State school admissions - how to secure a place

securing a state school place

How the state schools admissions process works depends on where you live within the UK.

Recent policies have wised-up to, and tightened-up on, the many scams and ruses used by parents and schools to select by the back-door.

We dispel the myths and explain what works and what doesn't.

The Good Schools Guide Advice Service now offers a specific service just for parents who want state school places - anywhere in the UK. Please visit State School Service.

State school admissions in England

Admission to all state (maintained) schools and academies, in England, is regulated by the School Admissions Code. 

Parents must play fair too:

Fraudulent applications in the 2010/11 admissions round resulted in at least 400 offers of school places being withdrawn, including some after the child had started at the school.


What you should know:

Waiting lists are legal but place is determined, not by length of time on the list, but by how well your child meets the over-subscription criteria.

Siblings. You may think that once you get one child over the threshold all others will follow; possibly not. If distance from school, rather than siblings has priority,  a new child moving to the area but living on the school's doorstep may well have priority over your child even if they already have a brother or sister at the school.

Pupil Aptitude and ability

Grammar Schools. Grammar schools select pupils based on ability. Even if there are insufficient applicants who reach the required standard the school does not have to allow other applicants entry nor does it have to admit looked after children who do not pass selection. Where a places are offered on a strict order of merit no priority needs to be given to looked after children or previously looked after children. If arrangements are not based on highest scores in a selection test, eg all children who pass the selection test are considered,  the admission authority must give priority to all looked after children and previously looked after children who meet the pre-set standards of the test. For any remaining places after selection, looked after children and previously looked after children must again be given first priority for admission. 

Aptitude/talent. A number of secondary schools select part of their intake by ability or aptitude (eg for music, sport or technology). The Schools Admissions Code, states that schools must take all reasonable steps to inform parents of the outcome of any selection tests before the closing deadline for applications (usually end of October of the year prior to entry) - though passing a selection test does not necessarily guarantee a place.

Not good enough? If not enough children reach the required standard for selection to a partially selective school the school must offer those places to other candidates. They cannot offer MORE selective places than the published limit. 

Academies and free schools. These are state funded, non fee-paying independent (of local authority control) schools and are required  to comply with the Admissions Code and the law relating to admissions (save, in rare cases of demonstrable need, where the Secretary of State varies this requirement). Academies and free schools (along with all other state schools) should publish and follow their admissions criteria.


Who to apply to

With the exception of admissions to maintained special schools and maintained nursery schools, admissions are coordinated by the LA. Apply to the local authority in the area where you live. 


Can an offer of a place be withdrawn? 

Yes. Once an offer of a school place has been made (1st March for secondary schools) it may be withdrawn in certain circumstances such as:

  • Failing to respond to an offer within a reasonable time.
  • Making an intentionally misleading or fraudulent application (eg falsely claiming to live in a catchment area in which case, even if the child has started at the school, they may be asked to leave),
  • Where a place was offered by the local authority, not the admission authority, the place being offered in error.


What works and what doesn't

Bribing or badgering the head will not secure a place.

Indeed head teachers, school officials etc are not allowed to inform parents of any possible offers – only the LA can.

Co-ordinated admissions aim to ensure that, (as far as is practical), 'every child living in an LA area who has applied in the normal admissions round receives one, and only one, offer of a school place on the same day.’


Choosing a school

Choosing A School

You are not ‘free to choose’ the school you want your child to attend, but you can ‘express a preference’ and you do not have to live in a school’s ‘catchment area’ to apply for a place.

With the exception of grammar schools and sixth forms, which do not have to take those who don't come up to scratch academically, under-subscribed schools must take all-comers.

Do your research early and select carefully.

Unless there are extenuating circumstances such as moving house, you cannot change your preferences once submitted.

To minimise the annual fiasco of children without places, if none of your preferences is available another school will be allocated, unless there are insufficient places remaining in the local authority.

 Remember that we now offer a unique State School Service for a very competitive fee. see: State School Service.

Dispelling the school admission myths

  • Selection by ability is allowed only by grammar schools and schools with permitted partially selective arrangements eg for talents in music or ICT etc. The Schools Admissions Code, states that schools must take all reasonable steps to inform parents of the outcome of any selection tests before the closing deadline for applications - usually the last day in October of the year prior to entry.

  • SEN & disability - Unless in support of positive action, schools should not ask for details about disabilities, special educational needs or medical conditions.

  • Home-school agreements - Admission must not be conditional on signing a home–school agreement. 

  • Paying for admission - charges related to the admission of a child to a school are not allowed.

  • Donations and voluntary contributions - schools must not imply that donations and voluntary contributions are expected, nor can they ask parents to explain why they don’t want to contribute.

  • School trips, while trips can be beneficial, they must not be compulsory. Board and lodging on residential trips must not exceed the actual cost and schools should make clear any help available for those unable to afford the cost of school trips.
  • Fairness - admission arrangements should not be undermined by unfair policies such as expensive uniform, sportswear or school trips/activities. 

  • Parental occupation and marital status - Schools are not allowed to take account of a parent’s occupation, or financial or marital status.

  • Aptitude - auditions or other oral or practical tests to determine aptitude in a particular subject at schools with a permitted form of selection are allowed, 

  • Interviews - schools cannot interview children (or their families ) with the exception of interviews to determine the suitability to board (clear guidelines on what can and cannot be asked are available).

  • Special needs - where a school is named on a statement of special educational need, the child must be admitted to the school, even if the school is full.


Schools are free to set their own admissions criteria

But they must then follow them to the letter....

  • School admissions policies

    Geographical location. This is often particularly important though defined in many different ways – distance as the crow flies, distance by a safe route, catchment area, previous school attended etc – and liable to change each year as applications vary. Parents have been known to rent houses within the requisite area of the school in order to establish residence there, or ‘borrow’ an address, or invent one. Heads of schools particularly affected have resorted to peeking through letterboxes to see if there’s someone really living there, or asking to see electricity bills – ‘£10 for the quarter and you say you were living there … ?’

  • Banding. Some schools also operate a ‘banding’ system to ensure that their intake is a fair reflection of the ability spectrum of their applicants or neighbourhood – this inevitably leads to different geographical limits for each ability band – children are tested so you may need a local tutor to help your child do badly.

  • Sibling policies  a real pain if you’re trying to get your first born into a school – geographical boundaries can fluctuate wildly year by year, depending on the percentage of places taken up in this way. Thereafter, of course, they are a real blessing.

  • Ballots are starting to appear in popular city schools. If there’s an over-subscription, places will be allocated by random ballot. No known way of working this system to your advantage.

  • Religion. Some of the best UK schools have a religious foundation, and are more or less devoted to educating children of that religion. You need to start attending church weekly at least a year before conception to have a chance at some schools. The good Catholic schools are a vital component of the state school scene in such places as Central London.

  • Attainments. There are still almost 200 academically selective schools in England and others that have special admissions arrangements for particular talents – they may specialise in languages, science or sports, or they may admit a few talented musicians. Understand how the criteria work, and consider some targeted coaching. Ask those whose children succeeded last year and who have no younger children – they have nothing to lose by letting you in on their secrets.

  • SEN or medical grounds. If this might apply to your child, get your case documented; it can be an overriding criterion. Supporting evidence will be required – for example a letter from a registered health professional such as a doctor or social worker, which states why the school in question is the most suitable school and the difficulties caused if the child had to attend another school. 

  • Special characteristics. An expressed preference by parents for some special character of the school, eg single-sex education or boarding.

Start looking early – you may need to move house.

Get the admissions booklets from your Local Authority, and any neighbouring LA whose schools you might consider – they should give you a good idea of what you will have to do to get in.


Taking a look at the Catchment Area

Catchment Maps

Living within the catchment area and distance to the school gate is often (but by NO MEANS ALWAYS) one of the key criteria for securing a school place.

Catchment Maps - by postcode. Towards the bottom of our home page you will see a Catchment Map.

  • Enter your postcode to see the schools you may be in catchment for.
  • The colour, for any particular school, indicates how successful people in previous years have been at securing a place at a particular school, from your post-code area.
  • Red  - a good chance - green, not as hot (though of course it might simply be that,  not many people from that area have applied).


Catchment Maps - by school

 If you are a subscriber, you may wish to determine your chances of securing a place at any given school. This is Ideal if you are moving to an area and want to work out where will give you the best chance of gaining a place.  Simply navigate to the English state school of choice via 'FInd A School' and look at the catchment map of the school to see where previous pupils have come from. Caveat - the data is by nature historic and past performance is no guarantee of future. You should use these maps in conjunction with the school's own published admissions criteria and any boundary information. Distance to the school gate may also be measured by walking distance, rather than as the crow flies, so do check.

We should add that catchment data is not published for independent schools, nor for state schools outside of England.


Children from overseas

Parents living in England, and whose children have accompanied them from overseas, apply under the same rules as those living in England. However, different rules operate where an applications is made from overseas. Children without the right of abode will not be allowed to enter the country to attend maintained (state) boarding schools.


Applications for Year 12 (sixth-form) entry and transfer from Year 11

Where possible, parental preference must be met. Those already in a school do not need to apply formally for places in year 12, but admissions criteria must be the same for both internal and external applicants and should detail any entry requirements eg number and quality of GCSE passes. Schools that offer a wider range of courses can state what courses are available, the entry requirements for each, and how priority for entry to these courses will be determined if they are oversubscribed.

Entry must not be dependent on attendance, behaviour record, or perceptions of attitude or motivation. Interviews aren't allowed, though meetings can be held to advise on options and entry requirements.

Criteria based on ability, should take account of what is available locally for those who fail to make the grade. Anyone refused a place in year 12 can appeal.


Nursery education

Primary school admissionsGetting into the nursery class at a primary school does not guarantee admission to the main school and, vice-versa, you do not have a lesser chance of getting into the main school if you choose another nursery school. You may be able to secure a place in the main school by applying for a place in the reception class – but once you’ve accepted it you can defer entry until your child is old enough for the main school, or is of compulsory school age.

Since September 2011 all children can start school from the September following their 4th birthday. Parents may still opt to defer entry to a later date should they wish.


School transport

Admission authorities must explain clearly whether or not school transport will be available and, if so, to which schools and at what cost (if any).


Applications for school places outside the normal admissions round

This is not the same as a late application, so do have due regard to all closing dates or forfeit your rights. For those moving into an area, parental preference should be adhered to, unless the preferred school is full. Even if you are told the school is full, you should still be allowed to apply and have the right of appeal if your application is unsuccessful.



If you get what appears to be a ‘No’ on any count, you have the right of appeal, stating to an appeal committee why you think little Edna should go to Grunts and not St Dumps. Like any other appeal you need to lobby like mad – the head, the governors, the doctor, the local authority, your MP, the lollipop man – whoever seems good to you. Think up reasons that highlight what Grunts offers rather than what St Dumps doesn’t. The Department for Education website is a good place to bone up on appeals procedures. Don’t get your hopes up too high – 70 per cent of appeals fail, with successful appeals often won on technicalities. Some small businesses and other organisations offer help with appeals, and claim that they double your chances, though we don’t endorse any.


State schools in Scotland

The system in Scotland is pretty much catchment-area based, though with a right for a parent to ask for another school. As the Government website says: ‘If you have a child who is due to start primary school or who will be transferring to secondary school soon, you have a right to express a preference for a particular school. Your Council will probably suggest that you should use the local school designated by them, and of course you may be happy to do so, but the Council must also tell you of your right to choose a different school, and give you an address where you can get help in making up your mind.’ Some councils are more helpful than others.


State schools in Wales

You have a right to attend your local school but can apply for another. Your choice will be respected if (as far as we can see) the school and the local authority feel so inclined.


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Subscribers will find detailed exam results and performance information on individual school pages. Visit these 'free to view' schools. Explore results - read our independent reviews*

Invicta Grammar School, Maidstone is a state school for girls aged from 11 to 18, co-ed sixth form

Rokeby School, Kingston upon Thames is an independent school for boys aged from 4 to 13

The Queen's Church of England Primary School, Richmond is a state school for boys and girls aged from 4 to 11.

Swiss Cottage School Development & Research Centre, London is a state special school for boys and girls aged from 2 to 19

Subscribers* to The Good Schools guide can examine:

  • School performance data* for KS2, GCSE and A-level
  • Value-added data* .Does the school make a difference to all pupils or just some?
  • University information*. Details of which universities pupils go on to and what they study.
  • And, for English state schools, make sure you make the right move by examining catchment area data and seeing which schools pupils come from and which schools they move on to. 

*We indicate on a school's page where data is available. We do not have data for schools outside of England.




Further reading

The Catchment Area Cheat

School Open Evenings

London Schools In The Good Schools Guide

Mix And Match State And Private Education

Appealing For A School Place

The Good Schools Guide Advice Service

Nurseries and Early Years - Your Questions Answered

Finding The Right Nursery School For Your Child

Primary Schools In The UK

Secondary And Senior Schools In The UK

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