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Understanding State School waiting lists

The waiting game is over, and the day has finally arrived when you find out if your child has been offered a place at your preferred state school. But what happens if you are met with disappointment? Don’t panic – find out how the school waiting list process could offer you a lifeline.

State School Waiting Lists: the quick guide

National Offer Day: this might sound like the latest in a long list of annual days designed to raise awareness of a worthwhile cause or celebrate the obscure and have some fun – like National Pizza Day and National Awkward Moments Day. Unlike its contemporaries, however, National Offer Day – in March for secondary school applications and April for primary – is a nail-biting experience, when parents across the land keep everything crossed in the hope that their children will be offered a place at their first-choice school.

The good news is most parents end the day with a smile on their face. But with the number of applications for state school places rising, some are inevitably left with their head in their hands after the long-awaited email lands in their inbox – especially in major cities like London. For example, out of 89,680 applications for reception places across London in 2022, more than 1,500 families failed to receive an offer for any of up to six preferences. Maybe the following day should be named “National Stressed Parent Day”.

So, what are your options if you are one of the unlucky few?

  1. You can accept the place you have been given and breathe a sigh of relief that the admission process is over.
  2. You can appeal – although this process is rarely successful.
  3. You can accept the place, and add your child to the waiting list for your preferred schools.

State School waiting lists

All is not lost thanks to school waiting lists – you can join the waiting list for any school that ranked above the one you have been given.

First things first, however: accept the place you have been offered before executing plan B. Doing so does not affect your child’s place on a waiting list – and it guarantees your child a school place in September.

How do state school waiting lists work?

If a space becomes available at one of your preferred state schools that you unsuccessfully applied for and your child’s name is top of the waiting list, that place will be automatically allocated to them.

In some areas this is a rolling process, meaning you may be given a place at any time. In others, there are set ‘runs’ that occur on specific dates, when all the children who’ve reached the top of a waiting list will be informed that they’ve got a place.

If your child is offered a place, your existing offer will be withdrawn automatically.

How do I get on a school waiting lists?

Some authorities will automatically add your child to the waiting list of any school you ranked higher than the one offered – it is advisable to doublecheck with the schools to make sure your child has been included.

If you decide to accept the original place you have been offered and do not want to be added to the waiting list for any preferred schools, make sure you contact the local authority to opt-out.

In other areas, you must request for your child to be put on the list – usually by informing your local authority. The school admissions section of their website will explain the process in your area.

How do I find out where my child is on the waiting list?

Log onto your local authority’s school admissions system to find out where they are on the waiting list.

Some authorities will also send out update emails informing you of your child’s position. This is determined by the same criteria used to offer places in the first round of the application process – such as distance or catchment area.

Your child will move up the list when someone above them is removed. Equally, they could move down it if a new family moves into the area and they live closer to the school.

Don’t get too despondent if this happens; school waiting lists have a tendency to ebb and flow either way.

When do waiting lists end?

School waiting lists typically remain open until 31 August – after which your child will no longer be in the running for spaces that become available. But some Boroughs only run waiting lists for one term.

Your next option is an in-year application, which you can learn more about on your local authority’s website.

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