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This briefing paper provides an overview of how places are allocated at state-funded schools in England, and how parents and carers apply for places for their children. It covers the legislative framework, school application processes, and appealing against a decision to refuse a place at an individual school.

Different arrangements apply in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

School starting age

Children in England can take up a full-time school place in the September following their fourth birthday, but there is no requirement for them to be in education until the start of the school term following their fifth birthday. 

Choosing a school

Parents and carers in England can express preferences for particular schools. There’s no absolute right to choose a school, but if a school is undersubscribed any child that applies must usually be offered a place. Undersubscribed means a school has had fewer applications than places available.

No automatic allocation of school places 

School places are not automatically allocated in England, even when children are attending an attached pre-school or feeder school or have older siblings already attending. Parents or carers need to apply for a place.

Options for parents who don’t get the school place they wanted

Parents or carers who are refused places at their preferred schools have a right of appeal. Other options include remaining on waiting lists, joining the waiting lists of schools not originally applied for, or making other suitable arrangements – for example, home education.

How well is the school admissions system working?

Nationally, a large majority of parents receive offers from their first preference primary or secondary schools. However, this masks significant local variation. In some areas, almost all parents get their first preference secondary school after the initial allocation round, whilst in others, only around half do so.

The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has analysed parents’ use of the appeal and waiting list system. It found that some groups were less likely than others to secure their first choice secondary school using these routes – in particular, those from some minority ethnic groups, and those eligible for the Pupil Premium.

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