Interpreting the numbers of school admissions – is the first preference offers rate too high?

Figures were released yesterday showing how many families received an offer from their first preference school. The headline number was 84% for secondary schools: that is, 84% of families were offered a place in the school that they put top of their application form. The coverage yesterday mostly focussed on the overall supply of school places. Maybe there is also a sense that “only” 84% got their first choice.

Acknowledging the disappointment or worse that individual families will feel at missing out, how should interpret that 84%? It’s obviously affected by two things, both the choices made, and the number of places available. ‘Demand and supply’ if you like – and that’s not inappropriate here as the school admissions algorithm is what acts as the market clearer.

Imagine a country a bit like England, but much simpler, more abstract. And also imagine that all that families care about in schools is their academic quality. In that country, as in England, 79% of schools are rated as Outstanding (26%) or Good (53%). If all schools are about the same size, then 79% of school places are in Outstanding or Good schools. Suppose that everyone can access at least one Outstanding or Good school, and that there everyone applies to one of those schools. If schools and people are spread around the country in a reasonably even and regular way, then 79% of them will get in and the remainder will be offered places in schools less than Good.

In that situation, 84% getting their first choice seems ok.

But what if everyone was a bit more ambitious in their choice, and everyone put an Outstanding school as their top choice? Why not?

Only 26% would get their first choice. Suddenly, in this abstract, regular country, 84% seems to suggest a lot of unambitious choices, ones that are likely to succeed rather than a ‘true’ first choice.

Of course, our country is not simple and regular like that. There is geographical clustering of Outstanding schools, so some families will face a much higher chance of getting into an Outstanding school. In other places, there may be no Outstanding schools, so even families looking for the very best school academically can only out a Good school top, and they too have a pretty high chance of getting that. So taking that into account, even “everyone chooses an Outstanding school” would result in more than 26% getting their first preference, but not as high as 84%.

So I think we can say that the 84% might be too high for comfort. Maybe it reflects a school admissions system that favours those who can buy access to the best schools through their home’s location. The key role of proximity in resolving who gets into the popular schools keeps many of the Outstanding schools out of the choice set of poorer families. We need to change this, as I discussed here.