Applying for a school in Scotland

In this section, we will take a look at the general process to be used when applying for school places in Scotland. If you are interested in learning about the process in England and Wales, please read our previous blog post.

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

1. Choosing a school

Find out all that you can about the school your council suggests that you should use. If you can, arrange to visit the school and speak to the headteacher. Schools make special arrangements to welcome visitors and it is advisable to find out what these arrangements are.

Look out for advertisements in your local paper telling you about enrolling new pupils in the school. These are usually published in October or November.

If you decide you want to know about other schools before you make up your mind, telephone or call at the address the council gave you to ask about other schools. Try to arrange a visit to the schools you are considering.

All schools in Scotland that are managed by a local authority produce an annual School Handbook. This gives you information about the school, including:

  • Contact details – including information on how the school communicates with its parents and how parents can communicate with the school
  • Information about opportunities for parents to become involved in the school and in their child's education
  • A statement of the school's culture, ethos and values
  • Information on curriculum, assessment and reporting
  • Arrangements for support for pupils
  • School's performance and achievements
  • Range of school policies and practical information.

This information is available free of charge to parents who request it and further information about all schools in Scotland (state and independent) can be found on the Scottish Schools Online website. It provides contact details, links to school websites where available, plus all statistical performance and other useful information for every school.


2. Applying to local state schools

Catchment areas

Local authorities have defined catchment areas for each of their primary schools, and each primary school is associated with a secondary school. Children living within a specific catchment area are normally provided with a place at the school serving that area.

Enrolling my child

The local authorities usually require you to enrol your child for primary school several months (enrolment usually opens in November) before school starts and some expect you to enrol by a specific date. Information about procedures for enrolling children at the local school and how to submit a placing request for another school is usually made widely available in nursery and primary schools, community centres, libraries and in local newspapers but the best source of information is the local authority website.

You should check with the local authority for how and when to apply.

What happens if a school is full?

Occasionally, there may be too many children for the number of places at a school. When this happens, a local authority will allocate places according to their policy. They will often do this by looking at how far a child lives from the school and whether they already have a brother or sister at the school.

Placing requests

Allocation of places in catchment schools is automatic but you do have the right to ask for a place at a school other than your local catchment area school. To do this, you need to make what is know as a "placing request" to the local authority. Any placing request will only be granted after places have been given to children living in the catchment area.

If there is space at the school, the local authority must agree to your request.

To make a placing request, you should apply through the local authority.

When do I find out?

When the council gets your placing request in writing, they must:

  • either let you know within a few days that there will be a place for your child in the school of your choice or must tell you who will decide whether there is a place for your child
  • tell you whether you will have a chance to talk to the person who will make the decision, or whether you should write to them
  • give you the name of the person you should telephone or write to if you have any questions about how your request is being handled
  • give you a note of what the law says about the reasons why your request may be refused
  • tell you when your request will be treated as having been turned down
  • tell you about your right to appeal against refusal

If you want your child to start at the school of your choice at the beginning of the school year in August, and if your letter reaches the council by 15 March that year, you must be given an answer by 30 April.

If you do not get a written answer from the council by 30 April, your request is treated as if the council had turned it down, and you may appeal.


3. How can I appeal?

If there are more placing requests than places available, the education authority will allocate places according to their policy. The policy should normally give the first places to children living within the catchment area of the school. Preference may be given to children who already have brothers or sisters at the school. If your placing request is turned down, you can refer this decision to an independent appeal committee set up by the authority.

When to appeal

If you want to appeal against a decision not to allow you the school of your choice, you must inform the appeal committee no later than 28 days from the date on which:

  • your request is treated as if the council had turned it down; or
  • you receive the council's letter of refusal (if the letter is received before the date on which your request would be treated as turned down)

If you do not tell the appeal committee within the time allowed by the law, you may lose your chance to appeal.

How to appeal

The letter from the council will explain your right to appeal and where to write if you decide to do so.

Your letter of appeal should include the following:

  • your name and address
  • the name of your child
  • the name of the school of your choice
  • the date of the council's letter of refusal
  • a statement that you wish to refer the council's decision to the appeal committee

Deciding how to make your case

The appeal committee will arrange a day, time, and place at which they will consider your appeal. Before the hearing takes place, you have to decide how you want to tell them about your reasons for appealing.

  • You can go to the hearing and speak to the appeal committee yourself
  • You can take up to 3 people with you and one of those people can speak for you, instead of speaking yourself
  • If you cannot go yourself, you can ask somebody else to go in your place and speak for you
  • You can put your arguments in writing beforehand
  • You can put your arguments in writing even if you also want to go and speak, or ask someone else to speak for you

If the appeal committee does not get written arguments from you, and if no one goes to the hearing for you, the committee will consider the information given to them by the council and reach their decision.

Making your case in writing

When deciding whether to put your arguments in writing, it is important to think about whether there is anything you want to say that you have not told the council before. If you say something to the committee that the council has not heard before, they would have to give the council time to think about the new information, which might delay the committee's decision.

You must send any written arguments to the appeal committee and to the council at least 10 days before the hearing.

Any written information the council gives to the committee must also be copied to you at least 10 days before the hearing.


  • to copy to the council any letter or other paper you send to the appeal committee before the hearing; AND
  • to do this at least 10 days before the hearing

Arranging the hearing

You should get an acknowledgement of your appeal within about a week of sending your letter. It may take up to 2 weeks for the committee to inform you of the date, time, and place of the hearing. The hearing itself should take place about 2 weeks after that.

You may be asked to agree to a hearing at less than 2 weeks' notice in order to fit in with the committee's arrangements for other hearings. You do not have to agree if you want a full 2 weeks to get ready.

If you want to go to the hearing yourself but the date is not convenient, you can ask the committee to fix another date. They do not, however, have to do so if the date fixed is convenient for other parents or for other committee members themselves. If the hearing has to be held on a date when you cannot go, then you may want to ask someone else to speak for you.

What happens at the hearing?

When the hearing starts, the Chair of the appeal committee will say how the committee intends to conduct the proceedings. Normally:

  • The person speaking for the council will say why they refused your request and other people may be asked to speak, in support of what the council has said
  • You, or the person you have asked to speak for you, can ask them questions
  • You, or the person speaking for you, can tell the appeal committee why you think your child should get a place in the school you want, and why you think the council should not have refused this. You can also ask people to speak in support of what you say
  • The person speaking for the council may ask questions of you, and any of your witnesses
  • The person speaking for the council will sum up their reasons
  • You, or the person speaking for you, may sum up your reasons

The council can also ask the committee to adjourn the hearing and fix a later date for resuming it if you say anything new which they did not know about before. To avoid delay, it is best to make sure that the council knows all your reasons at least 10 days before the hearing.

How long will a decision take?

The committee must give its decision within 14 days of the end of the hearing. It must give its decision in writing to you and the council, and must give their reasons for it. If the committee agrees with the council, it must tell you about your right of appeal to the Sheriff.

If the committee disagree with the council and says that they should not have refused your request, the council must let your child have a place in the school you asked for.

If the appeal committee backs the authority's decision, you can refer the case to the Sheriff for your area.

Appeal to the Sheriff

If the appeal committee agrees that the council was right to refuse your child a place in the school you want and you want to appeal, you must lodge an application with the Sheriff Clerk.

The application must be lodged within 28 days of receiving the appeal committee's decision. An application must be in the prescribed form of an initial writ for which a court fee would be payable. Normal court procedures would be observed.

The local Sheriff Clerk's details can be found at the Scottish Courts and Tribunals website.

An appeal to the Sheriff will be dealt with in private.

The Sheriff will decide first whether the council refused your request for a reason that is allowed by the law. If not, he/she will overturn the council's original decision and your child must be admitted to the school you asked for.

However, even where he/she decides that the council had good reason, the Sheriff will consider whether your request should still be accepted. The Sheriff's judgement may, in certain circumstances, be open to judicial review at the request of either the parents or the council.

Celsium's education consultant can help and support you with any aspect of the appeal.


4. Deferred primary school entry

Children in Scotland usually start primary school in the August term after their fifth birthday, i.e. children who reach the age of five years between 1st March of that year and the last day of February of the following year will automatically be admitted to school. This generally means that children start school when they are aged between four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half. However, If your child will not reach the age of 5 by the start of the new school year (normally mid-August), and you feel your child is not ready to start school in the year given in the table, you can make an application to delay your child’s entry into Primary 1 for a year. However, most children of this age are successfully supported in Primary 1.

You can delay entry if:

  • Your child's 5th birthday is in January or February following the August they would start school (you will be offered a free part time nursery place for an additional year.)
  • Your child's 5th birthday is between 1 September and 31 December of the year before they would start school (a free nursery place is not automatic and is at the discretion of the local authority.)

In either case you should still register your child in the local school and tell the head teacher that you intend to defer entry.


5. Join a school after the start of session (moving into area or changing schools)

To apply for a school place after the start of the school year you must contact the school directly. 

This is the case if you:

  • Want to change your child's school during the school year
  • You are moving into area with children already of school age

To apply for a place complete the local authority's application form and return it to your chosen school.

Requests from those living in the catchment area are given priority.

If your request is not granted your child will go on a waiting list. Waiting lists are prioritised based on the date the request was received.

If your catchment school is full you will be placed on its waiting list. You will then need to contact other schools to find a place.


6. Applying to private / independent schools

Independent schools (sometimes called private or fee-paying schools) are privately owned and self-financing. They are not part of the state-funded system and therefore do not receive financial support from the government. Applications must be made directly to the school.

Fees and financial help

In most cases a fee is charged to cover costs. Most schools have scholarships and bursaries available. Parents should ask for details from the school they are interested in.

Registration and inspection

All independent schools need to be registered with Scottish Ministers through the Registrar of Independent Schools. The Registrar:

  • Ensures that independent schools take due care over the health, welfare and education of children.
  • Has responsibility for keeping the Register of Independent Schools and for ensuring that it is open to the public.

Education Scotland publishes inspection reports giving information about the education in a school. Independent schools that have boarding facilities will also be inspected by the Care Inspectorate on a twice yearly basis.

The Scottish Council of Independent Schools (SCIS) represents almost all of Scotland’s independent schools. To help parents they:

  • Publish a directory to provide information on choosing an independent school
  • Have a detailed list of schools available on their website
  • Can provide general advice to parents about choosing an independent school


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

Stuart Beaty

Celsium, Birmingham, UK