How to Cause a Crisis

Was that a 5 or a 6? A percentage sign or a couple of zeros? It is easy to scan over numbers and not really understand what they mean. With National Offer Day this week, almost every news outlet has pounced on what most have called the ‘crisis’ of primary school places. A number of new Reception pupils have missed out on their first choice primary school.

So what’s the damage?

Well – it depends who you read. We looked at 6 news sites: The Telegraph, The Guardian,, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, and the BBC who all reported on the story. These were how the numbers were presented:

News Outlet:

Shortage statistic

The Telegraph

“One in six children is likely to miss out”

The Guardian

“More than 13% of infants in England miss out”

“In the most oversubscribed areas, four in 10 pupils”

The Daily Express

“Up to one in six of the 600,000 youngsters”

The Daily Mail

“20% 'miss primary school choice’”


“Up to one in six missing out”


With qualifiers littered throughout the article like clichés on Match of the Day, it is easy to miss them. The Telegraph say “likely”; go with “in the most oversubscribed areas”; The Express and BBC both opt for “Up to”. It is almost too simple for your brain to skip over these small words and phrases and just concentrate on the numbers – the “hard facts”.

But just as numbers provide safe and secure, a priori deductions, the flimsy prose surrounding them cast doubt on their veracity. fails to mention in the rest of the article any statistics that backup their “four in 10 claim”, nor do they talk about how many areas they include in the “most oversubscribed” category.

Do these oversights set off alarm bells for most readers though? Stats are infinitely easier to remember and to cling on to – try and remember a politician not mentioning a statistic last time they issued a statement. At the end of the day, who remembers the “likely to”s and the “around”s? Below is a representation of the difference in the varying news outlets’ findings without the easy to forget qualifiers:  

Even discounting the outrageously erroneous, the numbers are worryingly different. Depending on whether you believe the Guardian or Mail, your understanding of how many pupils missed out on their first choice school could be different by 42,000!

If we take the mean of the outlets, we might imagine that around 123,000 pupils missed out on their first choice; and therein lies the “crisis” that the papers say is being caused by the baby boom and immigration. Somebody call Nigel Farage.

But is this a crisis? If we flip the statistic around, even with our bloated mean figure, 80% of pupils DID get their first choice primary school. When you think of it like that – does the word “crisis” really need to be launched around?

As it turns out – yes! The Telegraph have been reporting on the primary places shortage for 7 years in a row – in each case, reporting it as a “crisis”.






Thousands of children to miss out on primary school place

Javier Espinoza


'Crisis' warning as up to four in 10 refused first choice primary school

Graeme Paton


Lessons in police stations 'to ease school places crisis'

Graeme Paton


More children rejected from first-choice primary school

Graeme Paton


Warning over primary school admissions 'crisis'

Graeme Paton


Warning over primary school admissions crisis

Graeme Paton


Primary school crisis: Hundreds of infants 'educated in mobile classrooms'

Graeme Paton + Heidi Blake

As the Telegraph-acclaimed ‘crisis’ has been slowly developing over the last 7 years, researching through the back catalogue of issues, it seems that the amount of pupils missing out on first choice school is always between 15 and 20%. Crisis…what crisis?

Just for fun, it would be fun to see how the stats would be reported if they were reversed. (And for the record, I am aware that Newspapers have a business responsibility to excite the reader with the most worrying/interesting version of any given stat).

News Outlet:

Shortage statistic

The Telegraph

“Five in six children likely to be awarded first choice”

The Guardian

“87% of pupils expected to get first choice”

“In the least oversubscribed areas, 10 out of 10 pupils get their choice”

The Daily Express

“Above five out of six of the 600,000 pupils”

The Daily Mail

“80% receive first choice school”


“Above five in six not missing out”


And let’s not forget that obviously there are going to be some schools that have more subscriptions than applications. That’s just the nature of semi-autonomous school systems and a natural differentiation within the country.

Of course, statistics aside, managing to secure your child’s future in the school of your choice is a big deal, and it must be terrible to have to wait, powerless, whilst your child’s potential future is decided for you. This article is in no way trivialising the anxiety and inevitable disappointment of the unlucky minority.

The point is to approach such vague and loose statistics with caution and to try and understand them in context. If the government is operating at 100% efficiency, you probably have bigger problems at hand.

So when you read, in 2016, about the fact that over 100,000 primary students have missed out on their first choice school in a worrying piece by Graeme Paton in the Telegraph, I wouldn’t panic immediately.

It’s not as if there is a crisis or anything.



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