/ Parenting

Secondary school places – it’s a lottery not a choice

Lots of pencil ends

Children going to secondary school in September received their offers yesterday – and my daughter was one of them. She was one of the lucky ones who got her first ‘choice’, but what of those who are disappointed?

I should imagine that mobile phone companies will see a peak in activity as parents and children phone and text with news of secondary school places.

As soon as I found out I rushed to find my daughter. For us it was good news, but I know that there are many people who will be coping with disappointment today.

Where’s the help and advice?

I chose to get the news via email. This arrived, just after five on Thursday night, when – I should imagine – offices were closed to any anxious parent needing to talk to someone. Mind you there was no helpful number on the email anyway; no link to a website with advice, nor anything on the homepage of the local authority’s site.

And I’m sure there were a lot of people who were left with the ‘what do we do now?’ feeling after finding out that they didn’t get their preferred choice of school.

Media reports are quoting figures of one in five children not getting their top choice, I even saw one newspaper quoting as many as half of children being disappointed in the secondary school ‘lottery’. Other reports spoke of lawyers waiting for new business in the form of desperate parents needing help to appeal a decision.

How much choice do parents really have?

It seems a long way from last year when many of us were overwhelmed with the potential ‘choice’. We were led to believe that we had the choice of state schools, community schools, academies, independent, grammar and private (well, maybe a choice for some). But at the end of the day, is there a real choice for every family?

Also, making a ‘choice’ really brought home the responsibility of having to make a decision for my daughter. And while we went through the process, against all instincts, I had to make sure that I did not pass on any anxiety to her. After all, 10 and 11-year-olds really shouldn’t have to worry about making potentially major life-changing decisions at this age.

For us, we have been offered a place by the local school and are very happy with the decision. However, I know of several people who feel that they weren’t so fortunate and my heart goes out to them and anyone else in the same situation.


Hi Jenny,

I’m really glad to hear that your daughter got into her first choice. It must be really hard for those who don’t.

I agree with you although theoretically the choice exists for everyone, in reality it does not work out that way. Many people are restricted by geography. I grew up in rural Dorset, where I was only in the catchment area for one school. Fortunately for me it was a fantastic school – but it still demonstrates that for many people, unless you can move house to be in a certain catchment area, there often isn’t access to the school that you’d most like to attend.

In some ways I think that the choice isn’t necessarily the important bit – all schools should be of a certain standard and offer children a bright future. I believe more should be done to ensure that failing and mediocre schools are brought up to scratch.

This link might be helpful for anyone thinking about appealing the process – it takes you to the Direct Gov site. http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Parents/Schoolslearninganddevelopment/ChoosingASchool/DG_4016309

Good luck to anyone trying to appeal the decision.


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Private Eye, among others, has reported misdemeanours in some academy trusts. That does not mean Academies are bad per se but just as we’ve seen concerns about universities, some miss the mark, and some no doubt are used for personal gain.

Longshaw Primary is part of a trust that runs 4 schools and is taken to task here:

Duncan, with your references to “Longshaw Primary”, are you talking from your experience as a parent – or are you “speaking in tongues” again?

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Duncan, sorry if though thought that was derogatory, but please please please if you quote other folks text could you consider making it clear where your text ends and the quoted text begins? Could also name your sources, unless they have asked to remain anonymous?

I think all I’m saying is that the other regulars here would make such distinctions clear, so it would be nice if you could do the same 🙂

Yes, Duncan; it’s incredibly confusing when you don’t use the proper conventions for indicating when you’re quoting.

Many people do find it difficult to put their thoughts into print We have to read between the lines sometimes and judge the intent. Understanding 🙂

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A friend of mine recently transferred from being deputy head of one secondary academy to being head of another. Both schools’ performance has been transformed for the better since leaving local authority control, not just in educational standards but in personal development and social conduct of the pupils and in engagement by parents.

I appreciate that two academies don’t make a complete picture but if the right structure is in place, the right leadership and the right priorities, the academy policy is not necessarily bad and I don’t believe it should be abandoned on a political whim. There were good and bad schools under local authority control but it seems to me, from the experience in the area of Norfolk that I know about, that transfer to governance by trusts seems, without exception, to lift up poorly performing council-controlled secondary schools.

I have never felt comfortable that primary schools [for children under 11] should be called academies, which is a pretentious and meaningless title at that stage, but again, from those schools that i know about, the improvement after leaving local authority control has generally been remarkable, although one school’s Ofsted report went backwards. I think each school needs to be judged individually before any changes in governance are ordained. I would question whether the local education authorities are now up to the task of taking back a large number of schools that have left the state system without causing serious disruption to the pupils’ education.

This topic could run to thousands of comments. What is more worrying is that there are no solutions to a vexatious problem which has dogged state education provision in the UK since the late ’50s.

It’s nothing new. In the ’50s the choice was about which Grammar school to choose, if you even passed the 11+ (most didn’t). Now, it’s simply which Secondary school your child is likely to get less bullied at / be able to walk home from / rates best on the supermarket telegraphy / has friends going to. The real question we ought to be asking is why?

Why are schools still teaching a syllabus determined largely by Tory ideology and derived from public schools?
Why are schools so varying in quality?
Why does a child spend less time in lessons than at registration / assembly / break / lunch / moving from room to room / travelling / sitting in subbed lessons?
Why are up to 25% of all lessons in Secondary schools spoiled by disruptive pupils?
Why can some staff not put together correct English sentences?
Why are pupils still being forced into School uniforms?
Why is Arts provision so patchy across the UK?

Moving to a new Secondary school can be traumatic; not as bad as it used to be, in the days when you were often the only child in the new school from your old primary but still a potentially worrying time for parents. But parents should remember that children are resilient, and often do well despite their parents and their school. But we could do better – and we should.

The secondary can be considered an outmoded institution. More importantly, it can also be considered irrelevant providing there are good parents who are determined to put their children’s interests first. And remember: the law states all children between the ages of 4 and 18 must receive an education. Nowhere does it state that education must be at a school.

Well said Ian.

Here in Gloucestershire things are a bit old fashioned – there are still 7 Grammar Schools and entrance exams for them.

Also, well ‘orf families of my acquaintance (including some where both parents are professional Engineers) do send their kids to private schools.

But for many, not least those too poor to run their own “Chelsea tractor”, the choice of secondary school will be determined by location and access to school buses.

If some Academy schools are failing, I don’t think that proves the Academy system is broken as a whole.

PS – having Engineers for parents may have encouraged at least one young person to study arts 🙂