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.