As a parent, what do I need to know about the school admissions process?

How do you decide which is the best school to apply for on behalf of your child?

It's one of the biggest decisions we ever make as parents. There are many educational establishments for which you may be eligible to apply for a place for your child, but there are considerations to bear in mind to find somewhere that suits your lifestyle, location and your child’s personality.
Would they feel more nurtured in a smaller school, or would they embrace the bustle of a larger school? Would you prefer them to attend a school with a religious ethos that will reflect particular values in its teaching, or would you prefer a secular school that doesn’t have a religious component to its education? What can you do if the application for your first choice school is not successful?
Although it's important to listen to your child's views, balance out any expressions they make with your own judgements.
This handy guide will help you to consider key questions when it comes to applying for school places.

What should I look for in a potential school?

This is not a definitive list, but it may help you form some ideas.

  • Personal reaction. Go along in person, perhaps to an open evening, and gauge how you feel. Do you like the teachers? Do the students there seem happy? Are the classrooms reasonably comfortable and well-equipped? Do good communications between parents and staff seem to come naturally?  Trust your instincts. Like viewing a house, you’ll soon get a feeling of whether or not it’s the right place for you and your child. 
  • The most recent Ofsted results. How a school is evaluated by the inspectorate is of course important, and every state-funded school’s Ofsted report is freely available online. Don’t be too put off if a school has previously had a bad reputation. Many schools have found ways to turn their fortunes around. Give the strongest credence to most recent data and overall trends of the school rather than anecdotal experiences other parents may tell you about dating back more than several years ago.
  • Specialisms. Is your child an all-rounder, or do they have strong leanings in favour of particular subjects? If it’s the latter, then a school or academy with a strong academic focus in dedicated areas of strength may be a good choice. Specialist areas include engineering, performing arts and science.
  • Size. If your child is quiet and reflective, they may thrive better in a smaller school where they are less likely to feel overwhelmed by the numbers of unfamiliar faces or lost in the maze of corridors. If you child takes things in their stride and is outgoing and sociable, then a larger school with an even greater potential for making new friends may be a better option of them.
  • Distance. How close to home is the school? How easy will it be for you to drop off your child, or have them walk or take transportation every day? Make sure you know the route and approximately how long the journey will take before you apply.
  • Faith schools. Many state-funded schools in England have a religious ethos, and Christian schools are represented by several denominations, such as Church of England and Catholic. Other schools aren’t affiliated to a particular faith. It is a personal matter and what you wish for your child may depend on your own religious or non-religious views.
  • Entrance exams. If there is a grammar school in your catchment area, would you wish your child to sit the ‘11-plus’? Are they academically-inclined enough to thrive at grammar school or take the potential failure of the entrance exam in their stride? See our guide to grammar schools for more details.
  • Home schooling. This may be an option you wish to consider depending upon your unique circumstances.

Can I only apply for schools in my local area?

You are eligible to apply for any state school in your council’s catchment area. However, you can apply for a place at a school in a neighbouring borough of you live close to a boundary, or if you prefer a particular school for its specialism. In this instance, you would need to apply on a CAF (Common Application Form). See the relevant county council’s website for more details.

How do I apply?

Application forms for primary schools and secondary schools are available online from the government website and will vary from council to council.

Deadlines for applications

  • Primary schools: The closing date to apply is 15th January (to start in September of that year). You will find out at which school your child has been allocated a place on 16th April when the Local Authority (LA) will email you.
  • Secondary schools: The closing date is 31st October (to start in September the following year). You will find out at which school your child has been allocated a place on 1st March when the Local Authority (LA) will email you.

What are admissions criteria?

These will vary from school to school. There will be contributory factors such as:

  • the number of applicants, and finite spaces to fill
  • the religious observation of parents
  • siblings already attending the school
  • the family’s proximity to the school
  • pupil premium eligibility
  • entrance examination results (for grammar and private schools)

Can I increase my chances of getting my first choice if I only apply to one school?

No, and this may lead to problems with making a late application at a time when other schools are filling up. The best approach is to apply for three schools, in order of preference.

How do I find out if my child has been offered a place?

The Local Authority (LA) will email you, usually on a specific day (16th April for primary school and 1st March for secondary school places).

When an LA informs a parent of a decision to refuse their child a place at a school for which they have applied, it must include:

  • the reason why admission was refused
  • information about the right to appeal
  • the deadline for lodging an appeal and the contact details for making an appeal.

Parents must be informed that, if they wish to appeal, they have to set out their grounds for appeal in writing.

How do I appeal the decision to not offer my child a place at my preferred school?

Your appeal is only likely to succeed if you can show that the school has not complied with the School Admissions Code.

Schools can only refuse a place on grounds of over-subscription for certain criteria. You can appeal if:

  • the admission arrangements have not been followed properly
  • the admission criteria applied by the school do not comply with the school admissions appeal code
  • the decision to refuse your child a place was 'not reasonable'.

You should appeal directly to the local council for schools. If your child has been refused a place at a maintained school or an academy, you have a right of appeal to an independent appeal panel established by the admission authority for that school. You will receive a letter if your application for a particular school has been unsuccessful, and that will tell you how you can appeal.

What is the process if I appeal?

You will be invited to a hearing at the school where you have an opportunity to explain why you are appealing the decision. There will usually be three people present at the appeal hearing, which is independent from the school.

The panel will use the School Admissions Appeals Code to decide if your appeal has merit. You should receive a response from them within five days of the hearing.

What happens if my appeal is not successful?

Unfortunately no second appeal is possible, but you are able to make a complaint about the way the appeals process was carried out. This will not alter the decision. If you applied for a place at an academy, you can escalate your complaint to the Education Funding Agency.

What should I do if I don't get my first choice and my appeal is unsuccessful?

The first thing to do is to not panic, because when we can invest so much into trying to achieve the best outcome for our child, we can feel profound disappointment if things don’t work out the way we hoped. However, there are good and bad points to every school. If you aren’t entirely happy with the school your child has been offered, remember to use your voice as the most important stakeholder to challenge decisions positively, so that you can be a part of turning things around.

Can I apply for a place at a different school mid-term?

Children can be moved between schools during the academic year, but it is best to wait until you have a concrete offer of a place at another school before withdrawing your child from their current school so that any disruption to their schooling is kept to a minimum. Although there are many factors that may contribute to making the decision to move your child to a different school such as moving house or a change in your financial situation, if the deciding factor is unhappiness with the current school, then it is a good idea to speak to the staff or head teacher there about the issues your child is facing so that there is an opportunity to find a resolution before considering a change of school, which is a big adjustment for the whole family. We have some guidance on how to raise issues with your school that may help you. If you make the decision to change your child’s school, there is a process that each local county council has to administer this, and you should check the relevant website for details.

Further reading