This briefing paper provides an overview of how places are allocated at state-funded mainstream schools in England. It's been updated in advance of primary national offer day 2020, and in light of changes to admissions appeals during the Coronavirus pandemic.
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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 particular school, but if a school is undersubscribed – i.e., has fewer applicants than there are places available – any child that applies must usually be offered a place.
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 a place at a particular school have a right of appeal. Other options include remaining on waiting lists, joining the waiting lists of schools not originally applied for, or arranging other suitable education – e.g., home schooling.
Appeals during the Coronavirus pandemic
The DfE has said that parents will continue to have rights of appeal during the Coronavirus pandemic. The Government plans to relax some of the rules around how appeal panels are constituted, the current requirement for appeals to be held in person, and amend some appeal-related deadlines.
How well is the school admissions system working?
Nationally, a large majority parents receive offers for their first preference primary or secondary schools. However, this masks significant local variation. At secondary level, in some areas, almost all parents get their first preference in the initial allocation round, whilst in other areas, only around half do so.
The Education Policy Institute (EPI) has analysed parental 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 black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, and those eligible for the Pupil Premium.