School Applications – the Basics

It can seem that no sooner are you out of the stage of sleepless nights and toddler tantrums, then you’re having to think about applying for a place at primary school, and time then seems to fly before you are suddenly looking at your secondary options.

What age is my child when I need to apply?

Primary: The process for this varies across the UK, and in England children are eligible to start their Reception year of school in the September following their 4th birthday.

The cut off for each year group in England is midnight on the 31st of August. So, a child born on the 1st of September 2017 will start school next September straight after their 5th birthday, and a child born on the 31st of August 2018 will start school next September straight after their 4th birthday.

Note “eligible” – they don’t have to start school until the term after they have turned 5. Although children who turn 5 between June and August 31st must start at the beginning of the Summer term or they will go straight into Year 1 unless a “deferred entry” has been applied for (not all Councils will allow this). We’ll cover the pros and cons of starting later and deferred entry in a future article.

Secondary: Secondary school starts in September after they turn 11. (A handful of areas have slightly different school structures, like lower, middle, or high schools – local parents will be able to fill you in on this, as will the local council website.)

Applications to start school take place during the autumn and winter the year before children start. This is to allow time for schools to be considered, applications made and processed, and then families and schools to liaise and ensure a smooth start.

However, this means you need to be thinking about applying sooner than perhaps you expected – so start thinking about options when they turn 3.

Don’t rely on receiving information from your local council – the vast majority don’t contact parents to advise them that they need to apply for schools. It’s down to you to find the information and the application forms on your council’s website.

When do I need to apply?

While school applications are organised locally, dates governing the process are determined nationally. They’re different for primary and secondary schools.

Don’t rely on receiving information from your local council – the vast majority don’t contact parents to advise them that they need to apply for schools. It’s down to you to find the information and the application forms on your council’s website. Parents get caught out every year by this, and late applications will mean that your child’s place is considered after all on-time applications have been allocated. If local schools are oversubscribed, this could mean that you are allocated a school that is some distance from your home and is more likely to be an unpopular school.

(* on this day, or the next working day)

Who do I apply to?

It’s really important to note that you apply to schools through your local council – you don’t apply directly to schools.

If it’s a school in a different area, you still apply via your local council – councils liaise with one another to share applications and make sure your preference is considered by the right people.

There’s a handy government website where you can check which council you apply through – the primary school checker is here, and the secondary school checker is here.

What will the application form ask for?

These forms vary from council to council, but they generally just ask for the basic information that is needed to identify your child – name, date of birth, address, current school etc.

The application form will also ask you to indicate if your child has siblings already at the school, whether there are any special or medical needs, and whether your child was previously in care (‘Looked After Children’).

If you are applying to a faith school, you’ll need to provide additional information about your family circumstances in this regard – normally on a “Supplementary Information Form”.

Some secondary schools have ‘specialisms’ and select a percentage of their intake based on performance in this area. The most common specialisms are things like music, languages, maths, and sport. Individual schools will have their own criteria for these selections, so you need to check what forms and assessments are needed via the school website. Results of these assessments will be announced before the closing date for applications so you will know if your child has gained a selective place before you list your preferred schools.

Some secondary schools also used ‘banding tests’ to ensure a balanced intake of abilities.

Finally, of course, the application form will ask you to express your choice of preferred schools.

How are admissions decided?

Check each school for their ‘admissions criteria’. Most schools will prioritise ‘Looked After Children’ (children who are/or were in local authority care), those with special medical needs for whom this is the most suitable school, then siblings of current students, then allocation based on distance.

Most schools’ base admissions on the distance from the child’s normal address to the school. Check whether your local council measures distance ‘as the crow flies’ or by ‘most direct walking route’ as this can produce very different calculations.

Some councils have fixed ‘catchments’ – if you live within the catchment area you should be fairly sure of being allocated a place at that school. You can still apply for a school that you are not ‘in catchment’ for, but your child is likely to only be considered after places have been allocated to children in catchment.

How many school choices can I list?

Typically, you can list up to three schools, although some areas allow more than this. London, for example, allows you to list up to six schools. You will rank them in order of preference.

School preferences you make are treated equally. This means that no matter where you place a school in your list of preferences, it will be treated the same way as all other applicants who also chose that school, regardless of where they have placed the school in their list. Schools do not know where you have placed the school in your list of preferences.

Naming other schools will not affect your chance of being offered a place at a higher preference school – a common myth is that if you only list one school it improves your chances of getting an offer. This simply is not true!

The reason it is so important to list the schools in your true order of preference is that if a place can be offered at more than one of your preferences, you will be offered the highest school possible from the list you provided.

You should always list at least one school that you can be reasonably certain you would be offered a place at even if you don’t like it. Better to be offered a place at a school you dislike that is round the corner, than a school you dislike that is 40 minutes away on the other side of town!

What happens my child is allocated a place at my second/third choice of preferred schools?

You should accept the place. In many council areas, you will automatically be added to the waiting list for any school you listed as a higher preference.

Waiting lists are handled by the council until the 31st of August and are then passed to the schools. If you wish to remain on a waiting list after the 31st of August, then you should check that your continued interest is registered with the individual schools after that date.

In some areas of high mobility, it is very common for places to come up after the start of term and waiting lists can move quite fast. In other areas, it may be common for places not to become available for years if ever.

Waiting lists are ordered by the same criteria as original applications not by date of application or length of time on the waiting list, so you can move down the waiting list as well as up.

What happens if a place isn’t available at any of my preferred schools?

If there are no places available at any of your preferences, you will be offered a place at the nearest school to your home address with a place still available.

You must accept this place – even if you really dislike it. You can then appeal for the other schools on your list of preferences, as well as any others that you would be happy to send your child to. If you reject the offered school, then the Council have fulfilled their obligation to offer you a school place and they will assume that you are making alternative arrangements such as home-schooling or private education.

So overall, the actual process of applying is straight-forward – once you’ve figured out your preferred schools.

However, coming up with a shortlist of schools that you prefer – that might take a bit more thinking and research.

In the next couple of articles, we’ll look at what helpful information about schools is available to you from the comfort of your own home. We’ll then take you through the kind of things to look at and ask about when you visit schools in person.