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.