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

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