School catchment areas - how do they work?

School catchment areas - how do they work?

Whether you’re applying now, moving, or thinking about a family in the future, it’s good to understand how catchment areas work. If there’s a shortage of school places in your area, catchment areas are going to be a concern – but how do they work?

Why do we have catchment areas?

Catchment areas are a simple way to decide who can attend a school. The local education authority has to provide a school place for your children; it’s based on practicality – children will become friends with local children, those travelling further might not make it in bad weather – and a school isn’t allowed to discriminate against a child because of race, colour, religion, sexuality, sex, disability, gender reassignment or pregnancy or maternity, or vocation (job) of the parents.

When the number of children per school is known though, for certain, then the local education authority (and the school itself) can plan things like equipment, books, school dinners and buses etc.
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The problem is, once the ‘obvious’ close candidates have been identified, admission policies then vary between schools and local authorities. By law, priority must be given to children in care or previously in care. After that, where you live is what’s important: priority given to children in that area, and then outside it.

Those two groups can be divided again depending on siblings already in the school, by religion (in the case of faith schools), or by adopting a preference for children that have attended a ‘feeder’ school.

Infant schools have to limit their class sizes to 30 pupils for each teacher. But in some cases, a school could make an exception.


Catchment areas can change from year to year, it depends how many children fit the higher priorities. If a lot of younger siblings are starting in one year, then the catchment area could be reduced to stop it becoming over-subscribed.

We’re not in the catchment area… should we move?

You might think moving into your chosen school’s catchment area is the best way to circumvent any problems, but do be careful. It could be an expensive move.

Knight Frank, a national estate agent and surveyor, carried out house price research that tells us you could pay 40% more on average, to live near a top-performing state school. And when Savills, another national land agent, carried our similar research in conjunction with The Telegraph, they discovered houses costing up to 165% more, simply because they were in the ‘right’ catchment for a particularly popular school.

If you do decide a move is the only option, do plan ahead: think about how you’ll factor in the higher costs of living – not only now, but also when your children leave that school.

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