Applying for a school place

12 mins read

This advice applies in England only. Read information for families in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

We’ll help you apply for a place for your child, whether they are starting school for the first time or changing to another school.

In this article

About school admissions

School admissions can be stressful for any family. The choice parents have is often limited by where they live, complex admission arrangements and increased pressure on school places in the area. Families with disabled children may have additional concerns about whether a school will include their child, keep them safe and give them the help they need to learn.

Most children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) will get a school place in the same way as children without SEND. There is a different system for children with an Education Health and Care (EHC) plan / statement of special educational needs. We’ll look at both.

Children without an EHC plan

Most children with special educational needs (SEN) do not have an EHC plan. They are supported from the help generally available in the school. These children must go to mainstream school, and they will get a school place through the normal admissions system.

Normal admissions round

This is when children start school for the first time or move to a different phase of education, for example from primary to secondary school. Admissions are coordinated centrally by the local authority where the child lives. There is a single national deadline for secondary applications (31 October) and one for primary applications (15 January).

When applying for your child, you will need to fill in a single form and state the schools you’d like in order of preference. You can apply for schools outside your own local authority if you want to, but you still use your own local authority’s form.

The information on your form is then passed to the schools to decide whether they can offer your child a place based on their oversubscription criteria.

Oversubscription criteria

Many schools have more applicants than places available and use oversubscription criteria to decide which children have priority.

Criteria for community schools and some church schools are set by the local authority. Criteria for all other state-funded schools are set by the governors of the school. It is important to check the oversubscription criteria to see how likely your child is to get a place. You should include as a back up at least one school in your list where your child has a good chance of a place.

Common criteria are:

Faith schools generally give priority to children of that particular faith. You may need to fill in a separate form with details of religious practice, for example church attendance. Other schools may select children on the basis of academic potential or offer a set number of places to children with an aptitude in sport, music or languages.

Parents sometimes ask if their child can get priority because of a disability, medical condition or special educational need. All schools must admit children with an EHC plan that names the school, but other children with SEN do not automatically have priority. Most local authorities have an expectation that all schools in the area are able to cater for common difficulties.

Some schools do have a criterion for exceptional social or medical need, but this is not universal, and such criteria can be hard to meet. You are likely to need professional evidence that your child’s needs cannot be met in any other school. It is important to submit evidence of this when you apply.

Offer of a school

The schools you’ve listed will each decide whether they can offer your child a place. The local authority will consider these offers against your preferences, along with everyone else’s. And on national offer day (1 March for secondary, 16 April for primary), you’ll get a single offer of a school.

Your offer will be the highest preference school on your list that can give your child a place. If none of your preferences can offer your child a place – because too many other children are higher up on the oversubscription criteria – you’ll be offered another school. This is likely to be the nearest school with places still available. Usually there will be a form to fill in to confirm that you accept the school offered.

In-year applications

If you have moved into an area outside of the normal admissions round, or if you want a change of school for your child, this is known as an ‘in-year’ admission. The process for this varies between areas and schools. Not all in-year admissions are co-ordinated by the local authority, so you may need to apply directly to the school. Contact the admissions section in your local authority for more details. As a general rule, if a school has a place available they cannot refuse to admit your child.

What if I’m not happy with the school offered?

If you are not happy with the school you have been offered, don’t panic. There are a number of things you can do:

We advise that you accept the school place offered if you can, even if you aren’t happy with it. This will ensure that your child at least has a guaranteed school place if other options fail.

Appeals are made to an independent appeal panel. You must be given at least 20 school days to submit your appeal. The panel considers the appeal in two stages:

  1. Was the admissions procedure carried out fairly in your child’s case? If it was not, for example if the criteria were not applied correctly, the panel will look at whether your child should have been offered a place. You may win the appeal at this stage.
  2. Could the school reasonably admit your child over their normal numbers? Would any disadvantage to your child not going to that school outweigh the disadvantage to the school in taking another pupil?

Note that if your appeal is for an infant class (year R, 1 or 2) that already has 30 children in it, the panel can only uphold your appeal if there has been a mistake and your child should have been given a place.

Please call our helpline if you need further advice on an appeal.

Can a school refuse to take a child because they are disabled?

As a general rule, no. School admissions are covered by the Equality Act. If you are going through the normal admissions system, a school cannot refuse to take your child because they have a disability or SEN, if your child would otherwise have qualified for a place under the admission criteria.

Can a school refuse to admit a child without an EHC plan?

A school cannot refuse to admit a child on the grounds that the child may need an EHC plan but hasn’t yet got one. If the school is full, however, or you are low down on the oversubscription criteria, it may only be possible to get a place by having an EHC plan that names the school.

My child is due to start school next year but doesn’t yet have an EHC plan – what do I do?

You will need to go through the normal admissions system in the first instance and make sure you get your application in on time. You may otherwise miss out on a school place. If your child does get an EHC plan before starting school, you will have another chance to ask for a school at that point. See the section below on children with EHC plans.

Children with Education, Health and Care (EHC) plans

The admissions system for children with EHC plans is different; you do not go through the normal admissions system.

Instead, part of the process of getting an EHC plan involves getting a ‘named’ school. This means that you can express a preference for the school you want at the time you first get the EHC plan or when your child moves to a different phase of education.

You can also ask for a change of school at an annual review. This also applies to children who still have statements under the old system.

Naming a school or college in an EHC plan

When you get a draft EHC plan, the name of the school in section I will be left blank. You will be asked for your preference of school, which might be mainstream or special.

Expressing your preference

You have a right to express a preference for any school in the following categories:

If your child still has a statement, please ring our helpline as the rules are slightly different.

The local authority must then consult with your preferred school; that normally involves sending the school a copy of the EHC plan and reports. The school will give an opinion about whether they can meet your child’s needs, but the final decision on whether to name a school lies with the local authority.

When the local authority must name your preference

The local authority must name your preference as long as it is:

If it is named on the EHC plan, the school must give your child a place.

If you want a school or college that is completely independent then you can ask the local authority to consider it. This is called ‘making representations’. The school will need to agree to take your child, and you will probably have to prove that no other school is suitable.

When the local authority doesn’t name the school you want

Sometimes your local authority may not name the school you want. This could be for a reason such as:

If you are turned down, ask for detailed reasons as this will help you decide whether you want to appeal.

Right to mainstream

There is a general right in law to a mainstream school place if this is what you want. If you say that you want mainstream and the local authority cannot name your preferred school, it then needs to look more widely at other mainstream schools in the area.

The local authority can only name a special school against your wishes if:

The local authority cannot refuse mainstream outright on the grounds of that it is ‘not suitable’.

Moving to secondary school or post 16 education with an EHC plan

If your child is moving to secondary school or leaving school to go to college, you must be asked for your preference for the next stage of education. Options are likely to be discussed at the annual review before transfer.

There are set legal timescales for the local authority to name the new school/college for entry in September. These are:

You will need to think about which school you want well before this. For secondary transfer it is good to start planning when your child is in year 5.

Challenging decisions

If your local authority does not name the school you want, there is a right to go to mediation and to appeal to the First Tier Tribunal for Special Educational Needs and Disability. You will need to do this within two months of the decision.

Please ring our helpline for further advice in this situation.

Information for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

Read our information about education in Wales.

Find out about the system of support for children with special educational needs in Northern Ireland on the NI Education Authority website or Senac (special educational needs advice centre).

In Scotland, the system of support for children with additional support needs is called additional support for learning. You can read more about it on the Enquire website.