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How to apply for primary school

Befuddled by admissions criteria and baffled by catchment areas? We’ve got all the information to help parents of pre-schoolers work their way through the maze that is applying for a primary school place, ahead of this year's deadline (Wednesday 15 January).

By Mumsnet HQ | Last updated Jul 14, 2021

Teacher and child in a primary school

If you’re looking down the barrel of the primary school admissions system, you might be feeling just slightly more perplexed than if you were applying to join a Masonic lodge. You're not alone.

Some parents start worrying about which primary school their child will go to before they've even given birth, which can induce mass panic in the rest of us. But to be honest, there's little to be gained in getting in knots about it so early.

I'm already engrossed trying to choose a school for my daughter, and she's only 19 months!

Start giving it some thought as your child is turning three (this is still masses of time) but if your child is due to start school this coming year, don't panic – as long as you don't miss the deadline all will be well. Read on to find out both when to register for school and how to register your child for school.

When does my child start primary school?

In England and Wales, children tend to start primary school in the September after they turn four, so some will be almost five when they start and others may have only just turned four during the summer holidays (in Scotland and Northern Ireland the rules are slightly different).

There’s actually no legal requirement for your child to be in full-time education until the term after they turn five, so if you wish you can delay – or even defer for a year – your child’s start. Most schools will also let your child do half days for a while if they're finding it a bit much (or falling asleep in their school dinner).

Can I delay starting school for a summer-born child?

Parents of summer-born children do sometimes choose to do defer school entry. However, it's worth knowing that the school can then insist that your child go straight into a Year 1 class the following year so, in some ways, all they are doing is missing the Reception year, rather than starting a year later.

Take a look at our information on things to consider if you have a summer-born child due to start school, including your options for deferring or delaying their place.

When to apply for primary school

The primary school starting age is 4-5. Assuming your child is starting in the September after she turns four, you’ll need to apply by the January in that year. The dates change slightly each year but the deadline for applications is usually early to mid-January. This year, the date is 15 January. Consult your local council’s website for more details.

Remember that you won’t be ‘nudged’ to apply for your child’s place. The responsibility to begin primary school enrolment is yours, although if your child is at a nursery or playgroup they are likely to be helpful and send out reminders to parents with children who will be moving up.

When do I need to go on primary school tours?

The open days tend to happen in the autumn term running up to application deadline. So if your child is starting school in September 2020, you’ll be looking around potential schools in September and October of 2019.

Most schools hold dedicated open days for new parents but if you miss this or can’t make it, just phone the school office and you should be able to make an appointment to view the school.

Choosing a primary school is a big decision and you’ll probably have lots of questions to ask. Take a notebook with you so you can look back at your thoughts when comparing your choices later on.

What is my catchment school?

The school identified by the council as the one your child will probably go to is your ‘catchment school’. It’s usually the one closest to you but catchment boundaries mean this isn’t always the case so don’t make any assumptions.

In theory, if you apply to your catchment school your child should get a place (though this has been known to go awry very occasionally).

Assume nothing!

If you don’t want your child to go to your catchment school you can of course put other schools down on your application form, but there are no guarantees you will get the place you’re hoping for.

How to apply for a primary school place

The easiest way is to apply online. Your council’s website should have a link to the application form and it’s a fairly simple process. Alternatively, you can give them a call and ask for a paper copy to be sent to you to fill in.

If you don’t know which council you need to apply through you can enter your postcode on the Government’s primary admissions website and it will take you to the correct council’s page.

The application usually allows you to note down three ‘preferences’ – note their careful use of the word ‘preferences’, rather than ‘choices’. There are no guarantees at all – you are simply being asked what you would prefer. You’ll also need to fill in a lot of information about your child and where you live – you may need a council tax form to hand for this.

For religious schools you may be asked, especially in popular areas, to 'prove' your religious affiliation and commitment, by getting a letter from the priest (or equivalent) to show that you have attended church (or the equivalent) for a certain amount of time beforehand, so if you think you might want to send your child to a religious school you’ll need to be ahead of the game early.

Remember also that if you're applying to schools in another authority you need to do those applications separately.

The most important thing is to mug up on the admissions procedures in your area and make sure you're about crystal clear about:

  • When you need to apply
  • What the admissions criteria are, including the catchment area
  • When you find out which school your child has got into
  • How to appeal if you don't get a place at your preferred choice
  • How local schools' waiting lists operate

Do I have to put down my catchment school on my child’s primary school application?

No, you can put the school you want most first but it might be a good idea to include your catchment school somewhere among your preferences. If you don’t get either of your first choices, you could be sent to virtually any school, and it could even be out of area so, unless you have serious misgivings about your catchment school, you’d be well-advised to include it, even if only as your option three. However, it is entirely up to you.

Every year there are parents who believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that they can somehow cheat the system and force a council to give them their first preference by only putting down that school, or putting down other choices they know they won’t be offered. Don’t be tempted to do that. It won't make any difference and you could end up being the parent that has to drive their child 10 miles to a school place that no one else wanted.

If my child goes to a nursery linked to the school aren’t they guaranteed a place?

No – and you definitely DO still have to fill out the primary school application form. If the school is your catchment school, that’s different. If not, while being at a linked nursery may help in a 'tie-breaker' situation for a last place, you are by no means guaranteed a place. Places are awarded according to the usual criteria.

Many primary (and secondary) schools are oversubscribed, particularly in cities, so don't take anything for granted.

It might be worth phoning the school or the LEA to find out where the catchment area for the school finished last year, to work out whether you have a chance. The catchment areas change each year according to the number of applicants and number of siblings, but it should give you an idea.

What are primary schools' admission criteria?

The crucial thing about starting primary school applications is to make sure that you fit the admissions criteria for the school you're applying to.

If your child starting school has a special educational need, their education, health and care plan (EHCP) will state which school is recommended for them. If you apply to that school you will be guaranteed a place.

‘Looked after’ children (fostered or in public care) will also be given priority. Then the criteria used to decide admissions differ between schools and areas slightly, but they will usually take into account whether:

  • Your child has a sibling who will be at the school when they start
  • You or your child has a disability that would make travelling to a distant school difficult
  • Your child or family is of the particular religion or faith served by the school (for religious or faith schools)
  • Your home is in the school’s catchment area

Do make sure you look carefully at the schools’ criteria and be realistic in your choices. You could waste your time on applications that have no chance of success because your child doesn't fit the profile of the school they're applying to.

You may be expected to provide proof of residence ie council tax bill in your name. Some do such checks nearer the admission date to ensure you/child are living there.

Read the small print about admissions criteria very, very carefully indeed – and don't waste time and emotional energy wishing your child could get into this school or that. If you're not Catholics and the Catholic school at the end of your garden is oversubscribed, you won't get in: it may seem unfair, and unreasonable, but there's no point in banging your head against the school railings when you could be searching around for a school that will take your child.

Mumsnet Talk threads buzz with stories about people who've rented houses close to schools in order to secure a place for their kids. This isn't illegal, but you do genuinely have to move into and live in the rented house. Also, as some parents point out, if you do then get your child into the school, you may be ostracised by other parents if you move back to your original home. Giving a false address is fraud and some local authorities have been known to prosecute. It's a minefield that is probably best avoided.

"There are several (supposedly) very competitive private schools in my part of London and I know a handful of people who were unable to get their children into reception at good state schools and were 'miraculously' offered spaces at the last minute at one or other of the most cut-throat pre-preps. Especially since the recession, I imagine that it won't be spectacularly difficult to find a place at one of them, especially if you don't have a particular preference."

How to apply for independent primary schools

Independent primary schools are known as pre-prep and prep schools. Pre-prep goes from five to seven years old, while prep schools generally take girls up to 11 and boys to 13 – the point at which they sit the Common Entrance Exam to independent secondary schools.

Independent education can be highly competitive, too. And you apply direct to the schools, rather than through the local authority, which can make life more complicated as you’re much more at the mercy of individuals.

When do you apply for a primary school place in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Children in Scotland usually start primary school in the August after their fifth birthday, although if they are born between September and March their parents can choose to send them to school in the August before or after their fifth birthday.

The education authorities set out catchment areas for each of their primary schools, and if you live within a catchment area you'll normally get a place at the relevant school.

You do have the right to ask for a place at a school other than your local catchment area school. To do this, you need to make a placing request to your education authority. If there is space at the school, the education authorities must agree to your request. But the authority does not have to expand the school to meet placing requests.

The authority can also hold back places for children who may move into the catchment area.

In Northern Ireland, a child's age on 1 July determines when they enter school, rather than on 1 September.

Primary School Child

When do you find out which primary school your child got into?

Primary school places are announced in mid-April. Check your council’s primary admission web page for more details.

You may be sent a letter or may find out by email which school your child has been offered a place at.

If you’re unhappy with the decision you can look into appealing. And of course there's always home education if you want an alternative – have a look on the Home Education Mumsnet Talk boards to find out what it entails.

Wherever your child starts her education, before you know it she’ll be approaching the end of primary or prep school and you'll be starting the whole torturous process again for secondary school. Every day’s a school day, as they say.

What age will my child be in each primary year?

If you've not set foot in a school since the day you left yours, here's a quick rundown of how the year groups work these days:

Reception: ages four to five

Year 1: ages five to six

Year 2: ages six to seven

Year 3: ages seven to eight

Year 4: ages eight to nine

Year 5: ages nine to 10

Year 6: ages 10 to 11