How to apply for a school place

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At a glance

Guidance on applying for a school place during the year before your child starts primary or secondary school.

Understand the process

Before you decide which school to apply for, take some time to learn about how school places are allocated in your area.

Read the booklet published annually by your local authority explaining your area’s applications process. You may be given this by your child’s primary school, or you could order it online from your local authority website or collect it from your local town hall. You could also pick it up at school open days or from your local library.

Many local authorities also hold meetings for parents of children applying for places in their schools. If you have questions about the process, you could either attend one of these meetings or call your local authority’s education department.

Gather any information you can

Find out as much information as you can about the schools you want to apply for and their admissions procedures.

Open days are a useful way to find out about a school’s admissions procedures. These are advertised on school websites, or you could phone the schools you’re interested in and ask when they plan to hold their next open days. You could also phone the school with any specific questions you have about their admissions procedure.

Other ways to find out about schools include: looking at their websites, talking to parents and pupils, talking to your child’s head teacher, and looking up Ofsted inspection reports and league tables.

Be realistic about your chances of getting a place

Many schools receive more applications than they have places. They use oversubscription criteria to decide which children will be offered places. The School Admissions Code states that children in public care (‘looked-after’ children) must be given top priority. Other oversubscription criteria that might be used include:

  • Distance from the child’s permanent home address to the school. Often this is referred to as being in ‘catchment’ for a school. The distance is not necessarily based on the simple radius from the school - it can be a designated area. In densely-populated areas, the catchment area may just be a specified number of streets around the school.
  • The parent or child has a disability which makes travel to a school further away more difficult.
  • The sibling rule – priority is given if the child has a brother or sister already attending the school.
  • The child’s faith – this is only a factor at faith schools. Priority is given to children who have the same faith as the school (ie if you are Roman Catholic and wish your child to attend a Catholic primary or secondary). Some faith schools may ask you for a reference from your priest or other religious minister as confirmation that you attend a relevant place of worship.
  • If it is a selective school, such as a grammar school, the school will award places on the basis of academic ability – usually the selection is based on the results of an entrance exam (whether the child has reached a certain score or pass rate).

Make sure you read the oversubscription criteria very carefully. If your child doesn’t match the criteria, think again.

If your main concern is whether or not you are in a school’s catchment area, the best thing to do is to phone the school and ask them to clarify their catchment area criteria. If it is a primary, they will often send or email you a list of roads which fall within the catchment for that school. If it is a secondary, the catchment will usually cover a wider area. But, in general, the nearer your child lives to the school of your choice, the higher your child’s chance of getting into that school.

Fill in the local authority application form

Your local authority manages the admissions process for all state schools in your area. They produce a common schools application form that you’ll need to complete, either on paper or online. This form is usually fairly straightforward, and you list your choices in order of preference.

There are supplementary forms for some schools, especially faith schools, which may be complicated. Read them through carefully. Photocopy complicated forms and do a rough draft. Have the entrance criteria in mind as you complete supplementary forms.

You'll need to apply during the autumn for a school place the following September. If your child is moving up to secondary school, their primary school should give you an application form. If your child is starting primary school it is up to you to apply for a place. However, if your child attends a school nursery you should receive a form through them.

If you haven’t received an application form, contact your local authority. The deadline is very important – if you miss it you’re less likely to get offered a place at your preferred school.

Don't lie on a school application form. The information you give about where your child lives will often be checked. Some education authorities also carry out spot checks to tackle the growing problem of fraudulent applications. If a school place is offered on the basis of misleading information it will usually be withdrawn.

It’s possible that in the future, parents who lie on application forms could face a spell of community service and be given a criminal record. (These options were discussed in recent years.)

Wait to hear back

If your child is in line for more than one of your chosen schools, you will be offered a place at the school you ranked highest on the application form. But if none of your schools can offer your child a place because other applicants met the admissions criteria more closely, your local authority will offer you a place at another school.

Your local authority booklet or website will tell you when you’ll hear the outcome of your application. Letters usually go out in March (for the following September) but you may be able to get the information online.

Making an appeal

If you’re not happy with the school place your child has been offered, then you have the right to appeal to an independent appeal panel.

For guidance on deciding whether you want to go ahead and make an appeal, take a look at ‘How To Appeal against a school place decision’.

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