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Schools admission process

Depending on where you live, there may be several schools that you're eligible to apply for a place at for your child. Admissions policies vary depending on the type of school - our guide to the school admissions process will help you pick out which schools you can apply to, how and when to apply for a place, and what to do if you don't get your choice of school.

This guide provides information for England, Wales & Northern Ireland.

Not sure what to look for in a potential school?

Our guides to choosing a school include some helpful pointers:
Choosing a primary school (England)
Choosing a secondary school (England)
Choosing a primary school (Northern Ireland)
Choosing a post primary school (Northern Ireland)

Can I only apply for schools in my local area?

You are eligible to apply for any state school in your local authority or council’s catchment area. However, you can apply for a place at a school in a neighbouring borough if you live close to a boundary, or if you prefer a particular school for its specialism. In this instance, for a school in England you would need to apply on a CAF (Common Application Form). See the relevant county council’s website for more details.

How do I apply?

Application forms for primary schools and secondary schools are available online from the government website and will vary from council to council.

Visit your individual local authority website to apply for a school in your area. 

Northern Ireland
See the NI Direct website to apply for a primary or post-primary school.

Deadlines for applications


  • Primary schools: The closing date to apply is 15th January (to start in September of that year). You will find out at which school your child has been allocated a place on 16th April when the Local Authority (LA) will email you
  • Secondary schools: The closing date is 1st November (to start in September the following year). You will find out at which school your child has been allocated a place on 1st March when the Local Authority (LA) will email you


Deadlines for applications vary and are set by your local authority. See the individual LA websites for details on application deadlines. However, as a guideline, most LAs open their school admission round during September and October (for entry the following year) and these stay open for at least six weeks.

What are admissions criteria?

These will vary from school to school throughout the UK. There will be contributory factors such as:

  • the number of applicants, and finite spaces to fill
  • the religious observation of parents
  • siblings already attending the school
  • the family’s proximity to the school
  • pupil premium eligibility
  • entrance examination results (for grammar and private schools)

Northern Ireland

Every school has its own admissions criteria, set by the board of governors. Schools that are oversubscribed follow these criteria when allocating places.

Does applying for just one school give a better chance of getting that choice?


No, and this may lead to problems with making a late application at a time when other schools are filling up. The best approach is to apply for three schools, in order of preference.


See local authority guidance for advice, but usually a shortlist of at least three schools will be preferred. 

Northern Ireland

List four primary schools in order of preference. A parent of a child who is progressing to post-primary will receive an information leaflet from the Department of Education. It gives advice on how to choose a post-primary school and complete an application form called the Transfer Form.

Does the order I list my preferences make a difference?


Schools aren't told which order you put your preferences and the offer of a place does not depend on what preference rank you gave that school. By law, schools must offer you the highest preference school for which you qualify, so make sure you meet the admissions criteria, then list your schools in order of preference.

How do I find out if my child has been offered a place?


The Local Authority (LA) will email you, usually on a specific day (16th April for primary school and 1st March for secondary school places).

When an LA informs a parent of a decision to refuse their child a place at a school for which they have applied, it must include:

  • the reason why admission was refused
  • information about the right to appeal
  • the deadline for lodging an appeal and the contact details for making an appeal

Parents must be informed that, if they wish to appeal, they have to set out their grounds for appeal in writing.


Parents are notified in writing of the outcome of their admission application by their local authority. This will include (in cases of acceptance) a starting date and sometimes an offer acceptance form for parents to sign and return. In case of rejections, the letter must clearly state the reason(s) why, including information on parents' right of appeal. 

How do I appeal the decision to not offer my child a place at my preferred school?


Your appeal is only likely to succeed if you can show that the school has not complied with the 

School Admissions Code

Schools can only refuse a place on grounds of over-subscription for certain criteria. You can appeal if:

  • the admission arrangements have not been followed properly
  • the admission criteria applied by the school do not comply with the school admissions appeal code
  • the decision to refuse your child a place was 'not reasonable'

You should appeal directly to the local council for schools. If your child has been refused a place at a maintained school or an academy, you have a right of appeal to an independent appeal panel established by the admission authority for that school. You will receive a letter if your application for a particular school has been unsuccessful, and that will tell you how you can appeal.


See your local authority's website for details on how to appeal a decision. 

Northern Ireland

If you believe the school did not fairly apply their admissions criteria, you have the right to appeal to an independent panel. For post-primary rejections, you also have the option to apply to the independent Exceptional Circumstances Body (ECB) in cases where there may be strong reasons a child needs to attend a particular school. This can only be considered after an unsuccessful application.

What is the process if I appeal?


You will be invited to a hearing at the school where you have an opportunity to explain why you are appealing the decision. There will usually be three people present at the appeal hearing, which is independent from the school.

The panel will use the School Admissions Appeals Code to decide if your appeal has merit. You should receive a response from them within five days of the hearing.


Details will be given by your local authority at the time of appeal. 

Northern Ireland

The Education Authority in your area will contact you in writing with details. 

What happens if my appeal is not successful?


Unfortunately no second appeal is possible, but you are able to make a complaint about the way the appeals process was carried out. This will not alter the decision. If you applied for a place at an academy, you can escalate your complaint to the Education and Skills Funding Agency.


See your local authority website for details. 

Northern Ireland

If you're unhappy about the way the appeal process was carried out, you can complain to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman.

What should I do if I don't get my first choice and my appeal is unsuccessful?

The first thing to do is to not panic, because when we invest so much into trying to achieve the best outcome for our child, we can feel profound disappointment if things don’t work out the way we hoped. However, there are good and bad points to every school. If you aren’t entirely happy with the school your child has been offered, remember to use your voice as the most important stakeholder to challenge decisions positively, so that you can be a part of turning things around.

Can I apply for a place at a different school mid-term?

England and Wales 

Children can be moved between schools during the academic year, but it is best to wait until you have a concrete offer of a place at another school before withdrawing your child from their current school so that any disruption to their schooling is kept to a minimum. Although there are many factors that may contribute to making the decision to move your child to a different school such as moving house or a change in your financial situation, if the deciding factor is unhappiness with the current school, then it is a good idea to speak to the staff or head teacher there about the issues your child is facing so that there is an opportunity to find a resolution before considering a change of school, which is a big adjustment for the whole family. We have some guidance on how to raise issues with your school that may help you. If you make the decision to change your child’s school, there is a process that each local county council has to administer this, and you should check the relevant website for details. 

Northern Ireland

Contact the Education Authority in your area to discuss your options. 

Reviewed: October 2021

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