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Understanding state school catchment areas in the UK

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 and tell you exactly how it works, so you have the best chance of securing your child a place at a top state school in London.

Understanding catchment areas for state schools in the UK

The battle lines are drawn – quite literally – and the fight is on to secure your kid a place at an Ofsted rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ state school in London. 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. And with competition for places fierce, people have been known to bend the rules – even changing religion in some cases.

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. Not true! For example, just 82% of secondary pupils were allocated their chosen school in 2018.

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.

If a school is oversubscribed – meaning it has received more applications than it has places available – 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. There are several exceptions, such as voluntary aided (faith) schools, which use different admissions criteria, and attendance at a ‘feeder school’.

Always read a school’s admissions policy on their website before applying – and if in doubt, contact their admissions officer. You can also find some useful information on the government’s school admissions page.

2 – How is a school catchment area worked out?

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

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 – 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 12 months
  • TV licence
  • Utility bill dated within the past three months
  • Copy of your child benefit letter
  • Copy of a tax credits letter

Beware: 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.

5 – Get help from the experts

Family relocation specialists like Simply London can guide you through the state school selection and application process. We offer two options, depending on your requirements:

Download the free guide to State Schools in London!

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