The “Equal Preference System” was created to prevent admission authorities (particularly where an individual school is the admission authority) giving higher priority to parents who make a particular school their first preference. The system is enshrined in the School Admissions Code and it has legal force.

Every school that you place on your Common Application Form (CAF) is treated as if it was a separate application – each one is equal – and the highest possible preference will be offered. The admission authority cannot discriminate against your application simply because you did not put a school in first place on the CAF.

Schools are not told where you ranked them in your preferences. Admission authorities are expressly forbidden by law (again, it is enshrined in the Admissions Code) from passing on this information.

There follows a highly simplified explanation of how the system works, but it is important to realise that the system is considerably more complicated than the example below. Obviously 11+ qualification is a factor for grammar school entry, and the admissions criteria for any school are always far more complex than in this example.

A simple example of how the “Equal Preference System” works

A town has three schools: Park School, Town School and Wood School, and each school can offer places to three children. There are therefore nine places available and there are nine children requiring places.

Places are allocated according to the distance the children live from the school gates. Parents can express up to three preferences, and their CAFs were completed as follows.


Step 1: The children are now listed for all schools that they have named on their CAF, not in the order of their preferences, but in order of the admissions criterion which, in this simplified example, is purely distance and nothing else. (That is an unrealistic situation, but the simplified example is designed to help you to understand the essential process.) The children’s CAF preferences are shown in brackets.

1Beth (1)Jane (1)Clare (3)
2Fred (3)Clare (2)Jane (3)
3Jane (2)Beth (3)Harry (2)
4Clare (1)Harry (3)Beth (2)
5Ethan (3)Adam (1)Fred (2)
6David (1)Ethan (2)Ethan (1)
7Gavin (2)Fred (1) 
8Harry (1)David (2) 
9Adam (2)Gavin (1) 

Step 2: Beth and Jane are at the top of the lists for their first preference school, so they are allocated places and removed from the lists for the other two schools. Also, as Fred, Harry and Clare can be allocated their 2nd preferences, their 3rd preferences are removed from the lists as follows:

1Beth (1)Jane (1) 
2 Clare (2) 
3  Harry (2)
4Clare (1)  
5Ethan (3)Adam (1)Fred (2)
6David (1)Ethan (2)Ethan (1)
7Gavin (2)Fred (1) 
8Harry (1)David (2) 
9Adam (2)Gavin (1) 

Step 3: All the remaining children now move up the lists into the vacant places. Clare, David, Adam, Fred & Ethan now receive their first preference schools and are removed from the lists for other schools:

1Beth (1)Jane (1)Harry (2)
2Clare (1)Adam (1)Ethan (1)
3David (1)Fred (1) 
4Gavin (2)Gavin (1) 
5Harry (1)  

Step 4: Harry has only received a place at his second preference school but if they wish to, his parents can choose to keep him on the waiting list for his first preference, Park School. Unfortunately Gavin has not been allocated either of his preference schools, so he will receive an offer of a place at Wood School, which was not one of the preferences on his CAF.

Gavin’s situation demonstrates:

  • The importance of using all the preferences on the CAF if you feel that you need to, especially if you are trying to avoid being allocated a particular school.
  • That you must be realistic about your chances of getting in to a particular school. Gavin’s parents may not have understood just how poor his chances of getting into their first and second preference schools were.

The example above also demonstrates how pointless it is to do what some parents do, which is to name only one school (often a heavily over-subscribed one) on the CAF in the belief that “if I only put that school down they will have to give us a place”.

Some parents also name their preferred school repeatedly in every space on the CAF in the same belief, but it will still count as only one application.

In either case the child will receive a single place on the list for that school and it will not increase the chances of them being allocated a place, and there is a high risk that they will be allocated the school that the parents least want instead. Wherever possible you must name at least one school that would be an acceptable “last resort” for your child.