When to apply for primary schools

child getting ready for school

by Emily Gilbert |
Updated on

From settling on a school that's the best fit to getting your head around the application process, scoring your little one a spot at school can feel pretty overwhelming — but it doesn't have to be super-stressful. From when to apply for primary schools to how to make an appeal if it comes to it, we’ve got you covered. You’ll be shopping for your youngster's school uniform, packing up their school backpack and little lunchbox and taking that ‘first day at school’ snap before you know it...

Do your research

As you did when applying for nursery, try to have an idea of where you would like your child to go to school well in advance of the date the forms need to be in. This way, you can get to grips with each school’s admission process and criteria in plenty of time and scout out the pros and cons of each.

Go to the Department of Education website and put in your postcode to be directed to the correct council's website where you can get a list of schools nearest to you. If you want to know all the details about each school, have a read of their Ofsted reports to find out how it was judged by inspectors.

While Ofsted is a great guide, it's not the only thing to consider. Check out websites and ask other mums with older kids about the schools their children go to. At the end of the day though, it's up to you to decide which school will suit your child the best — and it may not necessarily be the one with the best academic results.

"Ask yourself: Would my child suit an academic or more nurturing school? Does the school have a clear school philosophy? Is it what you think of as most important? It's also worth reading through school newsletters — just from the tone you can get a feel for the place," says Elena Dalrymple, editor of primary-school education website TheSchoolRun.

Plan a visit

Visit as many of the schools you're considering as you can — visit their websites or just call and ask about open days to make appointments the September before your child is due to start school.

"To get a feel for the school, visit in person, chat to the teachers and watch the children learning and playing if you can," says Elena. "You might have heard gossip about what a school is like or read its Ofsted report, but nothing is as important as looking around yourself."

"In the classroom, look at the displays," suggests Elena. "Are they showcasing recent work? Are they interactive and inviting the children to have a go at doing something? It's also worth asking about after-school clubs — extra-curricular activities can make an enormous difference to what your child will learn and experience at school and also can indicate the teachers' enthusiasm and commitment."

If you aren’t able to visit your shortlisted schools, arrange to meet up with some parents of pupils already at the schools to pick their brains.

When to apply for primary schools

Children start school in the September of the school year in which they will become five years of age, which means most children are four years old when they start school.

If your child is due to start school in September 2024, you’ll need to apply for three schools by January 15. Missing the deadline can mean your little one is less likely to get offered a place, so make sure you submit your application in plenty of time. Most councils now ask you to submit your application online, but each individual one decides how they would like this done so do check with your local authority.

It’s up to you to apply for your little one's place, by visiting your local council’s education department online where you will find the forms to fill in.

You should list all three of your chosen schools in order of preference as giving fewer options will give you less chance of a school you actually want your child to go to.

Understand the allocation process

Primary schools can only accept a maximum of 30 pupils per class, so prepare yourself for the possibility of not getting accepted to the school you love.

Children in public care are given priority and there are other criteria that apply, including:

• Whether you live in the catchment area will make a difference. This isn’t always how close you live to the school (it can be a designated area), so check with the school before applying to see if you apply. Remember, catchments for some areas, especially London or other cities, can be as small as 0.1 miles if you live near a popular school.

• If you or your child have a disability or special needs that makes travelling difficult you will be given priority.

• If you already have a child at the school, then your pre-schooler will have more of a chance than other children.

• Your child’s faith will be a factor if you’re applying to faith schools. Priority is given to children who have the same faith as the school.

Faith schools often have their own forms to fill in and may also ask you for a reference from your priest or other religious ministers to confirm that you regularly attend a relevant place of worship. Some faith schools have a certain number of places allocated to non-faith students, so check each one individually.

Don’t leave it until the last minute to apply as you may need additional forms and birth certificates and you don’t want to scramble around for them on the last day. Many councils do have a second round of allocations for late applicants however all applications received after this date will be processed at a later date after the majority of places have been allocated and you are much less likely to get what you prefer or want.

Play the waiting game

It takes a few months to hear whether your application was successful, so in the meantime, try not to worry and be patient. You’ll hear from your local council on National Offer Day (usually April 19) if your child has got a place. If you applied online, you should receive an email notification once an outcome has been received. To find out, simply log onto the council's website from 12.30 am to see what school your child has been offered. If you did not apply online, you'll receive a letter.

Once you've heard back, you'll need to accept your offer by May by contacting the school directly.

If you don’t get your first choice school, their name should automatically be added to the school's waiting list. Call the school to ask them to keep you on it as well as the council and keep in touch with them to see where you are on the list as people do drop out.

Don’t be afraid to appeal

If your child doesn’t get a place at any of the schools you applied for, don't panic: contact the council to ask which schools still have places.

You are also entitled to appeal the council’s decision if you think the reason for refusal wasn’t fair. Take a look at the school admissions appeals code here. If your appeal goes ahead, you’ll be asked to attend a hearing either at the school or at the council’s offices and will be given at least 10 school days’ notice.

Lorna White is the Senior Digital Writer for Mother&Baby. After running the Yours magazine website, specialising in content about caring for kids and grandchildren, Lorna brought her expertise to Mother&Baby in 2020. She has a keen interest in a range of topics from potty training and nutrition to baby names and early development and has a wide range of experienced medical experts and professionals at her fingertips. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her two young sisters, dog walking and enjoying the outdoors with her family.

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