Higher proportions of children are gaining places at their first choice of primary school in many areas of England amid a fall in applications, a survey suggests.
But early figures indicate that in some parts of the country, up to one in seven families have missed out on their top pick, rising to a third of pupils in one London borough.
Hundreds of thousands of families across England are finding out what primary school they will be joining this autumn, on what is commonly known as National Offer Day.
Findings from a PA survey of local authorities show that, of the 76 councils that gave comparable data, 57 (75%) have seen a rise in the proportion of pupils getting their first choice compared to last year, 17 (22%) have seen a fall, while two (3%) have stayed the same.
In addition, of 71 councils in England that gave information on application numbers, 63 (89%) have seen a fall in applications this year, while 8 (11%) have seen a rise.
Some local authorities have suggested that disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the falling birth rate and the migration of EU families after Brexit, may have contributed to a fall in demand for places.
Across the capital’s 33 boroughs, 87% of families were given their first choice of primary school this year – a rise on last year when 85% secured their preferred school.
Kensington and Chelsea had the lowest proportion of children getting their top choice at 66.4%, and in Camden 77.8% secured their first preference
But overall, London primary schools received 90,807 applications this year – a 7% fall on last year.
The Pan London Admissions Board has suggested that “turbulence” caused by Covid-19 may have led to families missing the application deadline this year, and it said application numbers may have been affected by longer term impacts of the pandemic, such as families moving out of the city.
It also said the decreasing birth rate across the country – and the localised effect of the UK leaving the EU in some areas – may have had an impact on the number of applications.
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% got their first pick, and Devon with 97.7% – both areas saw a rise on last year.
Meanwhile, in Hartlepool, Durham, 98.5% of families secured their number one choice, while 97.5% were successful in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
In comparison, in Southend in Essex, only 85.4% of children got their first preference, a fall on last year, while in Liverpool, 85.9% got their top choice.
Meanwhile, in Hertfordshire, only 87.3% of children got their first choice of primary school.
Official data shows that, last year, 90.2% of pupils were offered their first choice of primary school – which was down slightly on 90.6% 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.”