Applying for your child's preferred secondary school sounds like a daunting and stressful experience. Luckily the process is simple and straightforward, whether you need to apply through the local authority or directly with your preferred school.
There are key dates to remember, including the application deadline. We will run through everything you need to know about secondary school applications, including how to apply, how schools decide to award places, the types of schools available to select from and when you find out your child's result.
How to apply
Each local council opens applications at different times. The deadline for secondary school applications is Monday 31 October at 11:59 pm.
You can apply online for secondary schools or by filling in an application form. Both formats are completed through your local council. Follow the link to apply for secondary schools. The local authority website will also give details on the catchment area for nearby secondary schools, which is helpful to see if you are eligible for these schools and the daily commute that would be required by your child.
You will also need to apply to the specific school if you are applying for a faith or selective school, such as a grammar or independent school. Some of these schools will ask for a supplementary information form (SIF) that has a different deadline date and is then sent to the local authority. Make sure you read the application requirements for these schools to avoid jeopardising your chances.
Some secondary schools will require students to pass an entrance exam. For example, grammar schools select students using the 11 plus exam. If your child's preferred school has specific requirements and you want further support, it may be worth considering a tutor in the core subjects, including Maths GCSE tuition.
The application form will ask you to list the schools you're applying to in order of preference. You can apply for between 3 to 6 secondary schools depending on the area you live in (London requests 6 options).
It's important to use all of your preferred choices: school places are in high demand and if your preferred school doesn't have any spaces, your child will be offered a place at one of your secondary choices. If there isn't space at any of your preferred schools, your child will be placed in a school you haven't picked (which is likely to be one of the least popular schools in the region). You can avoid this situation by filling in all the preferences. It's a good idea to include a school that you are likely to be accepted for further down your list, even if it's less appealing.
The application will ask you for proof of address, such as a household bill, as part of the process.
You still need to apply for a place at your preferred secondary if it is linked to your child's primary school.
Late applications - what if you miss the deadline?
Late applications are accepted by local authorities after the deadline of 31 October. However, these applications will only be considered after those who applied on time. In other words, your application will go to the back of the queue and the prospects of getting a place at your preferred secondary school may be negatively affected.
For this reason, it is strongly encouraged that the pupils' application is submitted by no later than the submission deadline of 31 October.
How are places awarded at secondary schools?
Every secondary school has its own admission criteria to follow when considering applications. If there are more eligible applicants than available places, schools will consider the following, listed in terms of importance:
- Specific need - Children who have applied for a particular school due to a specific need will be considered before all others and must be given a place. This includes a special education need and a health and social care plan.
- Siblings - If the applicant has siblings who are currently studying or recently attended the school, this will improve the chances of being offered a space.
- Exceptional medical/social need - A child who has specific medical or social needs will need to provide the school with a letter from a doctor or social worker explaining the specific suitability of the school being applied for.
- Distance - This is the least likely to be considered as the catchment area of a school is already a consideration.
It's important to look at the admissions criteria for any school you are considering. The criteria are likely to be tougher for popular schools, such as a reduced catchment area. If you don't meet the criteria of the school listed as one of your choices, this option will be passed over when allocating a school and is a wasted preference.
If you qualify for a place at more than one of your chosen schools, the local authority will award you your highest option. You will only receive one offer.
Different types of secondary schools and admissions processes
There is a diverse range of secondary schools to select from. We have listed the most common types below:
- Academies - The state funds academies but they are independent of local councils. Among other things, academies decide their own admission criteria and belong to a wider group of schools that share similar beliefs and aims.
- Community schools - Academies are gradually replacing community schools. They are managed by the local authority, funded by the state and the admissions are decided by the local council.
- Grammar schools - Students have to pass the 11+ exam to be accepted to a grammar school, which selects pupils based on academic ability. Grammar schools do not have the same governing rules for admissions: for example, if there are not enough candidates who meet the required standard, the school does not need to accept other applicants. Some grammar schools are ‘super selectives’, which means they allow anyone to apply regardless of distance. The eleven-plus exam tends to be in the Autumn, which allows the parents or guardians enough time to apply for other secondary schools if they haven't been offered a place.
- Faith schools -The Church of England and Roman Catholic schools make up the majority of faith schools in England. They may expect your child to have been baptised and attend church regularly. Faith schools for other religions (Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Sikh) are less commonly found. You may be requested to include a letter from a religious leader confirming your religious attendance at church or similar.
- Independent schools - Similar to grammar schools in their prioritisation of academic ability and admissions rules, independent schools charge fees to attend (excluding scholarships and/or bursaries). They charge between £12,000 per year for a junior day school to more than £35,000 for a senior boarding school. Independent schools have fewer students per class (15 on average), which encourages a better learning environment.
Secondary schools will normally have a sixth form for years 12 - 13 who are studying for A-Levels. Students at the school shouldn't need to apply for a place in sixth form. However, the admissions criteria - including grade requirements - will be the same for internal and external students. If your child plans to remain at your chosen school for A Levels, it's worth finding out the grades the school expects them to achieve.
Moving to another area
If you are moving house, you may be applying for schools in a different region than where you currently live. In this situation, you will still apply through your local council.
If you are moving from another country, you need to contact the local council where you'll be living. It's also worth applying directly to your preferred school. This includes if your child is from overseas. You can apply to state secondary schools if you have the right to abode in the United Kingdom. You need to have a UK address and be living in the country when you make your application (except those applying to state boarding schools).
You may be required to submit the following:
- Proof you'll be living within the region of the local authority before the next school term begins
- Proof of your new address, such as the mortgage or a household bill
- When you’ll find out
Your local council will send offers of secondary school places on 1 March. This is the national offer day for secondary schools and is the same date every academic year. If this date falls on a weekend or bank holiday, you will instead be notified on the next working day. You will normally be contacted by email.
The offer letter will include a date when you need to accept the offer. This is a deadline and you must respond by this date. If you don't respond in time, the offer may be withdrawn and given to another student.
There are no situations where your child will not be assigned a place at a secondary school. Every local council is required to find a place at a school for every student. If there are no spaces in any of the schools you chose, the local council will assign a place for your children at the nearest school with spaces. This is unlikely to happen if you have used all your preferences in the application (see above).
An offer can be withdrawn if the application is misleading or fraudulent, such as falsely saying you live inside a school catchment area. Local authorities are more aware of such attempts and hundreds of school places are withdrawn each year, sometimes after the student has started secondary school. It's also possible a place was offered in error, which could warrant an appeal.
Know your rights
Schools in England a regulated by the Schools Admissions Code. This requires schools to enrol students in a fair and transparent manner. It may be that you aren't accepted by your first-choice school or have concerns with how your application was treated. Secondary schools are not allowed to do the following:
- Ask for information about any disabilities, special educational needs or medical conditions as a negative factor in deciding the child's application
- Require an expensive school uniform
- Charge the parent or guardian in relation to admission, such as requiring financial contributions to the school
- Take the ability of the student into account, unless the school is selective, such as a grammar school or independent school
- Refuse a student when the school is listed on their SEN/EHC plan
- Make a decision with consideration of the occupation, marital or financial status of the parents or guardians
- Interview children or families
How does the appeals process work for secondary school applications?
One of the most common reasons for appealing secondary school applications is that a child wasn't accepted to their first choice secondary school.
More than 8 in 10 children are offered their first choice secondary school and more than 9 in 10 get one of their top three choices. If this isn't the case, you can join the waiting list for your child's preferred school: most schools will keep a waiting list open for the first term of each academic year. You can accept the offer of another school on your list while being placed on a waiting list for your preferred school.
If you decide to appeal the rejection letter from your chosen school, you have 20 school days to do so from when you received the letter. Your case is then heard within 40 days of your appeal.
A panel will hear your appeal. The admission authority for your chosen school will explain why they declined your child's application. You will then explain why you believe your child should be admitted and if relevant, any complaints you have with the decision, such as if there was an error.
The panel will assess your case and a decision will normally be made within 5 days. If your argument outweighs the reasons the school rejected your application, the appeal will be upheld and your student will be accepted to the school. For the link for full information about the appeals process.
This post was updated on 01 Aug, 2023.