National Offers Day – are you a winner or a loser?

Today more than 500,000 children (and their anxious parents) will find out which secondary school they have been allocated a place at for September.

There will be winners and losers with up to 1 in 6 families reportedly missing out on getting their first preference school. The situation isn’t going to get any better, either as the Local Government Association is also predicting that there will be a 20% increase in secondary school pupils by 2024 (when children born in Sept 2012-Aug 2013 will move up to senior school). In real terms this represents a need for 547,000 additional places when 1 in 6 secondary schools is already at or over capacity.

But back to today and current Year 6s. There are several scenarios that will be playing out across the land, although depending on where you live, some are more likely than others:

  1. You get one of your preferred schools. Phew, relief which quickly turns to hooray, parents break out bubbly and children plot with friends also celebrating.
  2. You get an OK offer but perhaps not your first choice grammar or oversubscribed secondary so you are now seriously considering the independent school offer you have been sitting on for the last 2 weeks.
  3. You don’t get any of your preferences.

If you have offers from both state and independent schools what are the key things to think about before you make your decision:

  • Can you afford the fees, now and in the future? If you can’t then think about the impact of possibly having to remove your child after friendships have been formed as well as not necessarily being able to secure a place back in the state sector in a school close to you.
  • If you can afford it, then think about the benefits – smaller classes, more time/facilities for co-curricular activities, better results for all (not just the brightest).
  • But are there any drawbacks? Longer journey to/from school and friendships developing over a wider geographic area.

If you aren’t happy with the state school you have been offered, what can you do?

  • Appeal. Read the information you will have been sent about appealing but be warned, successful appeals are hard to come by, you really need to demonstrate either that a mistake has been made in the process and you should have been offered a place or that your child has a real need (backed up by independent evidence) to go to that school.
  • Visit or revisit all the schools that do have places, not just the one you have been offered. Some might have improved since you first considered them. Ask to talk to current parents at these schools as they may well be able to allay any fears you have.
  • If you can afford to go private, call around and see where there are places. They probably won’t be able to tell you for sure until next week once their deadlines have passed. It is unlikely you will secure any form of financial assistance at this stage as all bursary and scholarships funds will have been offered already. Very popular private schools will most likely be full and others may still require your child to sit assessments.

It’s hard and I feel for anyone who doesn’t get the news they want today. Calling it “National Offers Day” actually makes it worse, as it sounds like a competition or lucky draw. Surely all our children deserve a place at a good school, close to home? Sadly, at the moment this is not always that case and so for the moment school admissions is still a game where there are clear winners and losers.

Primary admissions D-Day approaches, have you completed your form?

This Friday sees the admissions deadline for applications for primary school places for September 2016. If your child will be starting in Reception in September, miss this deadline at your peril…. but if you are still undecided about what order to put your preferences in, or are confused by how the process works, some pointers which might help you feel able to hit “send” on your online form.

  1. Always put your first preference school first. All admissions authorities operate an Equal Preference System. Each school you name as a preference will work through all applications, and if oversubscribed they will then rank parents according to their published oversubscription criteria. The Local Authority receives all this information back from schools. If you have qualified for a place at more than one of your preferred schools, they will offer you a place at the one you have given your highest preference to. So if you put your nearest school 1st preference but you really want a school a bit further away, but are unsure if you will get a place so you put that 2nd, if you qualify for both you will get your 1st stated preference NOT your favoured school…..
  2. Always include a safe bet as one of your preferences. You might not want your nearest school, but if you don’t put it down and you don’t get any of your preferences you will be allocated a place at the nearest school that has vacancies after all preferences have been worked through. So you may end up with a school some distance away no better than the one on your doorstep.
  3. Think about your journey to school, every day, five days a week for 38 weeks a year. How does it fit in with other children at different schools and your work or your other childcare needs? Consider the benefits of a local school – friendships close by, exercise from walking compared to the costs of petrol, how to get there in bad weather (or if the car breaks down), picking up from playdates some distance away….
  4. Schools DO NOT KNOW what preference you have put them. They are not allowed to use preferences as a way of ranking and allocating places – this violates the schools admissions code. All they know is you have made them one of your preferences, not the order. So if a school tells you that you must put them first preference or you won’t get a place this is not the case.
  5. Some schools operate a catchment system whereby children living within the catchment have priority over admissions. This might mean siblings living outside the catchment are not prioritised as highly as those within. If you are offered a place for your eldest child at a school that you are not “in catchment” for ,then be aware that your younger children might not get a place if the school is popular, and in an area targeted by first-time-parents. Similarly if you move out of a catchment before your younger children start at school they may drop down the priority list for entry. Oh, and if you live in Wandsworth they are scrapping sibling priority altogether in some of their schools.
  6. Use up all your preferences otherwise you might end up with a school some distance away if there are no places locally once all preferences have been worked through. Just putting one school will not maximise your chances of getting a place there, only minimise your chances of getting anywhere else should you be unlucky.

Good luck! Now you just have 3 long months to wait to find out what place you have been offered… try and sit back and relax and enjoy these last months with your preschooler before the reality of school kicks in!

Don’t get caught out by putting faith in school catchments.

I was asked by clients yesterday to define what is meant by a school’s “catchment area”.  They, like many parents I talk to, were keen to know if they were living safely within the catchment area of their nearest primary school. I wish I could have told them they were, but unfortunately for that family and many others across England, the reality is that catchment areas are irrelevant or do not even exist.

It is true that some Local Authority areas, for example Hampshire, do have set catchment areas for each primary school and their admissions criteria clearly give priority to those living within the defined area which can disadvantage those families that then move out of catchment before younger siblings start at the school.

Similarly, many church schools will use their parish boundary as a catchment and living within this gives you priority over those outside. In some cases this can mean giving local non-churchgoers priority over church-goers from outside the parish.

But in most places, gaining a place at a community or non-faith primary school depends solely on how far you live from a school and this can vary from year to year. So living 500 metres from a school might well get you in one year but not the next. This makes it increasingly difficult to judge where you need to move to if you are moving to access a good school.

School search

You can get a good idea about how close you ideally need to be by looking back at
cut-off distances (the furthest distance away that a place was awarded) in recent years but you need to be aware of the following variables which can impact on this:

  1. Siblings. Brothers and sisters usually take up to half of places BUT if the school has only one form entry then in some years siblings could take up to 20/30 places leaving few for local first-born children.  Or more than 20 if you live in an area where having 3 children per family is common.
  2. Changes in admissions policies. Schools can review/amend their admissions policies each year. In particular schools becoming academies can take advantage of their change in status to revise their admissions criteria. Do not assume the rules for one year will be the same for the next.
  3. New housing developments to accommodate increases in population might not be matched by increases in school provision.
  4. A recent good/outstanding Ofsted can suddenly make a school more popular.
  5. Some schools still give priority to those children for whom it is their nearest school. So whilst you might be 10 metres closer to a school than another family, if you have another school nearer to you and they don’t they will get the place ahead of you.

Now is a good time of year to start gathering information – go to Local Authority and school websites and check out those all important criteria and cut-off distances. The more informed you are, the better you will be able to make best use of your preferences on your school admissions forms.

If you are confused by the whole process maybe I can help and as it is the summer, I am currently offering 10% off all consultations. Or if you post a quick question here or on my Facebook page, I’ll do my best to help! More info at

Not got your primary school place? Keep calm and carry on….

Today or tomorrow thousands of parents all over the country find out where their children will be starting primary school in September. Media reports over the weekend suggested as many as 1 in 7 won’t get one of their preferred schools, rising to 1 in 5 in some parts of London.

parents preferred schoolsFor those who have been offered a place at one of their preferred schools – phew, sit back and relax now until September. For those that didn’t, here are some thoughts on how to process the news and get the most positive outcome for you, but most importantly your child.

  1. Appeals are rarely successful ( you can check figures for recent years on council websites) BUT if you think you have a  good case (it’s your nearest school, you would have got in in previous years), go for it and consider getting professional help from a solicitor or school appeals specialist to ensure you present your argument in the best way. It will cost you but it will be worth it.
  2. If you think an appeal is unlikely to be successful but you are really unhappy with your allocation, call your Local Authority/Council and see which other schools have vacancies – you might have to travel some distance and it will be up to you to make the journey to and from school every day so you need to factor this in with your work and also bear in mind the social implications of opting for a school 5-10 miles from home for after school activities, play dates, parties etc.
  3. Go and visit the school you have been offered a place at  – especially if you have not been before. You may be surprised. Go armed with a list of questions based on any reservations you have with Ofsted or KS2 results. Ask about how the school caters for gifted/talented/SEN depending on your own circumstances. Ask to speak to current parents to get an idea of satisfaction levels. Look at results for improvement. Meet the Head. Schools can go from unsatisfactory to outstanding in a matter of years so you sometimes need to look beyond the stats. You may find you are reassured by what you see/hear.
  4. Parent interest and involvement in their child’s education is recognised to be of huge importance in a child’s educational experience and achievement. Reading and writing with your child, taking them to museums and other places of educational interest can really help supplement the education they get at school. If you have more time available, why not get involved with your child’s allocated school. Become a parent governor, offer to go in and help with reading or other activities and contribute towards the ongoing development of the school.
  5. Remember – 30 years or so ago when those of us who are now parents started school, there was no Ofsted, no league tables and no “making preferences”.  The majority of children went to their nearest school and were happy there.

It would be great to hear from parents who were offered a place at a school they hadn’t wanted but have had a positive experience nonetheless, and those who have fought for and won the place they wanted.

And for those who might think it is easy for me to say keep calm and carry on, I have made a note in my calendar to read my own advice  this time next year when we will find out where our son will go to primary school.

Navigating the educational maze

In 15 years of talking to parents about schools, the educational landscape has continued to evolve and change. But there is one thing that has stayed the same: every parent wants their child to go to a school where he or she will be happy and thrive.

Successive governments have sought to give parents more choice in where their child goes to school but in reality you can do no more than make preferences on which state primary or secondary school they will attend and for many it is a nail-biting and nervy wait to find out whether they have been successful in securing a place at a preferred school.

Around 7% of children go to private school although this figure varies widely depending on where you live (in Surrey it is closer to 20% and in some London boroughs over 30%), age of child and whether there are selective state/grammar schools in your area. School fees are pricey and although many children win scholarships or are awarded means-tested bursaries, in reality only a fraction of parents who “would” actually “do”.

In this blog I hope to highlight some of the major choices and issues facing parents as they navigate the educational maze and help families find the right the school for their child(ren).