Applying for a school place in England

From free schools and academies to grammar and independent schools, England’s education system offers the relocating family a wide, and often bewildering, range of choices. We take a look at the options, to help parents understand what is involved in applying for a school place, whether in the state or the private sector.

St Mary's Calne

St Mary's Calne

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Planning, preparing and arming themselves with information will be second nature to any parent organising a move. When it comes to choosing the right education path for their child, the choices in the English education system can seem daunting.Families may already be enrolled in a school in another part of the country and have made their choice of school system. For those from overseas or with children entering school for the first time, we have broken down the options and indicated the key considerations for each type of school: state, independent and international.There may also be other decisions to make, such as single-sex or coeducational, boarding or day, or faith. These are very personal choices, and families will need to think carefully about which is right for them.

When to start the UK school search

Eva Stock, director of sponsor relations at international expatriate support organisation FOCUS, believes that, given the wide choice of education systems, it is never too early to begin looking at the options available to relocating children. “An important consideration is the type of education you would like your child to have,” says Ms Stock.“In making this decision, it might be helpful to ask yourself a few questions about your future.“When this assignment is over, will you go back to your home country or move on to another assignment in a different one? Is there the possibility that your contract could be extended so you remain longer in the UK than originally planned? Is it important to you that children are schooled in your home country’s educational system? Have you thought about which country your children may want to choose for university?”

UK state school education

If a family is repatriating to the UK or moving there for an extended assignment, the state-school system is likely to be very attractive; it’s free, and children will have the benefit of making local friends and immersing themselves in British culture.In most parts of England, children must start school full time from the September after their fourth birthday, moving to secondary education in the September following their 11th birthday. While they may leave school on the last Friday in June provided they will be 16 by the end of that year’s summer holiday, they must stay in some form of education or training until their 18th birthday. This may be in a school or college, or it can be work based.The UK’s state-school system can seem impossibly confusing at first glance. “Parents have to struggle through a plethora of bureaucracy and differing local practice if they are going to find a suitable school place for a son or daughter,” says Sarah Teasdale, of Educatus, an education consultancy that helps place children in schools.There are a number of different types of state-funded school, such as academies, free schools, grammar schools and maintained boarding schools. Each will have its own published admissions criteria, which should be scrutinised, as the application process for state schools varies widely across the country.Faith schools are permitted to use faith-based criteria in order to give higher priority in admissions to children who are members of, or who practise, their faith or denomination. This only applies if a school is oversubscribed.Admissions vary from county to county. In some cases they are handled by the local council and in others responsibility is deferred to the schools themselves.

UK grammar schools

Things are even more complicated when it comes to grammar schools. Only available in certain parts of the country, they select their pupils on the basis of performance in the 11-plus exam, which pupils can take in areas that support grammar schools.Some grammar schools have a particular catchment area (the geographical area from which pupils are drawn), and some are what are known as ‘super-selectives’, which means that they take applications from pupils with the highest scores in the 11-plus test, regardless of location. Find out more in England’s grammar school system explained, on page 110.

The UK state school application process

When applying to state primary schools for the first time for entry into a reception class at the age of four-plus, the deadline is early in the January before the September in which the child is due to start school. Applications for entry to secondary school have a deadline of the end of October of the year before entry.Applications received after these primary and secondary deadlines will still be processed, but only after all the ‘on-time’ applications, and there may be fewer places available, especially at the most popular and successful schools.For entry into all other year groups, parents can apply at any point in the school year, usually through their local authority. These applications are known as ‘in-year admissions’ and will be processed within a few weeks, taking into account parental preferences and spaces available in the schools at the time.If the relevant year group in all the preferred schools is full, the local authority will allocate a place at the nearest school that has a space.

International schools

International schools charge fees and offer a wide and varied curriculum, ranging from the American and French systems to the International Baccalaureate (IB).Most international schools do not select by ability, but make their admissions decisions based on access to previous school records and teachers’ recommendations.Some require a certain level of ability in the English language, but extra tuition is often available. It will be important to determine the level of English that the school expects and what additional support is available.International schools will ask for prospective pupils to be registered in advance of application. This does not guarantee a place, but a non-refundable fee is paid, to indicate that parents wish their child to be considered.It is not necessary to live in the immediate area of the school, but consideration will need to be given to the distance between school and home.Fees are often higher for international schools than for independent schools, so parents are advised to look closely at the fee structure before making an application.The nature of international schools means that parents will find them understanding of the needs of relocating families who might not fit into the normal admissions rounds. Many offer more flexible admissions processes and Padworth College, a co-educational day and boarding school in Berkshire is one such school. “We specialise in families with an international background and therefore have a rolling admissions policy throughout the year,” says Marzia Di Bella-Negi, the school’s head of marketing and admissions.

Independent schools

Independent schools are fee-charging schools outside government control. They are self-governing and free to devise their own curriculum.
Cumnor House School children
Cumnor House School
 The admissions criteria for independent schools are as varied as the number of such schools in the UK (currently more than 2,500), so it’s important to check individual requirements. Some schools will require pupils to take an entrance exam or may invite the family for interview, but others operate a first-come, first-served system and may have a long waiting list.Some independent schools will ask parents to register their child before an application is made. This does not secure a place, but indicates to the school that the parents wish their child to be considered for one. There is usually a non-refundable fee (which can range from under £100 to several hundred pounds) to cover administration costs.Some schools require prospective pupils to sit entrance exams. The requirements for these vary enormously and can take the form of standardised tests or tests devised by the schools themselves. It may be possible for these to be taken remotely in the family’s current country of residence.Independent schools do not usually require families to live within a catchment area, so there are no boundary restrictions, but consideration will need to be given to the time it will take to travel to the school from a new home. What appears to be a short distance on the map may turn out to take considerably longer in rush-hour traffic. However, many schools provide a bus service at additional cost.Fees for independent schools vary dramatically, and it is worth bearing in mind that they will be much higher for boarding schools than for day schools. There may also be additional items to watch out for, such as extracurricular activities, uniforms, transport, music lessons, meals, and fees for entering examinations.

Choices for overseas pupils

In most cases, children moving from overseas are entitled to attend state-funded schools. If a family is moving to the UK from within the European Economic Area (EEA), the same options will be available to them as to UK residents. When moving to the UK from outside the EEA, the family’s visa status will determine whether or not an application for a state-funded school place can be made.
Consideration must be given to the suitability of each school to a child’s individual needs. It is important to take into account the educational background of each child, the languages spoken, whether they have any additional needs, and, most importantly, their age and the stage of education they are entering.For example, if a long-term or permanent relocation to the UK is planned, a local school, either state or fee-charging, would be an obvious choice. If successive family moves are likely, international schools will bring the benefits of a consistent education. They are also set up to receive relocating pupils, and have systems in place to help children to settle.Karin Purcell, director of development and communications at Marymount International School London, believes that the very nature of an international school helps new students to settle in quickly and painlessly. “With over 40 nationalities in a student body of only 260 students,” she says, “the default position at our school is to be welcoming and sincerely interested in new students and their families.”

Where to look for a UK school

Finding a school has never been easier; with online directories and parent forums, there is an overwhelming amount of information on the web. Many national newspapers publish their own directories of state and independent schools, ranking them according to academic achievement and other factors.

How to decide which UK school is best for your child or children?

There are a number of ways of creating a shortlist. These include comparing facts and figures, such as the league tables and exam results that can be found on the Department for Education’s website, which will help to measure each school’s performance.Inspection reports by Ofsted or the Independent Schools Inspectorate can also be useful. Schools may publish their results and leavers’ destinations on their websites.However, there is no substitute for hearing what pupils and teachers have to say, so the best advice is to visit the school. Many schools hold official open days – typically twice a year, in spring and autumn – but they are likely to welcome families and prospective pupils at any time during the academic year.This article was refreshed in August 2018.
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