Today parents across England find out which primary school will offer their child a place from September. Nationally, the vast majority of parents will be pleased with the news that they receive. In 2016, 88.4 per cent of applicants were offered a place at their first preference school, and 96.3 per cent received an offer from one of their top three preferred schools.[1] This compares with 84.1 per cent and 95.0 per cent respectively for parents of children starting secondary school, meaning that primary school parents are slightly more likely than secondary school parents to obtain access to a preferred school.[2] In addition, given the fall in birth rates in 2013, the number of applications to primary schools may well start to plateau; in contrast, the bulge in pupil numbers which has been experienced by primary schools in recent years will start to hit secondary schools and is likely to place additional strain on secondary school places.

Yet there are areas of the country in which competition for primary school places is relatively high, especially at popular schools. London is particularly affected in this respect. Overall, 83.7 per cent of London applicants were offered a place at their first preference school in 2016, but the figures for some local authorities were considerably lower than this, with Kensington and Chelsea at 68.3 per cent and Hammersmith and Fulham at 71.9 per cent showing the lowest figures. Again, the parents of children entering London secondary schools were more likely to be disappointed, with 68.8 per cent obtaining their first choice school in 2016; this dropped as low as 52.0 per cent in Hammersmith and Fulham and 53.4 per cent in Westminster.[3]

Nevertheless, given the high performing nature of the capital’s schools, the educational penalties of failing to secure a place at a preferred school are likely to be less severe than for some other parts of the country. According to Ofsted’s 2015/16 annual report, at least 90 per cent of children in 26 of London’s 32 local authorities currently attend a good or outstanding primary school.[4] In addition, London out-performs all other English regions in Key Stage 2 tests on both attainment and progress measures.[5]

However, parents take into account more than educational performance when selecting a school for their child, and this is particularly evident at primary level. Analysis of the Millennium Cohort Study has found that only 42.8 per cent of parents involved in the survey referenced educational performance as an important factor in selecting a primary school, compared to 58.8 per cent when applying to secondary school. At the point of applying for a primary school place, several factors were mentioned as being important by more parents than educational reputation: close location of the school to family home, positive impression of the school, or existing attendance of older siblings. Even at secondary level, school performance ranked behind the preferences of the child in terms of the number of times it was referenced by parents as being an important factor, and was not mentioned at all by over four out of ten parents.[6]

These priorities vary by parental background. Parents with higher incomes and higher qualification levels are more likely to value academic performance in selecting a school, at both primary and secondary level.[7] Nevertheless, other work drawing on the MCS has found that the over-representation of disadvantaged pupils in poorly performing schools is due more to having limited access to ‘good’ schools  than it is to a difference in priorities when selecting a school, although parents of higher socio-economic status do display stronger preferences for schools with high academic reputations even after accounting for the choices available.[8]

What is clear is that pupils with certain characteristics are not distributed evenly between different schools, and this is the case when comparisons are made both nationally and locally.[9] This is due to factors relating to both supply (such as school admissions criteria, the location of different types of schools) and to demand (including parental preferences, resources available to navigate the admissions process, financial ability to meet costs associated with attending a good school).[10]

The Education Policy Institute is planning further work in this area over the coming year in order to examine in more detail the relative importance of various factors in causing unrepresentative school intakes. If you would be interested in supporting this work, then please get in touch with Rebecca Johnes (Senior Researcher) at

[1] Department for Education, ‘Secondary and primary school applications and offers: 2016’, June 2016, available at:

[2] Department for Education, ‘Secondary and primary school applications and offers: 2016’, June 2016, available at:

[3] Department for Education, ‘Secondary and primary school applications and offers: 2016’, June 2016, available at:

[4] Ofsted, The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2015/16, December 2016, pp.141-145, available at: City of London is excluded.

[5] Department for Education, ‘National curriculum assessments: key stage 2, 2016 (revised)’, December 2016, available at:

[6] G. Leroux, Choosing to succeed: Do parents pick the right schools?, Social Market Foundation, January 2015, available at:

[7] G. Leroux, Choosing to succeed: Do parents pick the right schools?, Social Market Foundation, January 2015, available at:

[8] S. Burgess, E. Greaves, A. Vignoles, and D. Wilson, ‘What do parents want: school preferences and school choice’, The Economic Journal, 125, September 2014, pp.1262-1289, available at:

[9] J. Andrews and R. Johnes, Faith Schools, Pupil Performance and Social Selection, Education Policy Institute, December 2016, available at; The Challenge, SchoolDash, and the iCoCo Foundation, Understanding School Segregation in England: 2011 to 2016, March 2017, available at:

[10] R. Allen, S. Burgess, and L. McKenna, School performance and parental choice of school: secondary data analysis, Department for Education, January 2014, pp.11-28, available at:; S. Burgess and A. Briggs, ‘School Assignment, School Choice and Social Mobility’, The Centre for Market and Public Organisation, Working Paper No. 06/157, November 2006, available at:; R. Allen and M. Parameshwaran, Caught out, The Sutton Trust, April 2016, available at: