Primary school places: what if we don’t get our first choice school?

Three things you can do if you didn't get your first choice school for your child, according to an experienced primary school head teacher 

Whether you’ve gone through the application process for primary school for the first time or are a seasoned pro, opening the school offer email (or letter) is always nerve wracking. 

What if you dIdn't get your first choice? 

What if you didn’t get any of your choices? 

What if you have been given a school miles away?

What if you have been given a school with a terrible reputation or a low Ofsted rating? 

I have been the head teacher of two primary schools but this time last year I sat in bed in the middle of the night and felt like thousands of other parents: terrified.

I clearly remember the moment I saw the email notification pop up on my phone. It was 1am and I’d just got back into bed (I had an 8 month old at the time) to see the application email staring out at me in the dark. I hesitated for a moment; did I really want to open this and get bad news in the middle of the night? 

I clicked. And was hugely relieved to see we had been given our first choice. 

I realise that if you are reading this, you are unlikely to be in the position of having your first choice. But there are things you can do and I'm here to guide you. I was a head teacher for six years and an Early Years teacher for many more, and I have helped many parents who have been stressed and worried on allocation day. 

"I realise that if you are reading this, you are unlikely to be in the position of having your first choice school. But there are things you can do and I'm here to guide you."
Emma Lewry, Former Head Teacher and School Readiness Specialist

I know that, for whatever reason, the school you have been given won’t feel right, and you may feel cross, upset, nervous and a raft of other emotions which families have shared with me over the years. 

As a head teacher, I’ve also had lots of occasions where my school wasn’t the first choice and families have spoken to me about their concerns. Here I am going to give you three things to consider if you are in this position of not being given your first choice and I do hope they help.


3 Things to Do If You Have Not Been Given Your #1 School

Check out the primary school you have been allocated

I know that it’s easy to say ‘don’t worry’ in situations like this but as a starting point, I would like to advise a ‘try not to worry – yet’ approach. Take some time to find out more about the school you have been offered, even if you think you know lots about it already. Use School Guide to find the latest information on the school and their website address. Take a look around the website and find out what you can about the school’s ethos and values, the head teacher, the class set up, and what sort of curriculum and extra-curricular activities they offer. 

Have a look on social media: the school you have been allocated might have a Facebook page with information about events. Ask for some information from local families who are already at the school: what do they love about it? What are the things that make it unique? Take time to form your own opinion and don’t be swayed by feedback that might be out of date. While your neighbour down the road might have thought it was a terrible school a few years ago,  schools can and do change very quickly. I know this first hand as the head teacher of a school which had a very poor reputation and OFSTED judgement. Within a few months, things were looking up and we had great parent reviews. For these reasons, I would also say don’t let an OSFTED grading sway you too much. Do a bit of research before you write the school off as ‘not our first choice'. You never know; it might turn out to be a great option after all.


Call your first choice school

If you're not happy with your offer, give your first choice school a call. I’m not saying call and tell them all about your situation, they will be really busy as schools always are. But a quick polite call to ask if they have a waiting list and how many are on it would be perfectly okay. Keep it short and see what they say. It’s always good to find out the facts and just see what the likelihood might be of you getting an offer of a place later. Second offer rounds later in the year can mean spaces become available and you could be in with a chance of moving to your first choice. 

You will need to contact your local council to specifically request a place on the waiting list as schools won’t be able to do this for you. Sometimes spaces become available later in the summer term or even after September. It’s not a perfect situation but if you really want your first choice, you can start at another school and swap at a later date once a place becomes available. This is not as unusual or as scary as you might think. Moving schools is something families worry about but children adapt so quickly that a move isn’t a problem in the long term.

If you’d like to explore other school options, you could also call schools which weren’t on your list to find out if they have spaces. You don’t only have to call schools that were in your original selection. 


Look into the primary school appeals process

If you're not happy with your offer, there is a process to appeal the offer you have been given. There are very limited reasons which appeals can be granted and really they are only considered if there is a specific need which cannot be met in another school or a couple of other rare situations. But it’s always good to know all the options available to you so it’s worth checking out. Have a look on your local authority applications website and the appeals process will be clearly explained. You can find the local council website for each school on their School Guide page. If you do want to appeal and believe you fit the criteria, you can follow the information in the email or letter of allocation or on the website to start this process. 


Read the 'Didn't get your #1 choice school' 3-Step Action Plan from Victoria, Founder of School Guide. 

Discover All Your Local School Options via our quick and easy School Search 

Watch Our 2-Minute Video – What If We Don't Get Our First Choice School?

Also Read How Do I Get My Pre-schooler Ready for School During A Pandemic?


By Emma Lewry. Emma is Co-Founder of Every Day's A School Day, an organisation that supports parents and children prepare for primary school, and is home of the School Starters Hub on Facebook and School Ready with Teddy, the UK’s first online School Readiness Programme. Emma has been a head teacher of two different primary schools.