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Understanding state school catchment areas in the UK

Understanding state school catchment areas in the UK

In this article, we will cover:

  • What does “catchment area” mean?
  • What is the catchment area for a school
  • How to find the catchment area for schools
  • Tips for applying to schools in a given catchment area
  • How to get in to a school outside the catchment area

The school catchment area system is like a postcode lottery. You’ve got to be in it to win it!

Join us as we do some myth-busting. We’ll explain exactly how catchment areas work. This will give you the best chance of securing your child a place at a top state school in London.

What is a school catchment area?

Firstly, what is the definition of a school catchment area? “Catchment area” is a term relating to state schools. So, state schools are catchment area schools. Most independent schools have their own system for applications.

What is the catchment area for schools? A school ‘catchment’ area is the geographical area around a school. This area can sometimes dictate which children are offered a place at that school. Catchment areas are measured in different ways. They often change from year to year. This depends on the number of applications a school receives.

What is the purpose of a catchment area?

Catchment areas are in place to help ensure a fair and even spread of pupils across schools. The system of catchment areas is considered to be the fairest way to manage school applications. It can however be complicated with pupils sometimes missing out on their chosen schools. This is due to various ‘red tape’ issues.

Some additional information: State schools and some independent schools are monitored by an independent government department reporting directly to Parliament – Ofsted.

This is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills.

Ofsted inspect services providing education and skills for learners of all ages. It also inspects and regulates services that care for children and young people.

Understanding catchment areas for state schools in the UK

The battle lines are drawn – quite literally! The fight is on to secure your child a place at an Ofsted rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ state school in London. As mentioned, the catchment area system in the UK has been designed to stop the admission process being a complete free for all.

However, these sought-after boundaries have the power to drive up house prices. Competition for places in schools in a catchment area is fierce. So some people have been known to bend the rules. Some even change their religion.

The best way to win this most middle-class of battles is to understand the battlefield: the school catchment area.

1 – Does living in a school catchment area guarantee a place?

Let’s start by clearing up a common misconception. ‘Living within a school’s catchment area will guarantee your child a place there’. This is not true! For example, just 83.3% of secondary pupils were allocated their chosen school in 2022.

As the ‘catchment’ is a defined geographical area that a school will accept applications from – children living outside this area are very unlikely to be offered a place. Therefore, living within a catchment area vastly improves your child’s chances of being selected.

What happens when catchment area schools are oversubscribed? (i.e. they have received more applications than they have places available)

In this case, siblings of existing pupils and children in care will typically be given priority.

Once these priority factors have been considered, the remaining places will be allocated according to who lives within the catchment area. However, if your child happens to fall in a year group where lots of siblings are offered places, he/she could still miss out even if you live on the right road.

Other factors that can sometimes affect school applications include:

  • Whether your child went to one of the school’s official feeder (primary) schools
  • Your child’s religion (voluntary aided (faith) schools use different admissions criteria)
  • Your child’s academic ability (for a very limited number and type of state schools)
  • Any additional needs your child might have

Useful information about admissions

There’s lots of information available to help you with the admissions process. Choosing the right education for your children is paramount. Each school has a comprehensive Admissions Policy.

We recommend that you always visit a school’s website. You can review all the content including their Admissions Policy. Ensure you read a school’s admissions policy before applying.

If in doubt about any aspect of the policy, contact their Admissions Officer. You can also find useful information on the government’s school admissions page.

2 – How to find the catchment area for schools

Most people assume that a school catchment area is like an imaginary ring around a school. Therefore any road that falls within that ‘ring’ is ‘in catchment.’ However, it’s a bit more complex than that. There are four different types of catchment processes used by London schools.

Straight Line Catchment This is actually a circular catchment area around a school. Properties that fall within this circle are classed as ‘in catchment’ If a school has some places remaining after siblings have been offered places, it will offer to those applicants within that ‘circle’ catchment area

Walking Distance Catchment This is similar to the method above. However, rather than simply forming a circle around the school, applicants are assessed by the walking distance of their home to the school. This is done along a set walking route established by the local authority. It’s usually what is seen to be the shortest ‘safe’ walking route to school.

Priority Admission Area (PAA) PAA’s are fixed areas where pupils are admitted to a school as a priority. This is before any remaining places are offered to other applicants outside the area. Siblings from within a PAA are usually offered first. Other children from the PAA offered next. Siblings living outside the PAA are offered next. If any places remain, they’re offered to other children from outside the PAA.

Nearest School Catchment Schools who use this process, prioritise applicants for whom their school is nearest. This means the area around the school is dissected into different spaces. This is mainly used when many schools are in close proximity to one another.

How long does a catchment area remain in place?

The catchment area boundary of a school is typically defined by “last distance offered” data – the home to school distance of the child who was offered the last place. Therefore, catchment areas can and do change each year, getting smaller or bigger depending on who applies.

Other factors that might impact the number of applications, and therefore the size of the catchment area, include:

  • The number of siblings of existing pupils who apply
  • New families moving into the area
  • New schools opening in the area
  • Change in the popularity of a school – often linked to Ofsted rankings

How long does one have to live in a catchment area?

There is no minimum length of time that you must be living in a property as your main residence in order for it to be considered on a school application. However, the admission teams will be looking out for signs of fraud such as:

  • Using a relative’s address on a school application because it’s in catchment
  • Renting a property in catchment while also keeping another main residence
  • How to get in to a school outside a catchment area

There are no rules to say you can’t apply for a school place outside your catchment area. However it’s worth bearing the following point in mind:

If applications for a particular school are strong from families who already have a child at the school, or from within the school’s catchment area, chances of securing a place will be considerably reduced.

3 – Are catchment areas and distance criteria the same thing?

Another common misconception is that school catchment areas and distance criteria are the same.

Some schools don’t have a set catchment area. This is usually because they aren’t oversubscribed. Instead, they offer places to pupils from any area based on their distance from the school. How far you can live from a school and still be in with a chance of securing a place for you child depends on its popularity. The more popular the school, the shorter the distance – sometimes as little as a few hundred metres – and the higher the property prices.

4 – Proving your address

When applying for a place at a school with a catchment area, you must prove that your child’s permanent address is within it. You will be asked to provide at least two proofs of address, including:

  • Council tax letter for the current year
  • Copy of your tenancy agreement
  • Copy of a benefits letter dated within the past twelve months
  • TV licence
  • Utility bill dated within the past three months
  • Copy of your child benefit letter
  • Copy of a tax credits letter

(All Academy Trusts or Local Authorities must allocate a place for children of armed forces personnel on proof of assignment and not proof of home address. This allows for last minute changes of address and can be processed by unit address or general quartering address. However, parental preference will not always guarantee a place if that school is already at capacity.)

A point to note: admissions investigators are on the lookout for fraudulent applications. For example, people have been caught renting a property within a catchment area without any intention of living in it. This does not go down well with the admission teams, and could lead to places offers being withdrawn.

5. Useful tips about applications

Playing by the rules

As mentioned, Admissions Authorities are always on the ball when checking applications. They have seen every trick in the book. All applications are investigated. Offers made on the basis of false information, risk being withdrawn.

Thankfully, there are some legal ways in which you can boost your child’s chances of securing a sought-after place from their first-choice school:

  • Regularly attend church near the first-choice faith school.
  • Ensure any special educational or medical needs are identified, assessed and registered by professionals early so that an Educational Health Care Plan (EHCP) can be initiated.
  • Support your child to be successful at entrance exams for applications to selective schools.

Present your catchment case

Be aware of exactly where you rank in your first-choice school’s order of admission criteria.

Gather all your evidence to present your rationale in the best possible light

All Academy Trusts and Local Authorities are required by law to provide a Common Application Form (CAF) to parents. This enables you to express your preference for a place at any school.

The form allows parents to list at least three schools in order of preference. This is regardless of whether their top three are in the Local Authority/Academy Trust or not. It’s worth considering ranking at least one local school that is less heavily subscribed as your second or third choice. This avoids potentially being allocated an unpopular school or one a long distance from your home address. The form provides space for parents to set out their reasoning and evidence to support their first-choice school selection.

Here’s a list of useful supporting information. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee your application will be successful. It might however be valuable if you decide to appeal a decision.

Consider including any relevant points in your application:

  • Information about feeder nurseries/pre-schools/primary schools.
  •  Special Educational or Medical Needs.
  • Religious persuasion.
  • Military / armed forces personnel (refer to The Schools Admissions Code on the Government’s website.
  • Provide examples of previous involvement within the school community (e.g. governor, volunteer, fundraiser, religion).
  • Childcare arrangements e.g. If you work at the school in question.

For more advice on how to make a school application read our article: how and when to apply for a London school

It goes without saying that you should keep a copy of your CAF application, just in case you need to take your application to appeal.

If you get to the point where a school has turned down your application, there is lots of useful advice on the government’s website:

State School Catchment Area Success!

You’re now hopefully equipped with a wealth of knowledge to assist you with securing the best place possible for your child/children. And of course, Simply London’s experts are here to help you with all aspects of the schools admission process!

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