Applying for a school in England and Wales

In this section, we will take a look at the general process to be used when applying for school places in England and Wales. The education system is slightly different in Scotland so we shall look at that in a separate post.

Each school and local council has its own criteria for admissions, but in general, this is how the process works.


1. Choosing schools

Your local council's website provides details of schools in your area and the admission criteria for the schools you’re interested in. You can find your local council here.

Unfortunately, there is no national standard for council websites so they tend to differ slightly in format, but there is usually a section of the website called "Learning" or "Education" under the "Residents" or "Parents" tab. Failing that, there is usually an "A to Z" or search box to help you find the education section.

Find out about a school

The best way to find out more about the school is by:

Visiting the school - Most schools hold open days, usually in September and October for families looking for a school place for their child to start the following September. During the open day you can visit the school during an actual working day. You can usually visit classrooms and the headteacher or section head will give a presentation.

Reading the school’s most recent Ofsted reports - Ofsted reports contain information on the school’s performance, its pupils’ work, observation reports on lessons and views from staff, parents and pupils. Schools are judged as one of the following:

  • Outstanding
  • Good
  • Satisfactory
  • Inadequate

Checking school league tables, - League tables show test and exam results for all schools, listing Key Stage 2 test results for all state primary schools, GCSE results for all state and independent schools, AS and A level results for all schools and sixth form colleges.

Talking to other parents about what they think of the school - Parents are usually fairly honest about any good points or shortcomings, so getting friends' and colleagues' opinions can give you a helpful insight.

What schools publish on their website

To help you make your decision, schools’ websites include the following information:

  • Details of the curriculum
  • Admission criteria
  • Behaviour policy
  • Special educational needs policy
  • Disability policy
  • Links to Ofsted reports
  • Links to performance data
  • The school’s latest key stage 2 and 4 attainment and progress measures
  • The amount of money they get from taking underprivileged children (the "pupil premium"), what they do with it and the effect it’s had


2. Admission criteria

Many schools, particularly the ones with better Ofsted reports and performance data, tend to be oversubscribed, i.e. they receive more applications than they have spaces. To remedy this, all schools have admission criteria to decide which children get places. To make matters complicated, the admission criteria are different for each school.

Every school is required to make children in care the top priority. After that, schools may give priority to children:

  • Who have a brother or sister at the school already
  • Who live close to the school
  • From a particular religion (for faith schools)
  • Who do well in an entrance exam (for selective schools, e.g. grammar schools or stage schools)
  • Who went to a particular primary school (a "feeder school")

To find out about a specific school's admission criteria you should look on the local council's website - there is usually a section called "Learning" or "Education" under the "Residents" or "Parents" tab, or phone the school for clarification.

The catchment area can be a main concern for parents as people move house to be within the catchment area of specific schools. If you contact the school, they should be able to provide you with a list of roads situated in the school's catchment area.

If you are applying for a school place after the start of the school year (e.g. changing schools or from overseas) you should contact the council directly.


3. Applying

Applications for state schools are made through the local council, either online or on paper. If you apply online you usually need to set up an online account first.

You apply during the autumn for a school place the following September. If you apply late, you may not get your preferred choice of school.

Even if your child’s current nursery or primary school is linked to a school, you must still apply for a place at a school.

The way you apply depends on whether you’re applying for:

If your child is starting primary school it is your responsibility to apply for a place through the local council.

If your child is moving up from primary to secondary school, the current primary school should give you an application form.

Private schools have their own admissions procedures. If you wish to send your child to a private school you will need to apply directly to the school.

Deadlines to apply

Applications open in autumn and you apply during the autumn for a school place the following September.

  • You must apply for a primary school place by 15 January
  • You must apply for a secondary school place by 31 October

Remember, if you apply late, you may not get your preferred choice of school.

How to apply

When you fill in the form (online or on paper) you’ll be asked to list the schools you’re applying for in order of preference. You can normally apply for 3 schools.

Online application is the preferred method but to get a copy of the application form on paper, you need to contact your local council.

When you’ll find out

Outcome letters are usually sent out but you may be able to get the information through your account if you signed up online.

Councils will send confirmations for:

  • Primary schools on 16 April
  • Secondary schools on 1 March

See your local council’s website for more information or to find out your results if you applied online.


4. Appealing a school's decision

Depending upon you’ll be sent an email or a letter letter with the decision about your child’s school. You can appeal against the decision. The letter will tell you exactly how and provide a deadline by which the appeal must be made.

You will then be given a date for an appeal hearing. The "admission authority" for the school (usually the school itself or the council) must give you at least 10 school days’ notice of the hearing. Appeals must be heard within 40 school days of the deadline for making an appeal.

Appeals for infant classes

For 5 to 7 year olds, the class size is limited to 30. Your application can be turned down if all the classes already have 30 children.

You can still appeal. Your appeal could be successful if:

  • The admission arrangements haven’t been properly followed
  • The admission criteria aren’t legal according to the school admissions appeal code
  • The decision to refuse your child a place wasn’t reasonable

Help preparing your appeal

ACE Education Advice  and Coram Children's Legal Centre, and Celsium's education consultant can provide information to help you prepare your appeal.

When the hearing will be

The "admission authority" for the school (usually the school itself or the council) must give you at least 10 school days’ notice of the hearing.

Appeals must be heard within 40 school days of the deadline for making an appeal.

What happens at the appeal hearing

There’s a panel of 3 people at the appeal hearing. The panel must be independent.

  1. The admission authority will explain why they turned down your application.

  2. You’ll be able to give your own reasons why your child should be admitted.

  3. The appeals panel must decide if the school’s admission criteria were properly followed and are legal according to the school admissions appeals code.

  4. If the criteria are legal and were properly followed, the panel must decide if they were followed fairly and thoroughly.

  5. If the criteria weren’t properly followed or are illegal, your appeal must be upheld.

  6. If your appeal has not already been upheld, the panel will decide if your reasons for your child to be admitted outweigh the school’s reasons for not admitting another child.

  7. The panel will send you and the admission authority their decision within 5 school days.

A panel’s decision can only be overturned by a court. If there’s a change in your circumstances which could affect the decision, you may be able to appeal again.

Complain about the appeals process

You can complain about the way the appeal was carried out, but you can’t complain about the decision itself.

Maintained schools

Complain to the Local Government Ombudsman.

Fill in the online complaint form.

Other schools

Complain to the Education Funding Agency about an appeal made to:

  • Free schools
  • Academies
  • University technical colleges
  • Studio schools

Fill in the online complaint form – sign up for an account if you want to save your form.

Contact the Education Funding Agency if you need a paper form instead.

You should get a decision on your complaint within 9 weeks (45 working days). You’ll be told if it’ll take longer. The letter will explain the reasons for the decision.

If the Education Funding Agency decides something went wrong with the appeals panel, it may either:

  • Ask the school to hold a new appeal hearing with a different panel
  • Recommend the school reviews its appeals process

If a maintained school becomes an academy

If you complain about an admission appeal hearing held by a maintained school that then converts to academy status, this complaint will be investigated by the Local Government Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman will pass any actions to the Education Funding Agency.


If you are relocating and would like any support with school applications, please contact us and we would be happy to help you.