Free schools “oversubscribed” – again

Janet Downs's picture
It’s obviously going to be an annual ritual – an announcement by the DfE that free schools are massively oversubscribed.

“Up to 10 children are competing for each place at the Coalition’s flagship free schools amid intense competition for the most sought-after institutions, according to research,” trumpeted the Telegraph.

Its headline was, however, rather misleading: the “up to 10” fell to “2.97 applications per place” further down the page.

But surely nearly three applications per place is a sign of popularity, isn’t it? Not necessarily, because we don’t know how many of these applications were first choice. A parental preference ranked third is not a huge vote of confidence – it means the parent would accept a place only if the schools placed first and second were full.

We had the same story last year. The Independent revealed that 1,078 parents applied for the 120 places at West London Free School. But The Independent disclosed that only 250 of these applications were first choice. In Hammersmith and Fulham, where WLFS is situated, parents are allowed up to six choices. So the 828 parents who didn’t put WLFS down as number one could have placed the school anywhere between numbers two and six.

One of the schools which was said to be oversubscribed last year was former independent Batley Grammar School, an all-through school. Ofsted wrote:

“The number of pupils increased rapidly when the Free School opened. A significant number of pupils in the primary and secondary phase entered at other than the normal ages of admission. At the points of transition from primary to secondary, and to the sixth form, some pupils join and others leave. “

But Ofsted revealed that 107 of the 700 places were still unfilled.

Another school said to be oversubscribed last year was King’s Science Academy where, we were told, there were 704 applications for 160 places in Year 7. But Ofsted revealed there are only 140 pupils at the Academy spread over two years: Years 7 and 8.

It seems that these “oversubscription” numbers count every mention on the school admission forms completed by parents even if the school is ranked last. This is misleading.

Perhaps the UK Statistics Authority should investigate how these free school "oversubsription" figures are calculated and used.

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