Secondary school places - not got what you wanted?

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Hundreds of thousands of parents in England are finding out which secondary school their children will go to later this year. If the school on offer is unsuitable for some reason, there are a number of things you can do.

Think carefully

First, read the letter from your local authority very closely.

It will provide instructions on how to proceed, if you do not wish to accept the school on offer.

But before acting in haste, and rejecting a school out of hand, remember that you do not have a right to choose a particular school for your child.

Instead, you have a right only to express a series of preferences.

If your first choice cannot be met, usually because there are other pupils living closer to the school than you or meeting the admissions criteria more closely than your family, the local authority allocates your child a place at an alternative school - in the order of your preferences.

But in a small number of cases this may be a school which was not among your preferences.

Nevertheless, it is well worth going to see the school you have been offered and discussing any concerns you may have with the head teacher.

It is also a good idea to accept a place at the school so that you have that as a back-up if further action does not work in your favour.

Waiting lists

All schools have to keep waiting lists, and there is always a bit of movement after the first set of offers are sent out.

Some families may decide to go private, for example, which may free up a place at your chosen school.

So it is well worth checking whether you are on the waiting list of your preferred school.

This may happen automatically but it is always worth checking that it has been done.

Depending on whether the school controls its own admissions, this may be down to the school in question or the local authority.

A quick call to the schools admissions team will answer that.

The admission authority for the school must keep a waiting list for at least one term, and places are usually offered according to the school's admissions criteria.

It is a good idea to find out what your position is on the waiting list, and how far they tend to move before the start of term.

If your child is on a waiting list and the school offers you a place, the admission authority will send you a formal offer.

You can still accept the offer even if your child has already started at another school.

Should I appeal?

It is pretty difficult to win an appeal against a decision not to offer a child a place at a certain school.

Where the school is very popular and over-subscribed, there will be lots of other parents jostling for places.

All local authorities have to allow parents 20 days to appeal.

There are three grounds on which appeals can be successful:

  • The school's admission arrangements do not comply with the law and if they did your child would have been offered a place
  • A mistake has been made with your child's application and if it had been handled properly your child would have been offered a place
  • The refusal of a place was unreasonable, taking the admissions arrangements into account

Deciding to appeal

Be warned, persuading the local authority - or a school which is its own admissions authority - that it has made a mistake is not going to be easy.

It is best to get as much information and evidence as possible before deciding to do this.

You must inform the local authority of your decision to appeal in writing.

You will then be given a date for your appeal hearing, at least 10 days in advance.

Know your arguments and practise what you are going to say.

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It is possible to seek legal advice and this may be advisable in some circumstances.

The Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) offers some free advice on appeals.

You will need to explain why this school would be the best place for your child - concentrate on this, not on why an alternative school would be bad.

What is it about this particular school that makes it such a good fit for your child?

What should be in an appeal?

ACE suggests that you separate your appeal case into three sections:

1 - A description of your child and why they would be well-suited to this school.

Prioritise any medical or social grounds you may have.

Do they have a special educational need (SEN)? Are their friends at this school? Do they need a place where they can make a fresh start?

The convenience of the school, in terms of the journey or it being near your place of work, is unlikely to succeed unless there is something very specific which means you need to be nearby.

2 - Why your child needs to go to this school in particular - Is it a single-sex school that would help your child to feel less self-conscious?

Do they specialise in working with your child's SEN? Do they excel in an academic area that your child has a real aptitude for (languages, music, maths, etc.)?

3 - Why it would be detrimental for your child to go to the school that they have been offered.

It is not a good idea to say negative things about the school's performance here or at any point in the appeals process.

Instead rather focus on social and practical aspects such as distance from home (if your child has real issues using public transport) and academic requirements.

What happens at an appeal hearing?

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An appeal panel of between three to five members of the public will assess your case.

At the hearing, the panel will be told why your application was turned down.

They will check that the school's admission arrangements comply with the Schools Admissions Code.

Then, you will be invited to say why you are appealing against the decision.

You will need to explain why you think this school is best for your child and any special circumstances which support your application. Bring written evidence of this.

Once the appeal has been heard, the panel has to decide whose case is stronger - yours or the school's.

You will get the result by post within seven days. The decision is legally binding.

If your appeal is successful, your child will be given a place at the school.

If your appeal is unsuccessful, you can still put your child's name on the school's waiting list.