Preparing for your child to start primary school can be very exciting for the whole family but it does come with the stress, more for some than others, of establishing which school your child will go to.
Which school do you want?
How do you apply?
Will your child be offered a place?
The list of questions goes on and on but the information in this article should help prepare you to navigate this minefield.
Types of School
The first thing you need to do is research and understand the school options available in your area. There are many types of school including:
Academies – these are self managed and receive their funding from central government. They have more freedom to set things such as terms dates and admissions criteria.
Free Schools – these are academy schools that have been set up from scratch where an area of need has been identified. Contrary to media hype not just anyone can set up such a school, they must go through a rigorous application process and meet UK educational standards.
Faith Schools – at the primary level many schools are affiliated with local churches to a greater or lesser degree. There will usually be a church representative on the board and there will be denominational teaching and worship within the school such as assemblies etc.
To determine a good school you have a raft of information available including Ofsted reports, league tables, published progress and attainment level results and contextual data. This is all available through either the Ofsted website of on the schools own. In addition utilising open days and school visits will allow you to see the day to day workings of the school and probably most valuable of all is talking to other parents and gaining their realistic views and opinions although make sure you gain a broad and balanced set of views.
One other point to bear in mind is checking which secondary schools a primary school is associated with. Many senior schools offer priority to children coming from schools within their ‘family’ and forward thinking now might help you later.
If you are considering private school options this information will not bear relevance as each school handles their own admissions process and is not required to adhere to the same timetable as state schools. You should contact each of your preferred schools directly and work from there.
There are quite a few myths surrounding the allocation of schools place such as:
“I live in the “catchment area”. It’s likely that a lot of other children to do too and if the school is popular it will be over subscribed. The school will use a number of factors to determine admission and proximity is only one of them and it’s not always at the top of the list. Just because you live close to the school it doesn’t guarantee you a place.
“My child is on the waiting list for the local school”. There is no such thing. Admission applications for state schools can only be made during the application period for that years intake but more about that later.
“I already have older children at the school”. There are numerous media articles and coverage about parents having sibling in different schools. It might be an advantage at a lot of schools but there is no guarantee.
As an example I live in a small village with a good school less than 150 metres from our house. I could not get my children a place there. They go to the school in the next village which is a 3 mile drive away. Luckily it has worked out well for us, we love their school and are quite happy to travel but it serves the purpose of demonstrating that the only thing you can guarantee about the state school application process is that there are no guarantees.
You need to do your homework, understand the process and make sensible choices and here is how you do it.
The first thing you need to understand is how admissions are managed in your area. Almost all state schools manage their admissions through the admissions department of the local authority. There are a few exceptions, some religious or free schools, but they are rare. The schools website will tell you where you must apply to, the local authority or direct to them.
Every local authority will have a comprehensive guide on their website which includes process and dates. Whilst there may be some minor anomalies in different areas for the most part the guidelines will be the same.
The main point of application in the primary school system is Reception. Please note that if you have previously used a nursery attached to a primary school this does not automatically offer you a place within the Reception class, you must still go through the application process.
There is a set timeline as shown below, using the academic year 2015/6 as an example:
Applications Open Early November 2014
Applications Close Mid January 2015
National Offer Day Mid April 2015
Appeals process Dates TBA on offer day
School Starts September 2015
There are a limited number of infant schools which necessitate transferring to a different primary school at Year 3. The dates for this process are the same as above
If you wish to make an application at any other point during your child’s school career this is known as “mid year” or “in year” entry (even if it is for a September start) and you must contact your local authority directly for guidance.
Whilst you can do paper applications by far the quickest and easiest way is to utilise the online system that your Local Authority will provide. You will also know what places you have been offered earlier this way.
At all schools priority is given to children who are in the care of the local authority and then to those who can demonstrate a specific social, emotional or educational need to attend a particular school. From there some of the criteria that are used include (but are not limited to) siblings already attending the school, distance from home, religious affiliation and several others. Each school will apply these in different ways. It is vital that you take the time to understand the admissions criteria that each school will use when offering places.
Depending on where you live you will be asked to select three or four preferences. The popularity of a school may affect your chance of being offered a place so it is important that your preferences include at least one, if not more, schools where your child meets one of the higher admission criteria. If you are low down the criteria list on all your preferences you run the risk of not being offered any of your choices and being allocated a place at a school you don’t want. This is known as a mandatory offer and is made to reduce the likelihood of children being left without any school place but it may not be in your catchment area.
If you are not happy with the school place that you have been offered you have the right of appeal. Details on how to appeal will be sent out with your offer letter and you must take action within the timeframe specified.
At any point in the process you may be asked to prove any information you stated during the application process whether this is place of residence, special educational needs, religious affiliation or family structure if claiming sibling status. This is known as supporting information.
It is important that you formally accept an offer from a school if you are going to take it as it may be withdrawn after 14 days if you don’t. This doesn’t affect your right to appeal at schools you like better than the one offered but it does ensure you at least have a place even if it is not the one you want.
All of this probably sounds a bit frightening and to be honest it actually is. IN 2013 the National Audit Office estimates that an additional 240,000 primary school places will be needed within 12 months to cope with the rise in pupil numbers. That’s a lot of extra children competing for a spot.
The reality is that if you live in an area with good performing popular schools you are likely going to have to fight for your place. I can’t advise strongly enough to be sensible with your preference choices to give you the best possible chance of gaining an outcome that you are happy with.