Wondering how primary school waiting lists work? Our guide explains all…
The day you’ve been waiting for with a mixture of excitement and dread is finally here. National offer day. And when the long-awaited email finally comes, it’s bad news.
While the majority of people do get their first-choice school, thousands are left disappointed each year. This is more likely in major cities, like London, Manchester and Birmingham where demand for places is particularly high.
According to The Guardian London’s central admissions authority – which handles the process for 32 London boroughs and the City of London – received more than 96,000 applications for reception places in 2019. More than 2,000 families failed to receive an offer for any of up to six preferences.
If you don’t get your first choice primary school you have a few choices. You can accept the place you’ve been given and move on. You can appeal (warning – you’ll most likely be unsuccessful). Or you can accept the place and stick it out on one or several primary school waiting lists.
The important thing here is to accept the place you’ve been offered while making plan B. Accepting a place at another school doesn’t affect your appeal decision or waiting list place in any way whatsoever and it means that your child will definitely have a school to go to.
How do I get on primary school waiting lists?
Most local councils automatically add your child to the waiting lists of any school which was listed as a higher preference than the one you got.
For example, if you got offered your second-choice, your child will be put on the waiting list for your first-choice. If you got offered your fifth-choice, your child will be put on the waiting lists for all four schools you listed higher. If you don’t get any of your preferences, your child will go on the waiting lists for all the primary schools you listed.
For community schools, your local council can tell you your child’s position on the waiting list. Some even send you a letter with this information a couple of days after national offer day. For others you need to call or email them to find out. For voluntary aided schools and academies, you probably need to contact the school directly.
Some councils keep your child’s name on primary school waiting lists for a year. Others will write to you over the summer before your child starts school to see if you still want to stay on the list(s). Either way, you child shouldn’t be removed without you being notified of this. For more information on how it works in your area, check with your local council.
How much movement is there on primary school waiting lists?
That’s the million-dollar question. And unfortunately, there’s no clear answer. It varies depending on the school, the area you live, and the year. There’s likely to be more movement at bigger schools, which have two or more reception classes than a one-form entry school, which only admits 30 children into reception each year.
Some schools find that their waiting lists don’t move at all whereas others may take a dozen children from it between April and September. Often it just comes down to luck.
That being said, there’s usually a bit of movement in the first few weeks after national offer day in April as people accept or reject their places. That’s why many councils do a second round of offers in May.
After that things do slow down a little bit as you get closer to, and during, the summer holidays. But then in September, when school starts, there may be some movement again as children who have moved away over the summer don’t turn up on the first day of school.
And movement continues throughout the year, with the odd child leaving and new children being offered a place from the waiting list. So, if you’re willing to move your child, you may get a place mid-year.
If your child is near the top of a primary school waiting list (for example in the top five), hang in there as you’re in with a good shot of getting that much anticipated phone call or letter offering them a place. But if they’re, say, number 36, it’s probably better to move on.
How can I find out my child’s place on the waiting list?
For community schools, you can call or email your local council’s school admissions department. Your child may move up or down the waiting list so if you’re keen to stay on top of it, send them an email every couple of months for an update.
For voluntary aided schools and academies, you may need to contact the school directly as they manage their own lists.
Why has my child moved down the primary school waiting list?
There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing your child’s name move down a waiting list. Waiting lists are organised by distance from the school, not the date of your application. So if a new family moves closer to the school, even if this is after the primary school application deadline, they’ll go to the top of the waiting list.
Try not to get too despondent about this, as there can be a lot of movement either way, so it doesn’t mean the end of all your hopes.
How does my child move up the waiting list?
If the family of a child who has been offered a place decide not to take it, the place will be offered to the child who is first on the list. If that child takes the place, you’ll move up one place.
If the family of the first child on the waiting list decide not to accept the place, it will be offered to the next child and you’ll move up again. This is why you might find that your child has suddenly jumped up a few places. People turn down places from the waiting list for a number of reasons – they’re happy with the school they were offered, they’ve moved away or they’ve decided to send their child to private school.
Our primary school waiting list story
When we applied for a primary school place for our eldest daughter in 2018, we were offered our fifth-choice school. After a long day of waiting for the results in anticipation, I was absolutely gutted. I’d had my heart set on our first-choice school for years.
The next day, Enfield Council wrote to us to tell us our waiting list positions. We were sixth on the list for our first-choice. Over the months that followed we moved down to eighth, and then ninth. This was like rubbing salt in the wound.
However, in the meantime, we accepted the place at the fifth-choice school and tried to be positive about it. Because often the school you’ve been offered isn’t a bad school at all, it’s a great school, it’s just not the ideal. But we embraced it, went to the stay and plays, found some other children who were starting in reception and arranged play dates etc.
The waiting game
By the start of school, we had moved up to fourth place as people came off the waiting list over the summer. Our daughter started at her new school. One week later we got a call from our first-choice school offering her a place.
We accepted the place and our daughter is now in year one and absolutely loves school. We don’t regret our decision for a minute. However, we know of other families who were offered a place at a higher preference school after their child had already started at their new school. They decided to keep them at the current school as they had settled in so well. Their children are also loving school and their parents couldn’t be happier.
So the moral of the story is, don’t panic. Wherever your child ends up they will most likely have a wonderful school life. Applying for a primary school place is more stressful for parents than children. We could all probably learn a bit from their open-mindedness.