School Catchments

Paul Vernon

Paul Vernon · Surveyor (retired)

You are looking for a new home, the house looks perfect, it’s close enough to work and handy for the shops, but what about the local schools? You only need to pick up a newspaper at the right time of year to find an article on how to get your child into the right school simply by moving to the right area. They make it sound so simple, if expensive. However, it’s not that simple, by any means. Policies vary throughout the country, but by and large, whilst there are dedicated school catchment areas, just living in one isn’t sufficient to guarantee a place.

Is it a problem or a dilemma?

We all want the best for our children, and it’s only right that you will want to make sure that your children will go to a school that will bring out the best in them and it’s natural that we’ll want to check out the local schools and select the most appropriate place for them.

We are blessed in this country. Universal, free of charge education is available to all children to a standard that much of the world can only aspire to. In 2018 a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) undertook an international comparison of education in industrialised countries and provided a snapshot of trends:

  • From the age of three, there are very high levels of take-up for pre-school education and childcare in the UK, higher than almost any other developed country;
  • By international standards, the UK has a high proportion of young people going to university;
  • There is a strong link in the UK between education and employment - with graduates in the UK having among the lowest unemployment rates among OECD countries.

But just because overall standards are high, it doesn’t mean that all is well, and the Government (in England) has set up the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) to inspect services providing education and skills for learners of all ages. Their role is to make sure that organisations providing education, training and care services in England do so to a high standard for children and students. Similar organisations exist in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The basic premise of these organisations is that however good things may be, there is alway room for improvement, and they work with education establishments by means of inspection, and they are monitoring and challenging schools to improve.

Education Authorities have a responsibility to provide enough places for the students that they can expect for each academic year. To do this they anticipate how many students there will be in each academic year and where they will be. Therefore each school will have a Catchment Area for capacity planning purposes. This takes careful planning and while they do their best, they don’t always have the right number of spaces in the right place at the right time. We need to be realistic, you can’t magically increase or reduce school capacity overnight and so sometimes there will be occasions where a schools capacity might exceed demand, or vice-versa.

Choosing a School

There is a legal obligation for children to be educated. It can be done at home, or privately, and I don’t propose to discuss these options here. The vast majority of children in the UK get educated in the “State System’’ and they do very well out of it. However, you don’t automatically get allocated a school place for your child. You have to explore the options available to you and then make an application for your child to attend that place of education. Whether it is to the school itself, or to the local Education Authority, will depend on the system that has been established in your area, and I’m afraid that you’ll have to identify what that is for yourself. A useful starting point would be the council website and a search for school admissions procedures.

Whatever the system, there will be specific deadlines by when applications must be made. Where I live, for a place at an infant, primary school, or for a Year 3 place in junior or primary school, applications must be submitted by mid January, and for secondary schools, by the end of October. Around here Sixth Form education tends to take place in dedicated establishments rather than schools, and applications should be made by early February. However, all of these can be establishment specific, so you should check for yourself on all of these deadlines.

There could be a number of reasons why you would want your child to go to a particular school. It might be very local; specialise in a particular skill; be a Faith School; be sporty or academic; or be handy for work or after school child care. You don’t have to send your child to a school in the same Local Authority area, although most do.

If you are lucky, the establishment of your choice will have capacity and you’ll be accepted straight away, but for many that is unlikely, and so the school will have to use a selection process. The criteria will vary between education authorities and schools, and even more so if the school had an outside interest when it was established. This usually applies to faith schools, but also, especially at Junior / Infant level, to ones that whilst wholly maintained by the Local Authority, have a historic church background, and there are more of those than you would think.

School Selection Criteria

I’ll try and run through what I believe to be common criteria (and then discuss some of the variations that might be applied) if a school has to narrow down the list of applicants to fit the number of spaces available.

  • Children with a Statement of Special Educational Needs or EHCP( education, health and care plan), which names a particular school, will be allocated places, after which places are allocated according to an agreed set of criteria, in strict order of priority:
  • Priority 1: Looked After Children – Children who are in the care of the state, or were, but have since been adopted.
  • Priority 2: Very exceptionally, priority may be given to a child who has a particular health reason requiring them to attend a specific school. This will usually require written supporting evidence from a medical professional.
  • Priority 3: Children living within the defined Catchment Area. If there are not enough places for all the children living in the catchment area, the following two criteria will apply:
    • Priority will be given to children living within the catchment area who will have an older sibling at the school on the day they are due to start there.
    • After that, all other children who live inside the catchment area
  • Priority 4: Children living outside the defined Catchment Area. If there are not enough places for all the children who live outside the catchment area the following criteria will apply:
    • Priority will be given to children outside the catchment area who will have an older sibling at the school on the day they are due to start there.
    • Next, pupils living outside the catchment area who have attended a state-funded primary school that lies within the secondary school’s catchment area for more than a whole academic year immediately prior to transfer.
    • After that, any other children who live outside the catchment area.

In some schools/authorities, the order of these may change.

Other variations in selection criteria might include, in no particular order:

  • Some secondary schools may have a group of feeder primary schools where attendance automatically affords a level of priority.
  • Children of the Teachers who have been employed at the school for two or more years at the time at which the application for admission to the school is made, or in the instance that a member of staff is recruited to fill a vacant post for which there is a demonstrable skill shortage.
  • Children who are members of, or who regularly practice, their faith or denomination at a local place of worship by means of a letter of recommendation from that establishment, which should be submitted to the school directly by the application deadline.
  • Another example of Faith requirements I have found (although this relates to a Catholic School, I am sure that the concept could be transferable between other faiths / denominations) is:
    • Baptised Catholic children in the parish of xxx
    • Other baptised Catholic Children
    • Other Non-Catholic children whose parents wish them to have a Catholic education.
  • Pupils in receipt of a pupil premium or pupil premium at the point of closing the application round.

Children of Crown Servants (military etc).

The School Admissions Code requires admission authorities and local authorities to process applications from UK crown servants or UK military families with evidence from their employers or commanding officers that they are returning to the area ahead of any actual move. Schools will accept any posting or quartering address as a ‘home’ address in the absence of any actual home address for the purposes of allocating places.


It sounds like a bit of a minefield, and parents can too often get hung up on school choice. But the selection systems have been developed to try and be as fair as possible, and it’s a fact that the vast majority of children will find themselves in a school where they can achieve (or better) their potential, make long lasting friendships and build a strong foundation for a long and productive life out there in the big wide world. So, top tips, look on the local council website for admissions information which will contain catchment area information, have a look at different schools to see which is best suited to your child and work through the admissions process to understand the timings for applications and what to do.