My journey through the complex landscape of school admissions

I have two daughters under the age of 11 but I have already been through the school application process five times. I applied for their first primary school place, and then applied again when we moved area. I have most recently also pressed send on an application for a senior school place for my eldest.

So I feel very well placed to declare that the school application process is hugely complex and highly stressful. A friend recently described admissions criteria as ‘not for the faint hearted, the stupid or the disorganised’. I concur, and then some. 

Who knew that you needed such a diverse skills set in order to navigate the system? Why did no-one tell me that you need nerves of a superhero to survive? 

Go compare? You can't 
For starters the system, if you can call a sprawling set of rules, maps and ever-changing tick boxes a system, is not uniform. You can’t apply the same measures to all the schools on your shortlist. Want to compare and contrast options and suss out whether you are more likely to be offered a place by one school than another? Almost impossible. 

Each establishment has its own unique application criteria. Many faith schools require additional information including evidence that you attend your local place of worship and, in the case of Catholic schools, a Baptism certificate. Some schools will have a set catchment area or Parish boundary within which you are required to live - and prove that you do so. Another might prioritise siblings.  

Even if you do meet every single given criteria for your chosen school, you still may need to play the measuring game. You will have checked the previous year’s furthest awarded place and be trying to work out if the authority measures from the school gates or, as was rumoured to be the case in one of my local secondaries, the headteacher’s office chair. 

I have also tackled the appeals system, and failed. It is another process in which you may feel baffled and disarmed before a panel of people who know the system inside out and only have technical answers to your heartfelt questions. Let me tell you: tissues make no difference.

Local resource to the rescue
I was very happy to hear, then, about a local initiative in the city where I live, Bath, called BathHacked, that set out to disentangle the local primary schools admissions criteria. BathHacked is a joint council and community group project that brings together skilled computery-types with quality data to find useful ways to use that information for the benefit of the city and its residents.  
Rather imaginatively the team called their project ‘The Black Hole of Primary Schools Admissions’ and this will resonate with any parent with children of school application age. They processed the available data and presented the information in an easy to read, and easy to digest format. They identified key dates for applications, created colourful graphs to show the acceptance difficulty of each school, and simplified the over-subscription criteria. 

I hear the School Guide team are also currently working away in the background on a project to create simple parent-friendly catchment area maps for all English schools. Watch this space. 

My primary schools admissions days are over but I wholeheartedly applaud attempts to demystify the process. It can be done. Anything - ANYTHING - that can help simplify the system and set it out in a coherent and consumer-friendly fashion gets a big tick from this parent.