What is a Catchment Area for Schools?

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Choosing a school for your child is a worrying time for many parents. It marks a big change in their and your lives, whether it is a nursery, primary, or secondary school. Of course, every parent wants to choose the best school for their child, and to make sure they get the best education they can. However, the rules around school admission can be very confusing. One of the most confusing factors is the “catchment area”, which is a system for admissions used throughout the UK. In this article we will explain catchment areas, including how to work out what catchment you are in, and what to do if you do not like the school you are in catchment for.

A catchment area is the distance around a school in which most of its pupils live. Students who live within this area are therefore more likely to be given a place at the school. This is usually worked out based on walking distance from the school to your home. However, it can also be which school you live closest to in general (not a defined area), or a priority admissions area. Catchment areas are not the only factor in school admissions, and not every child who lives in catchment for a school will get a place.

While this should have given you a short answer to your questions on catchment area, for full details including helpful links about working out your catchment and what that means, please read on.

What is a catchment area?

A catchment area is a defined distance around a single school, which determines partly who gets a place in the school. Children who live within this area are given priority in admissions to that school.

Catchment area is not measured in the same way across the UK but is essentially based on a distance from a school. This distance can be judged by local councils based on:

  1. Distance from home to school in a straight line (also known as “how the crow flies” – not taking into account route)
  2. Distance to walk from home to school – the most common measurement method
  3. Which school is closest (rather than a specific distance)
  4. Priority admission area – mostly admitting pupils from a certain town or village, for example this is common in village schools

Catchment areas change year by year, as local population also shifts. Most state schools are obliged to take all pupils from the catchment area (or as many as they can), so they try to ensure that the catchment contains around the right number of pupils for the school year, from all years.

How do you work out your school catchment area?

Which catchment area your child is in is based on their permanent address, which will be the one you give when filling out forms (for example at the GP). As discussed above, the school will work out your child’s catchment area based on one of the 4 criteria, most likely distance to walk from home to school.

However, as a parent it can be very difficult to work out what school catchment you are in as they do change every year. If you have a specific school which you would like your child to attend, the best thing to do is to call them for more details or check their websites. They should be able to tell you whether your address is in catchment.

You can also find out your catchment area using an online tool, usually by inputting your postcode. The School Guide has a very helpful tool which shows you all the schools near to you and their catchments based on your postcode, as well as other key details such as number of pupils. This tool can be found from their website, here.

Are you guaranteed a place at your catchment school?

As discussed above, state schools tend to try and offer places to mostly children in their catchment area, particularly if they have a priority admissions area. However, there may be other factors considered.

A catchment area is not a guarantee of a place at the school and will usually be dependent on other factors. It is more that living outside the catchment means you are much less likely to get a place at the school. Address is never the only factor in offering a place at a school.

Other factors that can be considered in choosing pupils for a school can include special medical or social needs. This can include children in foster care, or with a learning disability that a school is specifically able to cater for. If a school is named on your child’s ECHP then you are guaranteed a place for them at that school by law.

Furthermore, if your child has siblings already at the school they are more likely to get a place. Attendance at a feeder school can also influence their chances – some schools have many feeder schools, which are usually just primary schools in the local area. These schools do not have to be named the same or have the same headteacher, they just have an agreement about pupil admissions.

Finally, religion and academic skill can have an impact on admissions in some types of school. For more information on this, see Think Student’s articles about faith schools (here) and grammar schools (here).

Is the catchment area the same for secondary schools as primary schools?

As they are different institutions, usually with separate premises and governance, primary and secondary schools have different catchment areas. Furthermore, some key differences between primary and secondary schools mean that they have different priorities in admission.

It is generally easier to find a primary school place than secondary. The School Guide suggests that there are 34,000 schools in the UK, and over 20,000 are primary schools. This means your child’s primary school is much more likely to be close to home, and more details on this can be found here, from the School Guide.

However, in areas where schools have vastly different Ofsted ratings, or (for example) much higher results in KS2 SATs, there may be a lot more competition for places at a certain school. This means that catchment area may be small, and there may be less chances for sibling places to be given.

In contrast, there are fewer high schools in the UK. This means that competition for places can be tougher, however secondary schools tend to have many more spaces for pupils, so this is not always the case. The same ideas on Ofsted ratings apply, as do GCSE and A-Level grades.

Furthermore, secondary schools are sometimes academically selective, such as grammar schools. They may also allocate sibling places, however this is not always the case. It is best to ask the specific school you are interested in for your child for more details on their admissions policies, or look them up on the website.

Can you get into a school if you are not in the catchment area?

Catchment areas are intended to make admissions fairer, ensuring that pupils get a place in a school and that it is more likely to be close to them. However, there is always the possibility that you may get into a school you are not in the catchment area for.

It is possible to get a place in a school if you are not in the catchment area, however it is much less likely. However, moving into a “good” catchment area can be very expensive, adding a premium to the house price, as This Money explains in this article.

Some parents resort to falsifying address information to get into a school. This does not work and will lead to your child’s place being withdrawn. Falsifying could include suggesting you live with relatives near the school, renting a house within the catchment area but not living there, or renting near to the school but moving before school begins.

Local councils are used to this kind of application, and will be able to tell. This usually leads to your child getting a place at a school much further away or much less popular due to losing their place at the first choice school.

You will be required to give proof of address and use your permanent address at the time of application on the form. Think Student talks more about proof of address in this article on school admissions.

There are better and legal ways to increase your chances of a place at a school that is out of catchment or very competitive. This can include ensuring that you have an EHCP if your child needs one, checking whether you are eligible for pupil premium, and working towards any entrance exams if needed.

For a more full and detailed list of tips on getting into schools you are not in catchment for, see the School Guide article on the topic which can be found here.

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