If you’ve got young children, chances are you’ve thought about primary schools. May be you’ve already got your eye on one and want to know whether your child is likely to get in. Or perhaps you’re planning to move home and want to make sure that you’re moving “within catchment”. But what exactly is a school catchment area?
How do school catchment areas work?
A catchment area is basically the area from which a school’s pupils are drawn.
For most schools, there’s no such thing as a fixed catchment area. It changes every year depending on things like how many applications the school received and how many siblings of existing pupils applied that year (as they get priority). This is why your neighbour’s child may have got a place one year, yet your child doesn’t the following year. Schools have a limit to how many pupils they can admit and use admissions criteria to decide who gets a place. In many cases it comes down to how far you live from the school.
Some schools have designated catchment (priority) areas, which means that you’ll get priority if you live in one of the streets in this area. And by “live” we mean your permanent address, not aunty Sue’s or your mate from Zumba. But even if you live in this area, there’s still no absolute guarantee. Many schools get more applications than places available. It has been known for a small school to fill all its reception places with the brothers and sisters of existing pupils, leaving no places available for anyone else.
While distance is often the criteria used to decide on places when a school is oversubscribed, there are several exceptions – for example voluntary aided (faith) schools use different admissions criteria. Your faith, and how often you attend church, is usually more important here. Always check the admissions criteria of the school you’re applying to.
How are school catchment areas measured?
Many councils use straight line distance from the school to your home address. This is also known as “as the crow flies”. If you contact their school admissions department, they should be able to tell you the straight line distance between your address and the schools you’re interested in. This distance checker tool can give you a rough idea too.
Some councils use shortest walking distance instead of straight line distance so check with your local authority to find out what the score is where you live.
If you want to know the catchment areas for previous years, look for the “last distance offered” data provided by your local council. This is the home to school distance of the child who was offered the last place. They publish this in their school admissions section. Some provide the previous year’s catchments, whereas other, super helpful councils, publish the last three years. If the school was undersubscribed, or the demand for places was met, this data may not be available because distance criteria wasn’t used to determine places.
Remember that catchment areas aren’t usually fixed and can change each year. So just because you may have got in previously doesn’t mean you definitely will the year you apply for a primary school place.
Do all schools have catchment areas?
Catchment areas usually only come into play if a school is oversubscribed, which means it receives more applications than places available. At that point the local authority works its way down the admissions criteria and often makes the final decision based on distance.
But if a school is undersubscribed then it will usually accept pupils from anywhere, even if they live miles away. Whether a school is undersubscribed or oversubscribed can change each year.
Why do school catchment areas change?
School catchment areas can change each year depending on whether they get more, or less, applications than places available. And this usually comes down to things like:
- The number of siblings of existing pupils who apply
- New families moving into the area / new housing developments nearby
- New schools opening in the area
- Change in the popularity of a school
- The birth rate that year
Schools that get rated Outstanding by Ofsted tend to get a lot of attention. At this point, local parents who may not have put it as their number one preference previously start to favour it. Other parents may decide to move closer to that school so that their young children can get a place there in future. House prices in that area often rise as a result.
For example: Highfield Primary School is a three-form entry school in the London Borough of Enfield. In 2014, the school was undersubscribed. Then in 2016 the last distance offered was 0.84 miles. That year, the school was rated Outstanding by Ofsted. After this point, the catchment area started to decrease. In 2019, the last distance offered was 0.42 miles.
Please note: school admissions criteria and the way catchment areas work differ depending on where you live / the school. Always check the admissions criteria of the school you’re applying to. You can find this information on the local authority website where the school is based or the school’s own website.