State school admissions are about so much more than simply where you live. There just isn’t a magic catchment area that will guarantee your child entry and any online catchment indicator or heat map (including ours) must not be relied upon too heavily. In this post we explore some of the myths surrounding school catchment areas.

If you are seriously considering a school, you really need to visit it and speak to the person responsible for admissions.

Myth 1: All schools have catchment areas

If a school is not oversubscribed, it must accept pupils from anywhere, e.g. it doesn’t matter if you live inside or outside of the school’s borough or in fact halfway across the country. Problems only arise when schools are oversubscribed, which for the best schools is likely to be the case. For these schools "catchment areas" are often confused with priority areas; if and only if a school is oversubscribed then, in some cases, priority is given to children who live within a certain area. But, even living within this priority area does not guarantee an offer of a place at that school.

Not all oversubscribed schools have priority areas, e.g. academies, foundations and free schools have extra freedoms as they are able to seek the right to opt out of some elements of the School Admissions Code in their funding agreements. The number of academies is growing rapidly and high on the government agenda, so expect many more schools like this. Another example would be a school on the edge of several local authorities – the local authority that the school is in often does not give priority to its residents; it is done on distance, regardless of the authority you live in. So, in a huge number of cases there is no safe "catchment area", it just depends who else happens to apply that year.

Myth 2: It’s all about distance

Although distance plays a key role, it is by no means the be all and end all when it comes to school places being offered. To understand this, let’s look at how a the primary school admissions process works. Schools receive every year, just before April, the list of all the children who applied for their school and the distance they live from that school (the applicant can live anywhere). Remember for under-subscribed schools everyone gets in, for oversubscribed schools, the school’s admission code is then applied to that list. For a non-religious state primary school, the code would typically accept pupils in the following priority:

  • Looked after children (fostered by the local authority) or adopted children.

  • Siblings – this means brothers sisters, half-brothers or half-sisters and step-brothers or step-sisters (if they are living at the same address).

  • Distance from the school, usually measured in meters as the crow flies. (Local authorities have tools that can measures distance down to the nearest cm.) Running alongside these there are other priority categories, such as ‘social/medical’ e.g. in cases of domestic violence, social care involvement, special educational needs, disability, youth offending service involvement, police involvement etc. These numbers are often relatively low and so can be largely ignored as a big influencing factor in this discussion.

Admissions criteria for other types of schools can be a minefield as the Governing Bodies or Diocese are their own admissions authority and they have some quite unique admissions criteria in some cases. Religious schools usually have church attendance before distance and parents have to get a supporting letter from the priest at their local church in order to increase their chances of getting in. Distance is therefore often at the bottom of the list!

Myth 3: The past can predict the future

What happened in the past is just that, in the past. Much can change on a year by year basis. Consider the following:

  • Number of siblings – siblings can often range from a third to two thirds of a class. You could live opposite the school and miss out to siblings whilst your neighbour’s children all attend the school.

  • Bulge classes – due to population pressure, lots of local authorities in high population areas ask schools to take in extra classes just for that year. This can give the impression that more children get in to that school, from a wider area, than previously. There is no way to predict which schools will take bulge years as this is a highly sensitive and confidential decision that local authorities take in conjunction with the schools once the applications have come in at the end of January.

  • Bulge siblings – the sibling issue can be exasperated by bulge classes in previous years; extra children in bulge years mean extra siblings in later years. All being given priority over distance, it is not unheard of that only siblings are offered places some years and no one from the local area, no matter how close they live.

  • New build housing – if the local authority or private contractors decide to build more houses right next to a school, there will suddenly be more children in the immediate area who will likely want to attend the school. Those extra children push others who would have previously been offered a place, out of the "catchment area".

You might be thinking, "oh these are very rare things", but really they are not. Bulge classes are becoming increasingly common as schools struggle to cope with increasing demand. Of course, for those moving to quiet villages or areas where the population has not changed much, the places from which local schools admit children may not change dramatically each year, but there are still no guarantees.

There just isn’t a magic catchment area that will guarantee your child entry.

Additional complications with secondary schools

Secondary school admissions can be even more of a minefield, especially if they work on selective entry. Let’s consider the most famous selective schools - grammars.

The pressure for grammar school places is often exceptionally high, super bright is no longer good enough, you now have to be super, super bright. So what happens - well parents get tutors and/or send their children to private prep schools. So a "catchment area" will be a reflection of affluence and ambition, rather than a reflection of the distance that people live from the school. One cannot look at an area and assume just because I live there I am going to get into this grammar school – actually the reality is probably more likely to be, I live here because I can afford to and therefore I can afford a tutor and/or independent preparatory school to get my child into a grammar school.

Other state secondary schools can have their own variations of admissions criteria, particularly with the growing number of academies and free schools – which are, as mentioned previously, very high on the Government agenda.

For example, some academies use a “postcode lottery” – imagine a large lottery style machine that they enter postcodes into and then this machine spits out the names out of the lucky few. Who gets to go in to the postcode lottery? The children who are applying all sit a banding test and representative samples from all bands go into the postcode machine, e.g. if 50% of children end up in the top band they offer 50% of places to those top band children – what this means is that it is impossible to predict a "catchment area" as you don’t know who will apply, let alone how clever they are and which band they will get in to.

There are other state schools who offer some kind of scholarship programme – this is not like an independent school scholarship, where fees are reduced - but rather a way to prioritise children for admissions with particular talents, e.g. there might be maths, sports and music scholarships. This means they can set aside a proportion of their places for those children regardless of distance or siblings or any other run of the mill admissions criteria – again "catchment areas" have no way to predict who will apply for these and how many of these will be offered out.

Free schools, well they can just do whatever they like, literally, but they have to publish what they do.