School admissions: a step by step guide
In this post, we look at the school admissions system in England in a step by step manner, including when and how you should apply for a school place.
Please note that this article relates to England only; for similar information relating to Scotland, Wales or Nothern Ireland you should use the following links:
This article has been broken down into expandable sections, to make it easier to navigate.
School starting age
Most children start school full-time in the September after they turn 4.
If you do not think your child is ready to start school by then, they can start part-way through the year or part time - as long as they are in full-time education by the time they reach ‘compulsory school age’.
Children born in the summer
Children born between 1 April and 31 August can start the September after they turn 5.
Contact the local council or school to ask for your child to start later. They’ll decide if your child should start in reception year or year 1, based on what’s in the best interests of your child.
Compulsory school age
Your child must start full-time education once they reach compulsory school age. This is on 31 December, 31 March or 31 August following their fifth birthday - whichever comes first. If your child’s fifth birthday is on one of those dates then they reach compulsory school age on that date.
For example, if your child reaches compulsory school age on 31 March, they must start full-time education at the beginning of the next term (summer term that year).
Children must stay in full-time education until they reach school leaving age.
All 3 to 4-year-olds in England are entitled to free early education before they start school full time.
How to apply
Follow your local council’s application process to:
You must still apply for a place, even if the school is linked to your child’s current nursery, infant or primary school.
Apply directly for:
- a 6th form place at a school or college
- a place at a private school
Moving to another area
You apply through your local council even if you’re applying for schools in another council area or you’ve just moved to England.
If you’re applying from another country, contact the local council in the area where you’re going to live.
You may need to:
- supply proof of your new address, for example a mortgage or rental agreement or deeds for the property
- prove that you’ll live in the area before the start of the next school term
Completing the application
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.
When to apply
You can apply for a primary school place in the autumn term after your child turns 4. You’ll need to apply then even if you want your child to start part-way through the school year.
You should apply for:
- a primary school place by 15 January
- a secondary school place by 31 October
Your child is less likely to be offered a place at their chosen schools if you miss the deadline for applications.
When you’ll find out
Councils will send offers of school places for:
- primary schools on 16 April
- secondary schools on 1 March
If either date falls on a weekend or a bank holiday, offers are sent the next working day.
You must accept the offer by the deadline given in the offer letter. Otherwise it may be withdrawn and the place given to someone else.
The local council must provide a place at another school, if your child is not offered a place at any of the schools you’ve applied for. This is usually your nearest school with places still available.
Applying after the start of the school year
Contact your local council to find out about applying for a school place once the school year has started (known as in-year applications). They can tell you which schools still have places and how to apply.
Once your child has been offered a place, they will usually start school at the beginning of the following term.
School waiting lists
If your child does not have a place, contact your local council for schools with places.
You can also put your child’s name down on a waiting list. The ‘admission authority’ for the school (usually the school itself or the council) must keep a waiting list open for at least the first term of each school year.
Contact the school or your local council if you want your child’s name added to a waiting list.
You can add your child’s name to a waiting list even if they have been offered a place at another school.
If your child is on a waiting list and the school offers you a place, the admission authority will send you a formal offer. You can still accept the offer even if your child has already started at another school.
See also: Haven't got the school you wanted? for details on appealing a school's decision.
All children in England between the ages of 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place at a state school.
State schools receive funding through their local authority or directly from the government. The most common ones are:
- community schools, which are sometimes called local authority maintained schools - they are not influenced by business or religious groups and follow the national curriculum
- foundation schools and voluntary schools, which are funded by the local authority but have more freedom to change the way they do things - sometimes they are supported by representatives from religious groups
- academies and free schools, which are run by not-for-profit academy trusts, are independent from the local authority - they have more freedom to change how they run things and can follow a different curriculum
- grammar schools, which can be run by the local authority, a foundation body or an academy trust - they select their pupils based on academic ability and there is a test to get in
Special schools with pupils aged 11 and older can specialise in 1 of the 4 areas of special educational needs:
- communication and interaction
- cognition and learning
- social, emotional and mental health
- sensory and physical needs
Schools can further specialise within these categories to reflect the special needs they help with, for example Autistic spectrum disorders, visual impairment, or speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).
Academies receive funding directly from the government and are run by an academy trust. They have more control over how they do things than community schools. Academies do not charge fees.
Academies are inspected by Ofsted. They have to follow the same rules on admissions, special educational needs and exclusions as other state schools and students sit the same exams.
Academies have more control over how they do things, for example they do not have to follow the national curriculum and can set their own term times.
Some schools choose to become academies. If a school funded by the local authority is judged as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted then it must become an academy.
Academy trusts and sponsors
Academy trusts are not-for-profit companies. They employ the staff and have trustees who are responsible for the performance of the academies in the trust. Trusts might run a single academy or a group of academies.
Some academies are supported by sponsors such as businesses, universities, other schools, faith groups or voluntary groups. Sponsors work with the academy trust to improve the performance of their schools.
Faith schools have to follow the national curriculum, but they can choose what they teach in religious studies.
Faith schools may have different admissions criteria and staffing policies to state schools, although anyone can apply for a place.
Faith academies do not have to teach the national curriculum and have their own admissions processes.
Free schools are funded by the government but are not run by the local authority. They have more control over how they do things.
They’re ‘all-ability’ schools, so can not use academic selection processes like a grammar school.
Free schools can:
- set their own pay and conditions for staff
- change the length of school terms and the school day
They do not have to follow the national curriculum.
State boarding schools
State boarding schools provide free education but charge fees for boarding. Most state boarding schools are academies, some are free schools and some are run by local authorities.
State boarding schools give priority to children who have a particular need to board and will assess children’s suitability for boarding.
Charities such as Buttle UK or the Royal National Children’s Foundation can sometimes help with the cost of boarding.
Contact the State Boarding Forum for more information about state boarding schools, eligibility and how to apply.
Private schools (also known as ‘independent schools’) charge fees to attend instead of being funded by the government. Pupils do not have to follow the national curriculum.
All private schools must be registered with the government and are inspected regularly.
All school reports are published online by the organisation responsible for inspecting them.
Find out from the school which organisation inspects them.
Half of all independent schools are inspected by Ofsted. The Independent Schools Inspectorate inspects schools that are members of the associations that form the Independent Schools Council. Some other schools are inspected by the School Inspection Service.