Applying for primary school: what you need to know

Lisa Jarmin

Lisa Jarmin, Education Writer

16 December 2021

If you’ve got a 3 or 4 year old, you may be aware that an important date is coming up fast. No, not Christmas – I’m talking about the primary school place application deadline.

Depending upon the temperament of your child, you might be facing this with dread or unabashed joy (on my son’s first day of school, there was a 50/50 split in the playground between parents sobbing over how much they were going to miss their little soldier and demob happy mums cartwheeling out of the school gates and letting off party poppers). Either way, if your child turns four during the next school year, it’s happening and there are a few things that you need to do first. So cast aside those tearful thoughts about how tiny they’re going to look clutching their bookbags as they walk into their classrooms (spoiler: heartbreakingly tiny. Pack the tissues) and read our guide on choosing and applying for a primary school place.

Lets get the practicalities out of the way first; here is what you need to do over the next few months:

  • Choose a school that you like. Visit local schools, look at their websites, and ask for opinions locally. Scroll down for a more detailed account of what to consider here.

  • Apply for a place for your child online on your local council website. You can do this from the September before your child is due to start school and the closing date for applications in England is 15th January. If you miss this deadline, your child may not be offered a school place at all.

  • If possible, put at least a first, second and third choice of schools on the application. It’s tempting to only apply for your favourite school and leave the others blank, but this will not guarantee a place at your first choice of school. If there is no space for your child at your chosen school and you have not added any other choices, your local authority will allocate your child a space at another school in the area.

  • On 16th April, you will receive an offer of a school place. If you are happy for your child to attend this school, you must accept the offer. If you don’t accept, the place could be offered to another child.

  • If you are not happy with the school that you have been offered, you can appeal the decision within about 20 days. However, whether your appeal is successful depends upon a few factors: if the school’s admission criteria were not properly followed, you may win your appeal. However, if your child has not been offered a place because they are out of the catchment area or because the class is full (reception classes have a limit of 30 pupils per class), you are much less likely to win your appeal. In these cases, it may be possible to move your child to your first choice school later in the year or at the start of a new school year as pupils sometimes move away or change schools, leaving space for others. You will be automatically added to the school waiting list if you think you would like to do this in the future.

So, how do you choose the best school for your child? And how much choice is there likely to be? Here are our top tips:

Be realistic

Many schools are over subscribed so there is likely to be a lot less choice than you think. Catchment areas exist for a reason, so investigate the schools in your catchment area first and maybe one or two just outside it. Catchment areas vary year to year (when there's a large sibling intake, for instance, they can shrink dramatically), so take a look at the last few years via your council website.

Visit your local schools

Get the intel on open days (they usually happen in the run-up to Christmas and then for the first two weeks of January, ahead of the application deadline, although some schools are sadly not running them in person due to Covid). A look around a school will tell you more than anything else. A member of staff can show you around so you can see the facilities, meet the staff, and get a feel for the general atmosphere. It also gives you chance to ask lots of questions. If you come out of the school feeling happy, it’s good a sign that it’s a positive place to be for the pupils too.

Look at school websites

These will contain general information about the school day and are also likely to be a source of school news, events and interests. Have a look at what the pupils have been doing. Do you feel as though your child would enjoy doing similar activities and having those experiences? Then it may be a good match.

Consider your childcare needs

As a working parent, it can be a shock to go from nursery hours to school hours, especially when you discover that breakfast clubs and after school clubs often don’t open as early or close as late as nurseries. You may also find that school childcare clubs are very oversubscribed, and that it can also be tricky to juggle care of babies and toddlers with school. A childminder could be a really good option as they can do school drop offs and pick ups and are often more flexible than school childcare clubs. Starting school is a great time to transition from nursery to a childminder for your childcare needs as the routine will be different anyway and it gives your child that ‘home from home’ experience when they’re tired after a long school day.

Look at the Ofsted reports…

…but read between the lines. A school rated outstanding may not necessarily be outstanding for your child. If you have visited and feel like your child would be really happy there, go for it. But if you have a nagging feeling that it’s not a good fit for them, don’t get hung up on the rating. Likewise, if a school has been given notice to improve, it is a sign that all has not been well but it also means that the school will now be receiving expert advice and support. Remember: a school is only as good as its current staff, so a new management team could breathe new life into a flagging school or be difficult adjustment for a previously outstanding school. If your child is supported at home and at school, they will learn well wherever there if a calm environment and a team of warm, welcoming staff.

Think about the logistics

You may have fallen in love with a school over the other side of town, but, even if you squeeze into the catchment, could you reliably get your child there for 9am every day? Think about how you will get to school and back and whether it fits in with any other commitments you have (e.g. work or other children).

Be open minded

You may have your heart set on your child attending the tiny village school on the leafy lane, but it may turn out that the bigger school in the ugly 1960s building is where they would be happiest. Don’t write a school off just because it doesn’t fit in with what you thought you wanted for your child. And if you don’t get offered a place at your first choice school, don’t panic. Wait and see: wherever your child is happy is the best place for them.

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Lisa Jarmin

Education Writer