Skip to main content

Pupils in school corridor | The Good Schools GuideClick for advice on school appeals

You must apply through your local authority for a place at a secondary school, even if it’s linked to your child’s current primary school. Normal secondary school admissions are at 11+ into year 7. Applications open on different days in each local council area - usually at the start of the autumn term of year 6, though for most grammar schools you will need to register for the entrance test during the summer term of year 5.

The deadline to apply for a secondary school place is 31 October. Check your local authority website for details of the catchment area for secondary schools nearby, faith requirements and key dates. Even if you are trying for a faith or grammar school, or for a school in another area, apply through your local authority’s common application form.

In the case of selective and faith schools, you will also need to apply to the individual school, either to register for entrance tests or provide evidence of church attendance. Read carefully what is required with your submission. Some schools – particularly faith schools – require a supplementary information form (SIF) to be sent directly to them. This form usually has a different deadline to the application which goes to the local authority. Failing to supply the right information on time could jeopardise your chances.

Most local authorities ask for a list of three or four schools in order of preference. London requests six. Only the local authority knows which schools you have applied to, and if you qualify for more than one, will only offer you a place at the one highest on your list. Try to ensure you include one that you are more-or-less bound to get a place at, even if it is low on the list: if you don’t qualify for any of the schools you have applied to, you are likely to be offered St Grunt’s two bus rides away. Never leave blanks on the form. While some parents think that it limits the local authority to fewer options, in reality they will fill in the blanks with other schools, which will inevitably be the least popular ones.

If you want to join a school outside the normal admissions time – perhaps because you are moving house – then in most cases you apply direct to the school, though local authorities can have helpful information of which local schools have spaces. Bear in mind that if you are arriving from abroad, you cannot apply for a school until you have a local address, and if a place is offered, you have to take it up within a short time.

All school admissions in England are regulated by the Schools Admissions Code, and schools must play fair, ensuring their admissions policy is not only fair but also transparent. Parents must play fair too: schools and local authorities are wising up on parental attempts to circumvent the code, and hundreds of school places are withdrawn every year, sometimes after the child has started school.

Different types of secondary schools and admissions processes

Grammar schools. These 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 places are offered on strict points order, no priority needs to be given to looked after children or previously looked after children – although increasing numbers of grammar schools are choosing to do so. 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. Many are also reserving a proportion of places for children on pupil premium. Some grammar schools, the so-called ‘super selectives’, have no distance criteria, so anyone can apply, but increasing numbers are giving preference to local applicants. Their entrance tests tend (but not always) to be early in the autumn term, so parents will know whether their child has done well enough to qualify for a place (although not whether they have actually got a place) before they put in their secondary schools application form.

Aptitude/talent. A number of secondary schools select part of their intake by  aptitude (eg for music, sport or technology). 

Fair banding. An increasing number of non-selective schools set tests and divide their applicants into ability bands, taking an equal number from each band. In theory, this ensures that the school takes children from the full spread of ability. In practice, if schools set and/or mark their own tests, they can organise the banding so that they accept a high percentage of able children.

Faith schools. These tend to be Church of England or Roman Catholic and may demand that you baptised your child before she was 6 months old and have attended a specific church weekly for the past five years. They are no longer allowed to give preference to families involved in polishing the church's brass or flower arranging etc, a system which is now considered to have given the advantage to middle class applicants. Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Sikh faith schools are far less common but can be found in some areas. As part of your application, all faith schools are entitled to ask for supplementary documents such as a certificate or a letter from a religious leader confirming your religious attendance and practice.

Academies.  Academies are funded by the state but operate completely independently of local authorities. They can decide on their own admissions criteria and often form part of a wider group of schools - a 'Multi Academy Trust' - which, along with a similar ethos, sometimes share staff and facilities. Note: Free schools are academies.

Community schools. Gradually becoming an old fashioned concept with the advent of academies. Otherwise known as 'local authority maintained', these schools are funded and have their admissions decided by the local council.

Ballots. Some schools use these to offer some places, but they are not allowed as the main oversubscription criterion.

Secondary school admissions priorities

In the event of there being more applicants than the school has available places, most non-selective, non-faith state secondary schools have admissions priorities similar to the following:

  • Statement of special education need or education, health and social care plan naming the school. These children come first in line and must be given a place.
  • Looked after/previously looked after children. These generally come next.
  • Siblings. These often, but not always, third. Check carefully before you move miles away after your first-born has got a place.
  • Exceptional medical or social need. This generally involves a letter from a doctor or social worker explaining why St Cake’s is the only school that will cope with your child’s needs. Very few children get a place by this route.
  • Distance. Generally as the crow flies, but sometimes by the shortest walking route, Sometimes faith schools designate parishes, and other schools may designate particular areas as their catchment. Increasing numbers of grammar schools are limiting the distance applicants may travel to school. Your local authority should have information on how close you probably have to live to any individual school (except faith schools) to be in with a chance of a place

Before filling in your application form, study the admissions criteria of any school you like the look of. They may be placed in a different order, or there may be different categories. If you do not meet one of the first few criteria bands of the school you apply for, you are most unlikely to get a place and the local authority will allocate a school instead (which will inevitably be an unpopular and undersubscribed school). After all, local authorities have a duty only to provide a place at a school, not at a school of your choosing.

Joining year 12

Those already in a school may 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 the number and quality of GCSE passes for various different courses.

Can an offer of a place be withdrawn?

Yes. Once an offer of a school place has been made (1 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: 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.

Can you appeal if you don't want the school you are offered?

If you are offered a school you have not chosen, you are invited to appeal and informed of your rights. See Secondary school appeals.

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 till you have an address in the country and are living here (except for Forces/diplomatic families and for those applying to state boarding schools).

Secondary schools are not allowed to:

  • Take ability into account, unless they are selective/partially selective schools, or for banding purposes. Performing arts/sport/language places must be given on the basis of aptitude for a subject, rather than ability gained by previous experience. NB In our experience this tends to amount to the same thing – and often to favour higher ability children.
  • Ask for details about disabilities, special educational needs or medical conditions, unless in support of positive action.
  • Insist on a home-school agreement being signed as a condition of admission.
  • Make any charges in relation to admission, expect ‘voluntary’ contributions, or charge for school trips that are part of the curriculum, and during the school day. Other trips must not be compulsory, and schools should make clear any help available for those unable to afford the cost.
  • Specify expensive uniform or sportswear.
  • Take into account parental occupation, marital status or financial status.
  • Interview children or families, except for interviews to determine the suitability to board or to discuss potential courses with sixth form applicants.
  • Refuse to admit a child where the school is listed on their SEN statement or EHC plan.

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

Our impartial, candid school reviews have been helping parents make educational decisions for more than 30 years. We currently review nearly 400 state schools across the UK. 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 for as little as £0.29 a day. 

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.

  • Secondary school appeals – do I stand a chance?

    Can I appeal my child's secondary school offer? You have a legal right to appeal to any school named on your original preference form. This will come as a huge relief to those still suffering from the shock of receiving an offer for ‘Unpopular Academy’ instead of the high-flying secondary school you preferred. But it’s vital to have a back-up plan alongside the appeals process.

  • 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. .

  • Secondary schools – top tips when applying

    The Good Schools Guide has been helping parents choose the right school for their children for more than 30 years. Here are our top tips and pitfalls to avoid on your secondary school application, which is due to land with your local authority by 31 October. Other options

  • Secondary school admissions – finding the right school

    You are not ‘free to choose’ the state secondary school you want your child to attend, but you can ‘express a preference.’ Those already in a school may 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.

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.