies.

Tim Bidie's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 17:39

I couldn't agree more.

The real scandal is that 74,000 children failed to get a place in their preferred school

'About one in seven pupils in England have not got into their first-choice secondary school, official data shows.

The latest government statistics reveal that 74,000 - or 14.7% - of 11-year-olds failed to get a place in their preferred school.

Overall, 4.1% did not get an offer from any of their top three schools.'

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 17:49

It's a scandal because they've been promised total freedom of choice which is obviously completely undeliverable.

Had they only ever been promised that they woudl be offered a place at a local secondary school (with the option to choose if and only if places are available) and had the system been planned to ensure this was possible there would be no scandal.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 19:28

So some parents did not get their first choice of school. So what? Who said that parents were ever entitled to expect that? As long as they have a place for their child at a good school within reasonable travelling distance with good quality teaching from engaged staff and a committed headteacher do they really need choice? Surely the quality of the offer is what's important, not having choice - since we as tax payers can't afford to offer absolute choice to everyone. In some parts of the country parental satisfaction rates are around 95% - it tends to be lower in urban areas where there are lots more schools and people tend to apply for schools where they may have no realistic prospect of obtaining a place.

If you publish a league table with one school at the top it's highly likely that that school will attract large numbers of applications. There may be several other excellent schools locally but the fact that parents can't all squeeze into the 'best' school means that the system is failing? I don't think so.

Tim Bidie's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 19:06

As arguably the most developed nation in the world, is that really all we aspire to for our children?

Tim Bidie's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 19:37

'So some parents did not get their first choice of school. So what? Who said that parents were ever entitled to expect that?'

That is the best indictment of state diktat educational provision that I have ever come across.

Thank you.

Sarah's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 19:48

Oh dear. It's not an indictment of state diktat - it's simple economic reality. You cannot meet parental preference 100% without having significant levels of surplus in the system and allowing schools to enlarge at will to meet increased demand. It takes time to increase or decrease the size of a school as anyone involved in that process will tell you. It would cost millions to add capacity to the most popular schools to meet 100% of parental preference - is that good value for tax payers money when there are places nearby at other good schools? And what happens when that school is no longer so popular because results have slipped or a popular head has left? You are left with capacity that's expensive to maintain and not always easy to remove. So the system is managed - to ensure that all children can attend a school near their home that will provide them with a decent education. And you put measures in place to support that school if it's struggling and to challenge it to improve. Allowing popular schools to simply expand and expand can mean that they cease to be the sort of school that made them popular in the first place (small, small class sizes), it can mean that they don't have the right facilities to meet the needs of all their children (pressure on sports facilities, dining etc). They can lose the features that made them good - a larger school needs to adapt to a different sort of organisational structure.

What is needed is a school system where schools are relatively stable and where they expand or contract in a careful managed way. Where they don't have to spend thousands of pounds heating and maintaining empty space - or spending millions building facilities that exist just down the round.

Choice cost a huge amount of money - and right now that doesn't seem to be something we have an inexhaustible supply of. I'd simply sooner see it spent on teaching staff and support for a stable school system. Nothing dictatorial about that - it's just common sense.

Tim Bidie's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 20:09

I have seen schools enlarge at will.

I have been educated in portacabins, private houses.

It doesn't take time. It takes energy and enthusiasm.

What takes the most time in setting up a new Free School?

Overcoming bureaucracy and institutional 'dog in the manger' obstructionism!

Enough of a stable, inadequate and dowdy educational system.

Let's applaud the empowerment of the enthusiasts, of which there are many, at its best teaching is a cracking job. Watch them fly!

You'll be astonished at what their enthusiasm will create, and in short order!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 20:18

Tim the 2008 PWC overview report of academies said that a new academy must have the head in role at least 12 months in advance and preferably 18 months ahead. As somebody who has worked in an academy which opened in a reduced timescale please let me assure you that those recommendations were made for very sane, practical reasons, not because of "bureaucracy and institutional ‘dog in the manger’ obstructionism!"

Tim Bidie's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 20:37

Sane practical reasons often expressed bureaucratically:

'my group decided our best bet was to try
and set up an academy. Unfortunately, back in 2009, there was no mechanism in
place whereby groups of parents could engage with the academies set-up process.
Part of the problem is that officials were used to dealing with other officials
– they didn’t have the vocabulary to communicate with civilians like me. A week
before Jonathan Fingerhut’s “pep talk”, I’d had my first meeting at the Department
for Children, Schools and Families. I came out with my head spinning. Apparently,
my group was engaged in an effort to set up a 4FE (4 Form Entry) PPS (Parent
Promoted School), and our fate turned on whether we could convince PfS
(Partnerships for Schools) that the PPP (Pupil Place Planning) of Ealing Council’s
DCS (Director of Children’s Services) had underestimated the expected increase
in demand for secondary school places in the borough over the next ten years. If
we could, BSF (Building Schools for the Future) might fund a “new build”. Or
would the money come from SCS (Schools Capital Stream)?
Oftentimes, I would come out of a meeting with officials feeling like a
spaceman who’d spent the previous two hours trying to dock with a space station
that had only been designed to dock with other space stations. There was simply
no portal through which a group of unpaid volunteers could enter the bureaucratic

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 21:03

I remember when I first met my ex-father-in-law who is a sheep farmer. At first I thought I couldn't understand him because he had quite a broad accent but I quickly realised that it wasn't his accent - it was his vocabulary. Instead of the word 'sheep' he had a different name for each age of each gender of sheep and for female sheep this depended on whether they were in lamb or had had lambs or not. There was a name for every field and every bit of machinery associated with the job. I found it fascinating to listen to him and to get a glimpse of his lifetime's wealth of experience, knowledge and skills.

It made me aware that if I every were to take of the farm with his son it would take us many years to learn the skills we would need.

It didn't make me think that the government should cease the normal activities of the ministry of agriculture in order to set up a department of over 200 people to help me in my fundamental right to instantly become a sheep farmer should I feel I would make a good sheep farmer.

Tim Bidie's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 21:27

Only a complete lunatic, or a sheep, would think they had the right to instantly become a sheep farmer but they might set up a sheep farm and get someone to run it for them.


'Mary had a little lamb,
She ate it with mint sauce,
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb went too, of course.'

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 21:37

But they're unlikely to insist it's a state owned and financed sheep farm and that the state also pay for them to learn how to set it up.

Surely no minister would think that by creating the policy to make this possible that either the country or the sheep would be better off?


Tim Bidie's picture
Fri, 27/04/2012 - 05:59

Er........See article 2(k) of Regulation (EC) No 795/2004 which provides that a new farmer may not have exercised any agricultural activity in his own name and at his own risk or must not have had the control of a legal person exercising an agricultural activity in the 5 years preceeding the start of the new agricultural activity.

5.31. EU legislation (24) allows Member States to allocate reference amounts from the
national reserve to new farmers (25)........ In Scotland several new farmers were given entitlements where the applicant did not meet the criteria of the new farmer scheme (26). In one case farmer A, took over a holding in May 2004 for which the the former farmer B, had been allocated 602 entitlements worth 287 000 euro in 2005. Farmer A successfully applied under the new farmer scheme of the national reserve and received his entitlements worth 111 000 euro for which he was fully paid in 2005.

Farmer B declared 410 of his 602 entitlements with 410 ha of rough grazing land rented more than 300 kilometers away in the Scottish Highlands and on which he kept 85 sheep.

For this new agricultural activity he was paid 182 000 euro in 2005.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 27/04/2012 - 06:41

It's okay Tim - I'm not married to the sheep farmer's son any more so I don't care.

Tim Bidie's picture
Fri, 27/04/2012 - 06:43

Bad luck. Sorry to hear that.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 27/04/2012 - 19:38

S'okay Tim. Learn at lot about life from that experience and moved on to something much better having done so. Kept the ex-parents-in-law as great friends though and my children from both marriages love hanging out on the farm. :-)

The 'couldn't care less bit' about the farming subsidy situation is only for this forum. It is horrible and it does cause huge problems.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 20:57

Schools and colleges can be run from commercial office space and even domestic houses. This is done contemporarily by the private sector which includes the large private market for overseas students. There is no reason in principle why this cannot happen on a wider basis for the state sector. We have quite an advance in modular high quality classrooms which can be used to quickly set up school space. The role of local authorities in being helpful is to zone land and buildings for use and assist with planning applications rather than just being yes/no rubber stamp outfits.

What we don't need is supercharged procurement of bespoke buildings which create massive opportunites for architects and contractors to financially hoodwink the government, lengthy and overstaffed procurement in the public sector administration and unresponsiveness and lack of capacity to respond because the money has all been wasted or sunk in assets.

We also need a teaching profession which starts acting like other professions and seeks to own and manage their business, rather than acting like a working class mafia which wants to cash in 40 years of pension contributions irrespective of performance to the client.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 27/04/2012 - 08:21

Ben - the "supercharged procurement" is over as I made clear in my answer to you on another thread which showed, with evidence, that two academies in Lincolnshire were being built for a fraction of the cost of academies built under Labour.

And Ben, teachers are there to teach not "manage their business" just as medical staff in the NHS are there to deal with patients not paper-work.

If you want your comments to be dealt with seriously it would help if you did not use emotive language such as comparing teachers to "a working class mafia" (why not upper-middle-class financiers? Or expense-cheating MPs?). Such comments really do make you look silly.

And, yes, Ben, as an ex-teacher (retired), I do expect to "cash in" my lot-less-than-40-years of pension contributions which went directly to the Treasury. Or are you suggesting that I should not receive my entitlement if my "performance" did not meet some arbitrary target?

Sarah's picture
Fri, 27/04/2012 - 11:33

Just because a school can run from commercial office space or a house doesn't mean they should be. The key thing is for school accommodation to be fit for purpose - and many school buildings simply aren't - and they can constrain the delivery of the curriculum as a result. Awkward shaped classrooms, poor acoustics, poor ventilation and lighting, cramped space, poor equipment - all of these can hinder teachers. Modular accommodation can be a solution - and it's certainly better than it was but it has its limitations. If it's going in an area with planning constraints such as national parks or listed buildings then it can cost almost as much as traditional build due to addressing the aesthetic appearance (often to satisfy local resident's concerns). Schools need to be in the right place so that parents can access them easily and some sites simply aren't suitable - noise, odour, traffic conditions, dust, inadequate space for outdoor play and sport - these are all factors that need to be taken account of before new schools are built. It's not bureaucracy to plan carefully provision which may need to remain for 100 years or more. Rushing to dump a mass of ugly portakabins on schools sites or do away with some excellent school building guidance built up through decades of experience in planning new schools is not the right way to go about making long term educational provision.

Adding to existing buildings or refurbishing them often means that a bespoke solution is the only one available. Nobody would argue that BSF wasted a lot of money - I think the previous government got it wrong on BSF. Local authorities have delivered new primary schools at far lower cost through good local and regional procurement (a lesson for the James Review!)

The role of local authorities (or some other middle tier body) should be to forecast pupil numbers and plan carefully and strategically across an area in order to commission in good time the new provision that may be needed. In my opinion it should also have a role in challenging schools on underperformance and supporting them.

K Campbell's picture
Thu, 26/04/2012 - 21:02

The 120 cohort figure is quite interesting. I know that some academies have used a low cohort intake, in a densely populated area, to ensure that they are initially oversubscribed.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 27/04/2012 - 09:19

The 120 cohort figure is indeed interesting as quite a lot of secondary free schools seem to intend to have smaller cohorts than this.

In Cumbria we still have quite a few small secondaries (cohort <120) (about 8 now I think) due to the geography of the county. I worked in one and so I know that they are difficult to run for four main reasons:
Firstly the cost per child of education is significantly higher because schools have significant fixed costs.
Secondly it's exceptionally difficult to provide the range of course options students need and that they get at larger secondary.
Thirdly you need teachers who can teach mixed ability as quite a lot of the classes inevitably have wide attainment ranges.
Fourthly you get greater variability in your data because of the smaller data set sizes and the minute you get a duff data set Ofsted turn up and put you into special measures and then all the staff have to try and pretend to the inspectors that their lessons are like lessons in the kind of schools Ofsted inspectors have taught in and know how to asses.

In Cumbria we have a special network for these schools where heads of departments work together in order to nurture, develop, discuss and reflect on the specific challenges we face in teaching students with wide attainment spans in single classes. The heads also network to address the issues they face.

On the plus side the children in small secondary schools are really well known and understood by the staff - who also know each other well - and that is lovely. And of course if mixed ability teaching is done properly it's outstanding. It's just blooming hard to do properly and its hard for the staff in those schools to acquire the skills as they are often very isolated.

Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 27/04/2012 - 18:23

Why doesn't Lord Hill single out the many London maintained primary schools that are so massively oversubscribed that parents can't get a place in any of them?
Oversubscription is not the preserve of the free school but that fact doesn't suit the government's very narrow agenda.
Incidentally when schools get massive national publicity, which is what the first few free schools have attracted, it is not really surprising that they are oversubscribed. And if they have catchment areas of 5 miles, it is quite surprising that on first choices they are only oversubscribed by 2:1. In many areas where catchment areas are much smaller,there is no point parents naming schools they can't possibly hope to get their children into.

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