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Can someone explain the state school catchment system to me?

(113 Posts)
scubacat2292 Mon 22-Oct-12 22:38:45

We are relocating to London from the United States in the next two months and I am really concerned about finding good schools for my boys. Independent schools are out of the question due to the high costs, so I need to find good state schools for them. While I've been researching, I'm getting more and more confused about how the system works. People have said to be sure to live in the catchment area of a good school, but then say some are oversubscribed. Does that mean even if you live in the area, you won't get in? And if we move now in December, will we be able to get in for January? I've seen people talk about entrance exams and deadlines, about there being no secondary schools for certain areas, etc. How can that be? In the US, if you live within the boundaries of a school, you go to that school. It doesn't matter if it is "full" -it must take your child. I'm guessing London doesn't work that way? Can someone please help me out here. smile

My boys are 13, 10, and 7, so we need both primary and secondary. We are looking in the surrounding areas of London - anywhere within 30 to 40 minutes to the Waterloo station would be fine.

prh47bridge Mon 22-Oct-12 22:56:11

State primary schools do not have an entrance exam, nor do most secondary schools.

Most state schools do not have a formal catchment area, although many people talk as if they do. All state schools have admission criteria that determine which children will be admitted if there are more applicants than places. In many cases they use distance from the school as a tie breaker, so living close to a school improves your chances of getting a place.

You will be an in year applicant so you don't need to worry about deadlines. Unfortunately that means you are unlikely to get places at popular schools. However, you may be able to go on a waiting list for places. Your position on the list will be determined by the admission criteria. You won't necessarily start at the back of the list.

Good luck.

tiggytape Mon 22-Oct-12 23:17:55

People talk about catchment areas because usually, somewhere in a school's admission criteria, priority will be given to the people who live closest to the school when deciding who gets a place.
Distance may not be top priority though - often medical reasons and siblings get top priority.

Every year most London schools fill their places very easily and have to turn down some people. The 'last distance offered' is actually what most people really mean when they say catchment area. It is the furthest address away from the school that got offered a place last year or in the last 3 years and is used as a guide on which school you'll be offered / where to live.

It varies every year depending on how many apply and how many siblings there are but basically, if the last distance the school offered to was 500m and you live 2.8 miles away, you know you have zero chance of a place whereas if you live 200m away you can feel more certain of getting in.

Applying in year though means that all 13, 10 and 7 year olds currently have school places and most won't be moving so it is more likely that you will be given places in schools that have spare places rather than your closest school or school that you choose. As prh says though, you can go on waiting lists for schools you'd prefer and / or appeal for a place. Once one of your older children gets an offer you like, the other one will then become a higher priority because most schools give siblings top priority.

scubacat2292 Mon 22-Oct-12 23:28:10

So how can I determine where to move to? I had planned to find a good school and move into that area, but if that good school is full, then how do I determine where they will send my kids instead? What kind of distance could I be dealing with?

And do I just resign myself to a sub-standard education for half the year? It sounds like all the good schools will be full and any school with available space will not be as desirable?

prh47bridge Mon 22-Oct-12 23:49:56

If you don't get into your preferred schools you will be offered the nearest school with places available. If there are no schools with places within a reasonable distance the council's Fair Access Protocol kicks in and you should be offered a place at the nearest school best able to handle an additional pupil.

The fact that a school is unpopular does not necessarily mean it is no good. Reputation tends to lag reality. It takes a while for people to realise that a school has improved.

Kewcumber Mon 22-Oct-12 23:53:29

Our school (In richmond area so within your 30-40 mins from Waterloo) would most likely have a place for a 7 and 10 year old because although the school is oversubscribed in the first year we are in quite a mobile area (lots of ex-pats) and lots of people leave. Virtually all of the primary schools in the area are good so you wouldn;t go far wrong. Having said that, as a result its extremely popular area and rental and house prices are expensive.

Can't comment on secondary spaces but there are good and average secondary schools as far as I know.

Kewcumber Mon 22-Oct-12 23:54:16

Admissions officer in each council may be able to give you some advice about school places.

scubacat2292 Tue 23-Oct-12 00:09:30

Kewcumber - thanks - this is what I was hoping for - to find some neighborhoods where I couldn't really go wrong. Here in the states you pretty much get good school districts. If you end up redistricted into another school sometime in the future, chances are very good that this new school is also pretty good as long as you're in the same school district. Is that what a council is like?

I would love any other recommendations for neighborhoods to look into where I would find good education options no matter which school they assign us. I'm not looking necessarily at huge A scores or whatever they're called. I'd be more interested in smaller class sizes, caring teachers, reasonable facilities, and happy, engaged children.

MrsVincentPrice Tue 23-Oct-12 00:24:01

If you live very centrally (zones 1-3 say) and move very close to a preferred school of a reasonable size then the turnover is so high in the centre that places come up quite frequently and you are likely to be close enough to be top of the waiting list after a bit of Home Ed-ing.

Alternatively you could move to the leafy subburbs where turnover is lower but all the schools are pretty much fine.

scubacat2292 Tue 23-Oct-12 00:39:32

Leafy suburbs was what I was expecting, but don't know how to tell which ones. It seems like the areas are covered with independent schools I couldn't even begin to consider with three kids. Any suggestions??

mummytime Tue 23-Oct-12 07:18:17

Where do you need to get to? How long are you prepared to commute?

prh47bridge Tue 23-Oct-12 08:12:51

No, I'm afraid that isn't what a council is like.

Your council is responsible for a range of services in your area - rubbish collection, social services, education and so on. They will co-ordinate admissions for all the schools in the area they cover. A typical council will have some good schools and some that are not so good. It will have some popular schools (not necessarily the good ones) and some unpopular schools (not necessarily the bad ones).

You say areas are covered with independent schools. You may be right but just in case you are confused I should point out that most CofE and Catholic schools are state schools. You can get a list of state schools in the area from the website of your council.

Kewcumber Tue 23-Oct-12 09:44:05

I don't know if our borough (Richmond is unusual) but certainly the primary schools local to me are all good - even the one which has the worst reputation is only in comparison to the others and I wouldn't have any issue with my DS going there if there was no choice. Secondary schools are slightly different but still most near me are either already good or are rapidly improving at an astounding rate.

I'd be tempted to start a thread specifically asking what areas within a 40 minute commute of Waterloo have consistently good schools. Richmond will certainly come up but I don't know what your budget for renting is but the "neighborhoods where I couldn't really go wrong" come at a significant premium. £2,500 to £3,000 a month for a four bed house is about the cheapest you'll find (possibly down to £2k if you're lucky)
www.rightmove.co.uk/property-to-rent/Kew.html?sortByPriceDescending=false&minBedrooms=4&displayPropertyType=houses&oldDisplayPropertyType=houses

I'm not sure how helpful the good schools guide is for state schools but you can use it to find all schools within a mile of where you're thinking of living and check their ofsted report/ring the council

www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk/find-a-school

mummytime Tue 23-Oct-12 10:08:58

Oh you also have secondary age children? I think that is what you will really need to look at. Secondary schools are far more mixed (and I think lacking in Richmond???). The LA will have to offer you a place somewhere and for the age of your children you can appeal for a school you like. However in London I believe if you are offered a school too far away the free transport required by law is considered to be covered by the free travel pass.

Kewcumber Tue 23-Oct-12 10:12:00

several good state secondary schools in richmond - Christs, Greycourt, waldegrave (off the top of my head) and RPA seems to have caught up with grades as good as Christs this year. Not so sure on the hounslow side of the borough.

Blu Tue 23-Oct-12 10:13:25

The vast majority of schools do not deliver a 'sub standard' education. People get very competitive and frenzied about getting into one or two particular schools, which does not mean that less sought after schools are sub standard. A bigger risk is that your children will need to travel quite a distacne to the nearest available place.

You can out yourself on the waiting list of as many schools as you like - and places do come up. I know 3 families who were offered thier 3rd choice schools, but now that thier children are settled they have turned down offers within the last few weeks of thier original first choice frenzy-worthy schools! That means that more of those places will be available for in-year applicants like you.

Some tactics you could adopt:
-move on to the doorstep of a school you like, so that you are top of the waiting list on distacne criteria. once you have one child in the school you will then be even higher up the list due to sibling priority.
- look at areas of London where there is higher mobility. Some of the more settled suburban areas experience less mobility and fewer places come up - I have no evidence of this, but in my DS's inner-city primary - outstanding ofsted, lovely school - over a third of his class left and was replaced durng his primary years.

IShallWearMidnight Tue 23-Oct-12 10:17:10

In your position I'd start with a decent secondary school, and then take my chances with a primary. Your 10 y.o. will only have two terms in primary (and half of the last term won't have very much academically going on), and your eldest is coming up to GCSE choices, so I'd focus on secondary first, and then see what decent primaries there are in that area.

overmydeadbody Tue 23-Oct-12 10:17:59

I don't know the areas but admissions are handled by the local authority. You apply to them for a place, not directly to a school, but you can state your preferred schools. They then decide where to send your kids and let you know.

You won't be applying to the schools yourself, but if you find a school you like live as close to it as you can.

Kewcumber Tue 23-Oct-12 10:18:07

Yes Blu - it does make me laugh at the occasional threads I read about a primary in Richmond where people are verging on hysterical because they've been allocated it. I had a friend with 3 children at the school and they were perfectly happy with it - they all left primary happy and being able to read and write and on a par with their secondary classmates from other schools!

People (in this area certainly) seem to have wild expectations about primary schools. Our very lovely small local school gets it in the neck sometimes from parents complaining about such things as - headmaster not good enough at public speaking; not enough homework; too much homework etc.

overmydeadbody Tue 23-Oct-12 10:19:30

I agree with Blu too. Not many schools offer sub standard schooling. Some very good schools have some bad teachers in them, some bad schools have brilliant teachers in them.

Focus more on the secondary schools being good I would say.

MrsHoarder Tue 23-Oct-12 10:30:45

There are plenty of state schools even in the leafy suburbs. You've discussed Richmond, the council website has the schools marked out on a map. In most of England children change schools in September at the age of 11.

Some schools have funny names, and "public" schools are the poshest of private schools (just to confuse matters).

TimeChild Tue 23-Oct-12 10:35:20

OP, I think that the one to focus on is your 10 year old. He/she will be in Yr5 or 6 ie at the top end of primary. Quite a few families in London (but maybe not so much in the suburbs) move out of the city all together when their dcs approach secondary age.

My dd started at one of the most oversubscribed state primaries in the country - she was 10 when we applied for transfer. I was very surprised when she got a place but she was not the only one. You do have to live reasonably near to the school, but not right next door as you would have to get in at the start of school.

Then once the 10 year old is 'in' the younger one can go to the top of the waiting list as a sibling. smile

Your oldest is trickier though but they can travel further for schooling. Also a lot of state schools use banding so the wait is different depending on which band your child is in. You will be surprise how many schools will be in within say 3 mile radius of your home in London as it is densely populated. The link below is really useful for looking up schools.

dept of education

Good luck!

Cahoots Tue 23-Oct-12 10:40:28

We moved from overseas with three teens and found that some of the School admission Officers were really helpful whilst others were spectacularly unhelpful. We moved into an area with a helpful admissions officer grin
What about Walton, East Molesey, Esher, Waybridge ?
I agree with the move onto the schools doorstep suggestion. That is what we did and we got places for all three DC's in a popular school. It was a little fraught and our youngest only got a pace at the last minute but it all worked out.
I actually think it can be an advantage moving mid-year especially in areas with ex-pats who may be moving at Xmas time to start new school years in Southern hemisphere schools (eg South Africa).
One thing I did when we moved was to phone, phone and phone some more. I was literally phoning the admissions officer of the school where we wanted to go every day. I was extremely polite and 'pleasant' but it was nessecery for us.
When you have worked out where you want to go you should try and get a contract for your rental as soon as possible so that the school admissions department can officially offer you a place.
Our estate agnt gave us a letter saying we had paid a deposit on a house before we had 'officially' signed the contract and this helped sway the school admissions officer to hold a place for us for a week or so until the contracts were signed. I dont think she was meant to do that but she could see we were genuine and wanted to help.
The less helpful school,admission officers would barely even speak to me. Basically, unless we already had a house in the area they we're not interested.

I don't suppose you have any family here who's house you could use as an address?

malinois Tue 23-Oct-12 12:28:15

Guildford (39 minutes to Waterloo) - excellent primaries and secondaries (George Abbot and Guildford County). Need to be careful where you live for George Abbot in particular though.

Godalming (47 mins to Waterloo so possibly too long) - again, excellent primaries and a great secondary (Rodborough), no real worries about catchments.

Neither in London but might be a lot more like what you are used to in the US.

scubacat2292 Tue 23-Oct-12 16:46:59

Thank you everyone who has chimed in so far! Yes, I agree with the suggestions to focus on finding a decent secondary and not worry as much about the primary school. Particularly in my situation as my oldest DS has some special needs that will need to be addressed and so a good placement for him is my top priority.

We will be renting a place, not buying. We plan to stay anywhere from 2 to 3 years, so we are keeping our home in the US. We are hoping to find a place where my husband can get to work in about 30 to 40 minutes as I mentioned before, but I find that this really means there are a LOT of options out there. I don't even know how to begin to narrow the field down to determine where we might want to live. I would really love some more suggestions on towns or areas where I could focus my search.

Cahoots - How did you determine where to live before you arrived? I don't know if we'll have a chance to visit before the move, so I may end up just looking for a place once we're there, but it would be wonderful to at least figure out a town first and make some of the arrangements before we arrive. Nope, no family there! It's a real adventure for us. smile

Malinois - What do you mean about being careful for George Abbot? We have heard many good things about Guildford, so I will definitely look there. I need more places like that to consider! smile

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