When Should You Apply to Secondary School in the UK? – A Full Guide

In GCSE, General by Think Student EditorLeave a Comment

Applying to secondary school is something almost everybody has to do. It is a very exciting time, and it’s the next step in young people’s life. However, making these big decisions at a young age can be hard, and for parents, understanding when and what to do can be difficult. This article will guide you through this process and help you to understand all the steps, so you can move into this big step in your child’s life with confidence.

In the UK, students apply to secondary school in Year 6, when they are turning 11 years old. In October of the year before students are due to attend secondary school, they must submit forms saying which secondary school they would prefer.

This is a short and simple answer, for more details including a step-by-step process for applying, and other key information, please keep reading. 

When Do You Apply to Secondary School?

Students apply to secondary school in Year 6, when they are turning 11. The exact timescale and dates vary across different locations, so it is important you check with your local schools.

School Open Days

School Open days generally take place in September and October every year. Make sure you attend these to check out the options you have in the local area. Specific schools will have open evenings, or you can request private tours. Your child’s primary school may also provide events for the catchment secondary school if they are a “feeder” school.

Dates For Filling Out Documentation

The forms that you must fill out are usually required around October. These forms are from the Local Education Authority, and this is your opportunity to state which schools you wish your child to attend. Generally, councils will ask for up to five options of school. Do not leave blank spaces, if possible, as you need other options if your first-choice school has no places or you are not accepted.  

The closing date for applications is usually midnight on October 31st. 

Aptitude Tests 

November is also the time for aptitude tests (if applicable) for private schools. These are commonly called Entrance Exams. Check school websites for specific dates, it includes Scholarship exams for Private Schools.  

The 11+ Exam (required for children going into most Grammar schools, and some private schools) is different, and is taken early in year 6, or late in year 5, depending on the year and your local authority.  If your child is going to take one of these exams, consider private tuition in the subjects as these are often not taught in schools.

School Interviews

From November to February, school interviews take place. Not all schools hold interviews, and in state schools they cannot affect the outcome of your application. These serve many purposes, but mainly help the school answer any questions you and your child have. You do not need to prepare for this interview but think of any questions you have, as this is the best time to get answers. 

School Offers and Appeals 

During February and March, schools make offers of places to students. Usually, this is on the 1st of March for state schools. This tells you where you have been accepted, generally only one school. This place is automatically accepted in most areas, so you only need to act if you are unhappy with the offer. To see more on appealing a decision you are unhappy with, look at the section below.  

If your child was put on a waiting list, between March and April is when they will hear if they have a place at that school. This is not guaranteed but can happen in some schools if children do not accept their places or choose to go elsewhere. 

In May and June, appeals about school decisions are heard. The individual processes for this vary, so ask your secondary school for details. 

In September, your child will start at their new school. By this time, you should have had any appeals heard and know where your child is going. However, remember that you can still change your child’s school after this time if you are unhappy, through a switching schools process with the local council and school. 

What Age Should You Apply to Secondary School?

Usually, in the UK, students apply to Secondary School at the age of 11 or the end of Year 6. This is when they finish Primary School and are ready to go into Secondary as a Year 7 student. This is for the standard state secondary, which runs from Years 7 to 11. 

This may be different if you are applying to a Middle School, then High School System. In these systems, there may be three different schools, or you may transfer in It is uncommon in State schools now but is still in place in many Private Schools. Due to middle schools no longer being the main system, there is no definitive age that they will begin and end, other than they always begin before Year 6. Asking the school about their process is the fastest way to get information on this topic.  

What To Do If You Miss the Secondary School Application Deadline?

If you apply after the closing date, it is classed as an “in-year application” and individual local authorities have their procedures for how these are processed. You will have to fill in a different set of forms or have a different place to send forms to.   

You may also be allocated to a random school without your input. This is why it is vital to meet the deadline. If you are unhappy with the school once you get there, this article could be useful. 

To find these forms, visit your local council office or website and ask for more details. Your child’s current school may also be able to help. Also, googling the name of your preferred school along with “admissions form” or “in-year admissions” will find the correct documents. 

If required to fill in a form, you will likely again have to list multiple schools, it is advisable to list as many as you can. This increases your chance of getting into a school near you which you like, rather than being given a place randomly on a postcode. It is important to note that popular schools will likely be full of on-time applications, so you may be unable to get into your top choices.  

For tips on getting into your top choice school, this article is useful. 

Is the Application Process Different for Different Types of Schools?

In the UK, we have many types of schools, and the entry criteria for each may be slightly different as they have varying requirements.

Grammar Schools 

Grammar Schools select pupils based on ability, using the 11+ exam in the UK. As mentioned earlier, the 11+ is an exam that selects pupils for grammar schools based on tests in Verbal Reasoning and Non-Verbal Reasoning, among other subjects. This exam is mandatory in some areas, but in others, you will need to enter your child privately. Ask your local council for more details or check with individual schools. 

Some schools may also select based on aptitude or talent for their specialisms. This is often for private schools (such as for scholarships), but also could be for state schools with subject specialisms. For instance, a talented musician or athlete may be able to get a scholarship in this subject at a private school, to reduce fees. 

Faith Schools 

In the UK there are also many Faith Schools. Often, they are Church of England or Roman Catholic, but can also be for other faiths. These schools may require that you baptise your child before they are a certain age or attend faith services weekly, however, this is not true for all faith schools, so check with the local school’s criteria if this is something you are interested in.  

As part of the application, schools can ask for documents such as letters from faith leaders or other authorities confirming your regular religious attendance and practice. If you cannot present these, the schools can deny you a place. 


Finally, Academies can set their entrance criteria, independently of the local government. They are funded by the state, and often are part of a wider group of schools called a “Multi-Academy Trust”. This includes Free Schools. More information on comprehensive schools is found here. 

What Are the Admissions Criteria For Secondary Schools?

While it always differs across schools, there are a set of common entrance criteria for non-faith, non-selective schools which are often included. These are only applied when the school has more applicants than available places and help the school to prioritise which students to admit. These criteria could include: 

  • An ECHP (Education, Care and Health Plan) which names the school. This means that this has been decided by the council as the most suitable school for that child, and therefore the child must be given a place.
  • Looked after Children, or children who have previously been in care. These are given high priority. 
  • For some schools, having a sibling who already attends that school can help you to get a place so that they are not split up. This does not hold as much weight in applications as ECHP plans or LAC reports but may still be considered. 
  • An exceptional medical or social need that is not already covered by an ECHP. This is very rarely accepted and requires proof that this is the only school that could take your child. This also requires proof from a doctor or psychologist recognising and proving this need.  
  • Location. Usually, if a child lives within a certain distance for these types of schools, they are more likely to be offered a place. You should be able to find this information on the local catchment areas and distances required with your local council.

If you cannot meet the criteria bands for the schools you apply for, you are unlikely to get a place and may be randomly allocated a school instead. The local authority must provide your child with a school place, but it does not have to be a place of your choosing. 

Can Secondary Schools Refuse Your Application?

Secondary schools can refuse your application, but they must have good reason. Schools are NOT allowed to refuse places on the following grounds:  

  • Taking Ability into account unless they are selective schools. In non-selective, any places given based on subjects (sports, art etc.) must be based on aptitude, however, this often amounts to the same thing, and favours high ability children. 
  • Details on disability, health, or needs except for positive action.
  • Home-School Agreements being signed, or not signed. These may be behaviour contracts or other related documents.
  • Gifts or donations made to the school. Also, any trips which are part of the curriculum and during the school day can be paid, or there can be “voluntary contributions”, but other trips must not be compulsory, and schools should help any unable to make the cost. 
  • Requiring expensive uniform or sportswear.
  • Considering parents occupation, marital or financial status.

Schools also cannot give places based on the outcome of interviews with children or parents, except for interviews about boarding suitability and to decide courses for Sixth Form College. 

Can You Appeal the Schools Decision? 

Yes. Once you have received the letter stating the school’s decision on whether to admit your child, you can appeal the decision within 20 days. If your child is refused a place, then appealing is the only way to try to get them a place at that school in the next academic year. If you are rejected from more than one school, you must appeal to each separately. 

Reasons You Could Appeal the Decision 

Not everyone who disagrees with the decision made will have grounds to appeal. Here are some examples of reasons to appeal: 

  • Wanting a school with Religious Affiliation.
  • The school being able to provide care for “significant” health needs your child.  
  • If your application is to an academically selective school: the record of the offered school’s university offers and exam results being much lower.
  • A child having a particular talent in a school’s specialism, such as maths or arts (this is listed on the school’s website if applicable).
  • If transport to the offered school is difficult or very time-consuming. Any journey requiring many changes, or similar issues can be considered unreasonable.
  • The desired school offering a language which you particularly want for your child, due to family connections (e.g., mandarin if you have a Chinese family) or similar.
  • Emotional needs, such as being bullied by people who are going to your child’s offered school, can show why a new start is needed.
  • The school being named on your child’s ECHP. This is grounds which the school is not allowed to refuse your child a place. If you believe your child has educational or social needs which are not being met, ask your school or council about being assessed for an ECHP. 

How Does the Appeal Process Work?

Concentrating on educational and well-being reasons is key. Do not degrade the school you have been offered, you are trying to say why you need the other school, not why you dislike the offered one.

Obtain an appeal form from the local authority. This is then filled in and either given back to the council or directly to the school you are appealing to (if it is privately run). Fill in the form, and state your reasons for appeal clearly and concisely, ensuring they are strong grounds. If you can, seek advice from a teacher or expert on appeals processes. This does not need to be in detail but state your main reasons.

Include any relevant documents in this appeal form, such as letters from GPs, a map of the transport plans, or any other important information. In some local authorities, you may be given an advisor to help you through the process. Look at your local process to find out if this is something you can access.

Confirmation of Appeal and Arranging the Hearing

Make sure your appeals form has been received. You should receive confirmation within a week and hear when your appeal hearing will take place. This hearing may be by phone, or in person. The appeal date should be within 30 days of when you put the appeal notice into the council.  

This notice should be at least 10 school days before the appeal is held, and if you cannot attend that date, you will either be offered another one, or the appeal will decide what to do based on the information you have sent in. 

It is helpful to bring any documentation that supports the statements you made in your appeals form, so put this together well in advance. It is also helpful to write down what you would like to say to the panel so you can make sure your thoughts are formed clearly and reasonably. Make sure you know as much about the school as possible, particularly whether it is full or could comfortably accommodate another child. 

The Hearing

At the hearing, arrive on time and smartly dressed, with all your supporting documentation and any written statements you have prepared. You may have a representative speak for you, such as a lawyer. 

Appeals last for about 30 minutes and generally include a statement of why your child was not offered a place, your statement of why they should offer your child a place, questions about your statement and summarising statements. You will receive a letter with the outcome of your appeal within 5 working days. If you are unsuccessful, you must apply to other schools and put their name on the waiting list.

What Should You Do While in the Appeals Process?

First, you must accept the school place you have been offered. If you do not, you risk not being offered any place come September, as the local authority is not required to offer you another one. It may also still be accepted on your behalf, as your child is required to be in education by law. This will not have any effect on your appeal. 

Enter the waiting list for any other schools you would like, even if they were not on your original preference form. Often, places become available before and even in September, as people get places at other schools, go private, or move house, so being on the waiting list gives you the best chance of getting where you want to go. 

Do not immediately rule out the offered school. Visiting the school and asking other parents there is the best way of ascertaining the school’s reputation, so make your own decisions rather than listening to a rumour. Also, if it is possible for you, investigate any local private schools for bursaries or scholarships which can help with fees, to see if these could be a fit for your child. Learn more about bursaries here.

How Do You Choose a Secondary School?

In a school, the most important quality is that you feel happy for your child to go there and that you like the environment. However, if you are looking for some more concrete ideas, then this list may help. 


The Environment in school. These are things like clean corridors, empty bins and fresh displays that seem engaging. Also, the general atmosphere of the school. The best way to get a glimpse of the school environment is to attend school open days.  

The Head Teacher 

A good head teacher is respected and trusted by pupils and parents, and teachers. They are around school often, know pupils’ names (not all in a large school) and have strong boundaries, and leadership.  

Attitude to Additional Needs

Having programs to stretch the most able students, as well as to help those with disabilities and pupils who are struggling is a very telling measure of a school. Ask pupils about these if you can, to ensure they are implemented, and not just talked about. 

School Results

Results at GCSE, but also in Progress 8, and other measures of progress. You can find school results here. Asking pupils about how they feel they have achieved and improved throughout their time there can be a good indicator. 

Inspection Reports

Read the latest Ofsted inspection report. If it is rated “outstanding” or similar, then this is positive, but remember that this is not everything. The date of this report could invalidate it, or the negatives could be things that do not matter to you. Take these with a pinch of salt. 

Sports and P.E

How often are they done in the timetable? Are there many extracurriculars related to sport? Do children enjoy the sports lessons? Are there teams? What provision is there for children who do not enjoy traditional team sports? These are all key questions whether if your child is sporty or not. 

Arts and Music

Are these worked into the curriculum with extracurricular opportunities available? Does your child have a particular interest, such as playing an instrument, which can be followed here? Are there orchestras, art groups and drama productions? 


Browsing the school website and noticeboards, and observing pupils are the best ways to discover this. Are there regular trips and tours? Is the library well-used? Is there quiet space for working? Are these facilities for show, or actually used? 


Does the school have a PTA? Are parents kept informed about their child’s development and learning? Do they communicate through parents’ evenings and reports regularly? These are good questions to ask current parents at the school, as they can show you what happens and what does not. 

What Happens When Things Go Wrong?

Anti-bullying policies, incidents reports and what happens when children make mistakes at their school are key and ever-relevant questions to ask at a new school, no matter how much you believe they will “just have these anyway”. Anecdotes from children and parents come in handy here. This also includes the general discipline policies, and how strictly these are enforced. 

Students Workload

How much homework does the school set and how much help will they need? Are there clinics available for children who are struggling? Are parents kept involved and in the loop about what their child is learning? Another good sign is having after-school homework clinics, which may be student led. 

If in doubt, ask other parents about what they wish they’d known before sending their child to this school. They have lived the experience and know what to expect. You know your child, so go with what they need.

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