Schoolzone blog: The benefits of being over-subscribed

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15 June 2015

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If you were sending your own children to secondary school this coming September, would you prefer them to be going to a school that was bursting at the seams, or where the children could pass down the corridors without having to breathe in?

OK, that's a loaded question. Let's ask it more boringly: is performance negatively impacted by over-subscription? Do students do worse in schools which have more students than places?

Or another way: are over-subscribed schools more successful than under-subscribed ones?

This is one of the chicken-egg situations: if you were guessing, you'd probably say that over-subscribed schools are those that are most successful. And you'd be correct. But just how wide is the difference between those that under- and those that are over-subscribed? We had a little look in our Educational Intelligence data...

First we grouped schools according to how far away the actual numbers of pupils are away from the maximum number each school should have. Schools which are plus or minus 5% away from this being zero, we called balanced; everything else was under or over-subscribed.

Ofsted ratings

  • Over-subscribed schools: 91% are either Good or Outstanding - 43% are Outstanding
  • Under-subscribed schools: 62% are either Good or Outstanding - only 11% are Outstanding
  • Balanced schools: 85% are either Good or Outstanding - 34% are Outstanding.

Performance: % 5A* to C inc English and maths

The national average, based on 2014 DfE performance data is 57%.

  • Over-subscribed schools: average 9 percentage points above this
  • Under-subscribed schools: average 23% percentage points below this
  • Balanced schools: average 1 percentage point below this.

Chicken or egg?

It's not quite either - more of a virtuous chicken-egg cycle... thing. Good schools attract supportive parents with able children, making good schools better, leaving worse schools worse etc. You know the story: popular schools are popular because they're successful; successful because they're popular.

What's surprising is how far below average the 1,726 under-subscribed schools are. It's an indication of just how sophisticated the English schools market is. After many years of parental choice, parents appear to know what they're doing when they apply to secondary schools, but does this choice tend to polarise schools? On the basis of this data, it would appear so, and that the effect is to reduce choice.

At my school we're about to begin this year's round of appeals, with an extra class-full of children appearing before the panel, which will take three days of eight people's time just to hear the appeals. There are 670 secondary schools in England with no room - if all schools' appeal processes take the same length of time as ours, that's 16,080 man-days per year, just at secondary level. Maybe this is where some of that low productivity compared to the rest of the EU comes from.

It's difficult to see a way out of this, while maintaining parental choice, except to make the less popular schools more so. At my school we're working closely with another local school to do just that and, though it appears to be working, it takes time.

Something else that's in short supply in good schools.



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