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Secondary school pupils | The Good Schools Guide

The deadline for state secondary school admissions looms large at the end of every October. So how do you find the best secondary school for your child, when do you apply for secondary school and what is the secondary schools admissions process? 

How are secondary school places allocated? 

Before deciding which secondary schools are your favourites - and certainly before applying for a place - study the admissions policy of any school you like the look of and which make geograpical sense for your family. If it is a popular school and you do not meet one of the its first few 'oversubscription criteria' bands, it is quite possible you won't be offered a place and that the local authority will allocate a secondary school lower down your list of preferences or even one not on your list at all (which will inevitably be a less popular 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. 

Most non-selective and non-faith secondary schools’ admissions policies have oversubscription criteria which look something like this, although they may be placed in a different order and there may be additional categories - for other types of school, see further down the page: 

When the school has received more applications than offers, the following criteria will be applied in order to allocate places to applicants:

  1. Children with an EHCP who have named the school. These children come first in line and must be given a place 
  2. Looked after/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.
  3. Children with siblings already in the school. This criterion can appear lower down the list so check carefully before you move miles away after your first-born has got a place.
  4. 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. 
  5. Distance. Generally as the crow flies AKA 'straight-line distance', but sometimes by the shortest walking route.  

How do secondary school admissions work? 

You will have to fill in the (usually online) Common Application Form (CAF). Most local authorities ask for a list of three or four schools in your order of preference. London LAs request six. Even if you are trying for a faith or grammar school, or for a school in another area, apply using your local authority’s common application form. Your local authority’s admissions guide (usually available to download) will list the admissions policies (including oversubscription criterias) for schools in your area, and you can also phone them to ask how close you probably have to live to any individual school to be in with a chance. Information from previous years' admissions rounds is also available, such as whether schools were oversubscribed, how places were allocated and the exact distance children admitted live 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. All this will help you get an idea of how likely you are to get a place and whether targeting certain schools would actually be a waste of your time. 

What are secondary school catchment areas?

There are secondary schools with 'catchment areas' or 'priority admissions areas'. These areas are where prospective pupils need to live to be in with a fair chance of gaining a school place. Sometimes they are denoted by a red boundary drawn on a map (found on the school or local authority's website) and sometimes the catchment area comprises a list of postcodes. All schools want to fill their places (their Published Admissions Number - PAN) and so, if there aren't enough applications from within catchment, places may be offered to applicants from further away. However, applying to a secondary school from outside the catchment area is a big gamble and parents should certainly check previous years' admissions information to see whether the school is usually oversubscribed. 

Secondary schools with alternative admissions processes 

There are certain types of secondary schools with different admissions processes. These include: 

Grammar schools: These select pupils based on academic 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 the selection test. 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 of these schools 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. 

Semi-selective schools: Some secondary schools select part of their intake by aptitude (eg for music, sport, academics or technology). As with grammar school admissions, these students are offered places according to their performance in the entrance assessment and may live further afield than the rest of the cohort. 

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 higher percentage of the more able children. 

Faith schools: These are mostly Church of England or Roman Catholic and may expect you to have baptised your child before he or she was 6 months old. Regular attendance at a specific church weekly (or three in every four weeks) for the past five years is also usually a factor. 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 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. Sometimes faith schools designate a particular parish and occasionally getting a place at a faith secondary school is dependent on having been at a faith primary school. 

Free schools: Free schools are a type of academy, funded by the state but (like other academies) operate completely independently of local authorities. They can decide on their own admissions criteria (although they predominently have a comprehensive intake) and are often part of a wider group of schools - a 'Multi Academy Trust.' In their oversubscription criteria, free schools sometimes give priority to applicants who are family members of the school's founders and/or governors.

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 authority. 

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

Go to the open days 

All schools run open events in the autumn term and many open their doors again in the summer term. Once you have created a list of realistic secondary school options for your child, attend some open days; visit as many of them as you can. Schools' reputations - good or bad - take a long time to change so don't put too much faith in local chitchat and anyway, 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. 

When to apply for secondary school

You can only apply for a secondary school place through your local authority, 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 authority areas - 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. You will be notified as to which school has offered you a school place on 1 March.  

Check your local authority website for details of the catchment area for secondary schools nearby, faith requirements and key dates. In the case of selective and faith schools, you will need to apply both via the local authority’s common application form and 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 up to six. Once you have submitted your CAF, 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 can tolerate and 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 Custard's: in special measures, deeply unpopular and 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 ones least in demand.

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. Read more from the UK government on school admissions and applications from overseas children.

Joining sixth form 

Those already in a school may or may not need to apply formally for places in year 12. External applicants apply directly to the school itself. Ask about entry requirements eg the number and quality of GCSE passes for various different courses. Some schools also interview, as well as setting their own sixth form entrance exams and requesting past reports and references. It is worth asking how many newbies they take into sixth form and whether they tend to be oversubscribed – and if so, by how much.

Can an offer of a secondary school place be withdrawn? 

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. 

A school can withdraw its offer for reasons 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 secondary school place 

Appealing a secondary school place is possible if you are offered a school which is not your preferred choice. 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.

Photo credit: The Camden School for Girls

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