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School places debate: Should there be more than three application choices for parents in Suffolk?

PUBLISHED: 13:12 02 November 2017

A new study suggests that parents may have incentives under the current system to list schools that are not really their preferred options, to avoid being allocated to a school that simply has spare places. Picture: DAVID DAVIES

A new study suggests that parents may have incentives under the current system to list schools that are not really their preferred options, to avoid being allocated to a school that simply has spare places. Picture: DAVID DAVIES

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More families could get one of their preferred secondary schools if they were able to list more choices when applying for places, research has found. Should it therefore increase in Suffolk?

A study (explained below) suggests parents who can only give a small number of options are more likely to play it “safe” and pick schools they think they have the best chance of gaining a spot at.

Those who are able to list more schools are likely to be more ambitious in their choices.

Under England’s current school admissions system, parents are typically asked to list between three and six secondary schools they would like to attend, in order of preference.

Children are then allocated a school based on available places and admissions criteria, using the order of their parents’ choices.

In Suffolk, parents are given three choices for both primary and secondary school applications. In Essex, this rises to six.

A Suffolk County Council spokesman said: “It is always advised that parents include a second and third choice. There are no plans at present to change from three choices.”

Last year, the authority received 7,171 applications. More than 93% of applicants received offers for their first preference school and 98% of applicants received an offer for one of their top three preferred schools.

Nationally, 83.5% of pupils got their first choice, and 94.6% got one of their top three.

Everything you need to know about applying for secondary schools in Suffolk, including deadline and Q&A.

The study, by researchers at the universities of Bristol and Cambridge, looked at data on more than half a million pupils who started at English secondary schools in September 2014.

It suggests that parents may have incentives under the current system to list schools that are not really their preferred options, to avoid being allocated to a school that simply has spare places.

Families that make more choices, on average, receive a place at schools with higher GCSE results, it says.

Comparing those who were offered a place at their first choice school, among those who listed one choice, the percentage of pupils at the school gaining at least five A*-C grades was 62%, while for those who listed six choices it was 68%.

“Those who make more choices are also offered higher performing schools even if they are allocated to one of their lower ranked school choices (for example their second or third choices),” the study says.

“Indeed, the average school performance of second choice schools for those who made six choices is higher than those allocated to their first choice of school where the household made fewer than four choices.”

It notes that parents who make more choices may be those that are more focused on education, or wealthier and live in areas which have high-performing schools, while those who pick fewer options could prioritise education less highly, or be choosing schools where they already have a child studying.

But it adds: “When parents make multiple choices, their first choice tends to be more ambitious.

“Indeed, parents who make more choices tend to end up with an offer from a higher performing school. Equally, people make more cautious choices when constrained to three options. This suggests that they would have benefited from having more choices, which is an important note for policy.

“Local authorities could improve the percentage of households allocated to a preferred school simply by offering the possibility of making more choices on the common application form.

“This would be relatively costless and would easily reduce the need for a strategic or ‘safe’ school choice.”

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