How To Get Into A School Out Of Catchment Area

Getting your child into a good school is one the most important goals of modern family life. But for many navigating the postcode lottery of admissions, it can feel like trying to crack the Crystal Maze. School Guide is here to help. 

The good news is that the proportion of secondary school applicants who received an offer of their first-choice school in September 2020 increased by 1.3 percentage points to 82.2%.

The proportion of applicants who received an offer of their first-choice primary school dropped slightly, but only by 0.4 percentage points to 90.2%.

Here at School Guide, our main goal is to support parents in finding the best school for their individual child. We believe, with information comes power, so here’s our Top Five Admission’s Arsenal Tips for getting into a school out of your local catchment area. 


Understanding the catchment area jargon

It may seem obvious but understanding what a ‘school catchment area’ actually is and what role it plays in getting your child into a school of your choice, is a crucial part of the equation.

Firstly, for some schools, the catchment area may determine whether your child will be offered a place at their first-choice school or not. Where your home address appears within a school’s catchment map can - and does - change year on year and there is no one size fits all rule. 

It could be that a school experiences a bulge year for siblings, making the catchment area smaller one year, or a school may agree to increase its form entry, making the catchment area larger another year. 

Whatever the reason for the change in size, where you live and how far you need to travel to get to your chosen school is not the only important piece in the jigsaw puzzle.

Every year, the boundary of the catchment area is set by the distance that the last pupil was offered a place at the school. If a pupil lives within that distance, they would have been offered a place that year.

However, distance inside or outside of a catchment area is not the only admission variable. There are a number of other factors that Admission Authorities have to consider. 

These include:

• Distance from school (catchment area), but this can be measured in different ways such as a straight line as the crow flies or walking distance (surprisingly less common)
• Special medical or social needs such as ‘looked after children.
• Pupil Premium Funding.
• Siblings already at the school.
• Attendance at a ‘feeder school’ that has an affiliation with the school.
• Religion/Faith.
• Ability to pass an academic entrance exam (e.g., a grammar school).

Already you can see that proximity to a school’s catchment area is not the only string to your bow. 

School Guide is here to help you discover the school catchment area by postcode on each of out our school pages. It’s quick and simple to search.

Do your catchment homework

With the best schools seeing ten or even twenty applications for every place, competition can be fierce. Once you’ve researched and chosen your first-choice school, establishing whether or not your home address sits within the catchment area is a good first step. 

School Guide's catchment area heat maps are created using exclusive Department for Education data – this makes them the most up to date and most reliable way to check the likelihood of admission for parents.

Simply enter your home postcode into our catchment checker to see which areas admitted ‘many’, ‘some’, or ‘few’ pupils in the most recent data year. 

The next step is to check your Academy Trust or Local Authority’s admissions’ website. This will give you a snapshot of the previous year’s data and help you identify whether or not the school was oversubscribed.

Once you have identified the basis of last year’s admissions statistics, we highly recommend contacting your first-choice school directly. Only at a school-level will you get a clearer picture of whether or not a school expects to receive a bulge number of sibling applications.

Once you understand the likelihood of admission based on geographical criteria, you can then dig down into how your favourite schools rank other admission factors. Be warned, they may all have very different priority admission factors!




Play by the catchment rules

We’ve all read the headlines about parents renting empty properties at astronomical prices to secure places at top schools, but the truth is, Admissions Authorities have seen every trick in the book. 

As much as we all pledge we’d do anything to ensure our children’s future, cheating doesn’t work. All applications are investigated and offers made on the basis of false information risk being withdrawn. Examples of what would be considered false include:

• Declaring that you live with relatives near your first-choice school.
• Renting but not residing at properties safely within catchment areas.
• Renting close to a school when applying, but then moving before term starts.

When you apply for a school place, you must use your child’s permanent address at the time of application. You’ll usually be asked to provide at least TWO proofs of address, such as: Your council tax letter for the current year, a copy of your tenancy agreement, a utilities bill dated within the past three months or a copy of a benefits letter dated within the past 12 months.

Without risking becoming a social pariah, there are, thankfully, some legal ways in which you can boost your chances of getting your child a coveted place.

According to research by Santander Bank, 1 in 4 parents have moved house to get their child into their first-choice school. However, this often comes with huge financial risk. The 2016 study discovered that parents would spend anything between an 11% to 15% premium - an average £23,707 to £71,539 (2016 market rates) - in order to move to their desired catchment area. 

Such a financial investment may seem too great a risk in the midst of a pandemic, but there are other legal ways in which parents can improve their child’s chance of getting an offer from their first-choice school: 

• Regularly attend church near the first-choice faith school.
• Ensure any special educational or medical needs are identified, assessed and registered by professionals early so that an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) can be initiated.
• Check whether you are eligible for Early Years Pupil Premium funding.
• Support your child to succeed at entrance exams for applications to selective schools. This may or not require the services of a tutor but requesting past papers will provide a good baseline for school admission expectations.

It is worth noting that Section 2.18 of the Schools Admissions Code states that all Academy Trusts or Local Authorities must allocate a place for children of armed forces personnel on proof of assignment and not proof of home address. This allows for last minute changes of address and can be processed by unit address or general quartering address. However, parental preference will not always guarantee a place if that school is already at capacity.


Present your catchment case

Once you know exactly where you rank in your first-choice school’s order of admission criteria, this is when you gather all your evidence to present your rationale in its best light. 

All Academy Trusts and Local Authorities are required by law to provide a Common Application Form (CAF) that enables parents to express their preference for a place at any school.

This form allows parents to list at least 3 schools in order of preference, regardless of whether their top three are in the Local Authority/Academy Trust or not. 

Consider ranking at least one local school that is less heavily subscribed as your second or third choice, to avoid potentially being allocated an unpopular school or one a long distance from your home address.

The form also provides parents with space to set out their reasoning and evidence to support their first-choice school selection. The following list does not guarantee your application will be successful. It is, however, all useful supporting information that could become valuable at appeal stage. 

Consider including:

•  Information about feeder nurseries/pre-schools/primary schools.
• Special Educational or Medical Needs.
• Religious persuasion.
• Military / armed forces personnel (Section 2.18 of Schools Admissions Code).
• Examples of previous involvement within the school community (governor, volunteer, fundraiser, religion).
• Childcare arrangements – e.g., if you work at the school in question.

When submitting your CAF application form, make sure your keep a copy – just in case you need to take your application to appeal.

Appeal, appeal, appeal

Receiving a rejection letter at any stage in life is no picnic. But when it comes after a long line of school open days, mountains of data and reams of uninvited advice, receiving an offer of a second or third-choice school can excusably merit a scream into a paper bag down the bottom of the garden!  Then there’s the question of when and what do you tell your child? 

The good news is that only 1.5% of new primary school admissions in 2019/20 ended in appeals. Of those heard in the same time period, 2,310 primary appeals were successful, a rate of 18.5%. 

During the same period, 4.9% of new secondary school admissions were heard. Of these 22.2% were successful.

Under section 86, Admissions Authorities are required to fulfil a parent’s preference for a particular school, unless it would prejudice the provision of education or the efficient use of resources.  So, by law, parents do not have a right for their child to attend their first-choice school, but they have a right to express a preference for it.

Any parent applying for an undersubscribed school must be offered a place unless the application was for a selective grammar school. However, when a first-choice school is oversubscribed, the Academy Trust or Local Authority Admissions Team must rank all applications in order of the published policy. 

• All secondary school offers must be made on 1st March or the next working day.
• All primary school offers must be made on 16 April or the next working day.

Any refusal letter must include:

• The reason why admission was refused.
• Information about the right and logistics of lodging a written appeal to the Independent Admissions Appeals Panel.

Parents can appeal a decision even if they have accepted a place at another school and can also appeal against a decision to refuse admission to more than one school. 

If your child has missed out on a place due to infant class size exceeding over 30 pupils in Reception, Year 1 or Year 2, then you can lodge a written appeal on the following grounds:  

• The admissions criteria were either illegally or incorrectly applied.
• The decision not to admit your child is unreasonable. 

If this is not successful, you can take the appeal to a second stage whereby,

• You have to prove that not attending your first-choice school would unjustifiably negatively impact upon your child.
• The school needs to prove that admitting your child would be an inefficient use of educational resources and prejudice the education of the rest of the class. 

Proving this demands a great deal of work on behalf of the time-poor school and with nothing to lose on your behalf – all appeals are free - being brave in your appeal application is always worth the effort.  

Getting written support or evidence from your child’s GP, child’s teacher/pre-school care leader will only serve to help your case. It is not a requirement to present your appeal using legal representation but seeking legal advice may be helpful. 

We wish you every success in applying for the best school for your child.

Have more catchment area questions? 

Read answers to all your key questions on catchment areas and school admissions based on location on our dedicated catchment hub pages: 

Catchment Areas Explained