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Secondary National Offer Day 2024: What to do if your child misses out on their first choice

Secondary schools
Secondary schools

Families across England and Wales will find out on Friday whether they have been offered a place at their secondary school of choice.

Education leaders have warned there will be “extra pressure” on admissions this year because of an 11-year-old population bulge that is hitting secondary schools.

Many schools are oversubscribed, according to the school leaders’ union NAHT.

While most families are still expected to win a place at their preferred school, it is important to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.

Secondary school admissions announced on National Offer Day in 2023 showed that 82.6 per cent of applicants received an offer from their first preference school, down from 83.3 per cent a year earlier.

The most competitive area for a family to win a place at their first preference school was in London, where in Lambeth, only 61.6 per cent received an offer. In the London boroughs of Redbridge and Wandsworth, the offer rate was 63.3 per cent and 64 per cent respectively.

However, in other parts of the country, the success rate was far higher. In Rutland, 98 per cent of applicants received an offer from their first-choice school, while in Cumbria and York, the figure was 96 per cent.

What can you do if your first choice is rejected?

Accept the place you are offered

Elizabeth Coatman, a state education consultant for the Good Schools Guide, said that she always advises parents to accept the school they have been offered, “just as a back up”.

The local authority is not obliged to offer you another school place, so families would run the risk of having no place in September if they turned it down.

Children can be added to the waiting list for any school higher on their list of preferred options, she says. “The situation can change between now and September. Sometimes parents are just using a state school application as a backup in areas where there are lots of independent schools.”

Try not to be too negative with your child

“If it does end up that your child has to go to that school you don’t want them to be thinking they are going to have a dreadful time there,” she says.

Ms Coatman also advises parents to “dig a bit deeper” into the school where they have been offered a place.

“It might not be as terrible as it seems,” she says. “Sometimes a school [Ofsted] report will lag behind some improvements.”

She advises parents to look at the school’s most recent GCSE results as a good indicator for how the school is currently performing.

Appeal the decision

If you really can’t countenance the thought of another school, it is possible to appeal.

Local authority websites will set out how to appeal and the relevant timeline. Parents should also be sent information about how to appeal alongside details of their offer.

There is usually a deadline of about 20 days that parents must meet. Parents will need to make the case for why the school they didn’t get is the best place for their child.

How can you win an appeal?

The Good Schools Guide advises parents to “concentrate on education and wellbeing arguments, not the number of Brownie badges your daughter has, or the fact that your son always helps old ladies across the road”.

It adds: “Bear in mind the need to establish that only the school you want can meet your child’s needs.

“And in all instances, remember that you have to show an exceptional case – at some schools, only one or two appeals may be successful. And be completely truthful - you will be questioned at the hearing.”

Be concise and focused, and provide evidence

Ms Coatman advises parents to evidence their claims. For example, if a child has mental health difficulties, you would need supportive evidence from a hospital specialist and possibly a letter from a primary school head teacher.

She advises parents to be “concise and focused” when making a written personal case, as a panel does not want to have to read through a long letter.

When appearing before an appeals panel, it is “better to have bullet points”, and not to read out from a sheet of paper, but make eye contact, she says.

How can I win a grammar school appeal?

Ms Coatman says she has been “most successful” in supporting clients whose child has missed out on a grammar school place.

Families who might have a chance of appealing include those who have been offered an academically poor school. In those cases, she advises getting a letter from a primary school head as evidence of high academic ability.

Another argument which has weight is if a child faces “a really difficult journey” to get to school, which could be a journey which takes more than 75 minutes or involves lots of changes on public transport.

When should you not bother?

“Just objecting to the admissions policy because of your postcode or faith doesn’t work,” Ms Coatman says.

“If you are appealing because your child really wants to go to school with their friends, that’s going to look a bit flimsy for an appeals panel,” she adds.

“What you’ve got to establish is that the disadvantage to your child of not getting a place at the school that you want is greater than the educational disadvantage to the whole cohort they would join as they go through the school to the end of GCSE and that this is the only school that can meet your child’s needs. That’s a pretty high bar.”