Skip to main content

Primary school children with raised hands

A good state primary school will not only launch your child into a happy and fulfilling educational journey but also engage you in the local community. But how do you find the best primary school for your child? And what do you need to know about primary school admissions?

Primary school admissions criteria

First things first, work out your local geography and check the admissions arrangements and criteria of primary schools in your area. Community schools (those run by the local authority) tend to share the same criteria but there are often separate arrangements in place for each faith school, academy and free school. In many parts of the country, if you do not meet one of the first few criteria bands, you are unlikely to get a place, no matter how much you like the primary school.  

Criteria bands, which all schools make public, will typically look something like this: 

In the event of the school being oversubscribed, after the admission of students with an Education, Health and Care Plan naming the school, the following criteria will be applied to determine who will be offered a place:

  1. Looked after children or previously looked after children ('looked after' is a term used to describe children who are in the care of, or housed by, the local authority social services). 
  2. Children with special needs that can only be met by that school 
  3. Children with siblings already in the school 
  4. Children who live closest to the school (which can, in many areas – especially cities - mean more-or-less spitting distance especially if there are lots of siblings taking preference. Most admissions authorities use straight-line distance but some may use quickest walking route) 

Depending on the primary school, the criteria may be in a different order or there may be additional categories. For example, faith schools mostly give preference to children from religious families, which means the criteria band(s) will also include faith requirements. When applying to a faith school, you will need to complete a supplementary information form (SIF) outlining details of your family’s religious adherence – you may even have to provide further paperwork like baptismal certificate. The important thing to remember is that the admissions criteria varies between primary schools, and early in the process it is crucial to know if you have even a vague chance of getting your child into that particular school. 

Your local authority’s primary school admissions guide (usually available to download) will list the criteria for schools in your area. Information from previous years is also usually published, such as whether schools were oversubscribed, how places were allocated and the distance children admitted previously lived from the school. If applicable, catchment area maps will also be included. The Good Schools Guide website contains maps for each school based on where pupils have been admitted from in recent years. This will help you get an idea of how likely you are to get a place. 

Note that no primary school selects by ability or aptitude (except the London Oratory Junior House, which tests all applicants for general academic ability and musical aptitude).

What are primary school catchment areas?

Some primary schools - though by no means all - have a 'catchment area'; sometimes called a 'priority admissions area'. These are the areas in which prospective pupils need to live to be in with a reasonable chance of gaining a school place. Catchment areas are usually drawn as red lines on a map available on the school or local authority website. Some local authorities carve up their entire district/borough like a jigsaw puzzle, so that for every area there is an particular primary school, just for locals. Though it's not always that simple and there aren't always lines on a map - some schools give a list of postcodes instead of boundaries on a map. All schools want to fill their places (the total number of places in one intake is called the Published Admissions Number - PAN) and so, if necessary they will take applicants from outside the catchment area. NB. Even though plenty of schools and local authorities don't use catchment areas, parents still talk about 'catchment areas' when discussing the typical distance from a school you may need to live in order to be in with a chance of getting a place.

Primary school open days 

Once you have your shortlist of primary schools that your child has a chance of getting into, visit as many of them as you can. Remember local gossip may not have caught up with latest developments – good or bad. A school that suits your neighbour’s child may not suit yours. A less-than-glowing Ofsted report may be due to aspects that don’t bother you or are already being addressed – struggling schools generally get plenty of extra help and maybe a new, dynamic head. A glowing report may result from ticking boxes rather than providing a genuinely inspiring education. Read our advice on how to approach school open days.

Applying for primary schools 

All primary school places are applied for through your local authority using the Common Application Form (CAF), usually online. If a school is described as it's own 'admissions authority' this just means it gets to decide the criteria by which places are offered but it is the local authority that coordinates the process. No advantage can be gained from your child attending a school's linked nursery. Normal primary school admissions are at 4+ into the reception class but children born in the summer months may be able to start school a year later

Your local authority’s primary school admissions guide will explain how to apply for schools in your area. Opening dates for applications vary but are usually at the start of the autumn term of the year before your child is due to start school; the deadline to apply is 15 January. You will be notified as to which school has offered you a school place in mid-April. 

Depending on the area you live in, you can list up to six choices of primary school. We always say it’s vital to include at least one 'safe bet': a school that you can tolerate where you are more-or-less sure of getting a place, based on the criteria bands detailed above – even if it isn’t your first choice. If you ignore this aspect of the application and instead you rank only those you most like, you may well get a place at none of them, and the local authority will allocate you a place at an undersubscribed school which will inevitably be an unpopular and possible some distance from where you live. 

Put your primary school choices in order of preference – if more than one of your choices is able to offer you a place, you will only be offered the school highest on your list. The schools don’t know where else you have applied, and don’t know if you have put them first or last – only the local authority knows that. Schools make places available according to their admissions and oversubscription criteria, not on the basis of order of preference a parent listed in the CAF.   

If you’re applying for an 'in-year' primary school place, (eg if you're changing school at a time which is not the start of the school year), contact the local authority directly. 

Can an offer of a place be withdrawn? 

Yes. A school can withdraw its offer 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: even if the child has started at the school, they may be asked to leave) 
  • Where a place was offered in error: but the local authority has only a very short space of time to withdraw the offer in this case 

Appealing a primary school place 

If you are offered a school which is not your preferred choice, you will be invited to appeal and informed of your rights. In the vast majority of cases, there will be little chance of an appeal succeeding but read school appeals for more information. You might also like to see how the Good Schools Guide's school appeals service can help your family.  

Children from overseas

As long as you have a right of abode in England, you can apply for a state school place here. However, you can’t apply until you have an address in the country and are living here (except for Forces/diplomatic families and for those applying to state boarding schools). Read more from the UK government on school admissions and applications from overseas children.

Subscribe now for instant access to more than 1,300 reviews

The Good Schools Guide reviews more than 600 independent and state schools which educate primary-age children. Our impartial, candid school reviews have been helping parents make educational decisions for more than 35 years. To see what we have to say about the schools which interest your family, you can order one of our books from the shop or alternatively, subscribe online now to get instant access

Most popular Good Schools Guide articles

  • Choosing a school - tips for parents

    What do you want for your child? State school or fee-paying? Day or boarding school? Single sex or co-education? It helps to have a game plan, even if you change it at a later date. What do you want from the school? Undoubtedly you want to find a great school, one that's ideal for your child, with great teaching and possibly good facilities to match.

  • State boarding schools

    If you think your child would benefit from a boarding school education, but are put off by the high fees and consequent limited social mix of a typical independent boarding school, you may find that a state boarding school is the answer. Read more... State grammar schools Counties such as Kent or Buckinghamshire are ‘selective authorities’ and most families will have at least one grammar school close to where they live. Elsewhere, for example in Reading or Kingston-on-Thames, there are just one or two grammar schools and competition for places at these is ferocious. Grammar schools are located in 36…

  • Mix and match state and private education

    All those scary newspaper statistics about the long-term costs of keeping your child in nappies and birthday presents pale into insignificance when set beside the £250,000+ you’ll need to educate a child privately from nursery to university. But paying for a private education from finger painting to Freshers’ Week is not an option for most families. .

  • Primary schools – top tips when applying

    Parents of children born between 1 September 2019 and 31 August 2020 have until 15 January 2024 to apply for a primary school place for the academic year starting in September 2024. Having advised parents of school applications for more than 35 years, The Good Schools Guide recommends the following read more

  • A guide to state schools

    In the UK, a state school provides a free education for children aged between 4 and 18. State schools are government-funded, paid for by taxes, and every child in the country is entitled to a place. 

Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews:

☑ 30,000 Independent, state and special schools in our parent-friendly interactive directory
☑ Instant access to in-depth UK school reviews
☑ Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of over 1,200 schools
☑ Independent tutor company reviews

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark

Buy Now

GSG Blog >

The Good Schools Guide newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.


Our most recent newsletter: