Every year we hear sad and even traumatic stories of people who have been allocated a school that they consider to be completely unacceptable or inappropriate for their child. The reason is often that the parent has not taken the time to:

  1. understand the admission criteria for their preferred schools, and
  2. understand the process of allocating schools – the Equal Preference System.

It is particularly unfortunate when a child is deprived of a school place simply because the parent entered their school preferences in the wrong order on the CAF (Common Application Form) because of mistaken advice from others. As the following recent example shows, even Head teachers cannot be relied up to give correct advice on completing the CAF. The parent had entered the following order of preferences on the CAF on the advice of their child’s Head teacher:

  1. Preferred grammar school, not a catchment school
  2. Local Comprehensive school, heavily over-subscribed
  3. Local, catchment grammar school

The Head had stated: “You must put the comprehensive school as high as possible on the form if you want to have a chance of getting a place, but if your child qualifies for grammar school the comprehensive school will automatically be ignored.”

The child did indeed qualify for grammar school, but the first preference school was over-subscribed and therefore the child could not be allocated a place there. The Admissions department then automatically moved on to the next preference school – the comprehensive – and allocated the child a place at that school because that is what they had to assume was the parent’s wish.

The only solution for the parent was to go on to the waiting lists for both grammar schools and hope that a place would become available at one of them, or to fight an over-subscription appeal for both schools. Luckily, on this occasion, a place came up at the local, catchment grammar school in the second round of allocations.

There are some areas of the country in which Admissions departments go to considerable trouble to contact people who appear to have made an error such as this on their CAF, and they will contact parents to check if they really do mean to put a non-grammar school above a grammar school, to only name one school, or to name the same school six times (a pointless exercise), etc. However there are other areas where the admissions staff will simply take what you have put on the form at face value and not make any effort to follow up with you.

Whatever advice you are given, and no matter how credible the advice seems to be, check, check and check again. As the example above shows, even experienced professionals can give incorrect advice, despite their best intentions.

In many areas of the country the CAF allows you to express up to six preferences, which is generally sufficient for most parents. However, in certain areas there are only three spaces on the CAF, and completing the form presents considerable challenges.

Basic guidance for completing the CAF

The golden rule for completing the CAF is that you should always put the schools in your real order of preference.

However, there are certain other crucial points to remember when completing the CAF:

  1. All your preferences must be firmly rooted in reality. If you are desperate for your child to attend a grammar school 20 miles away, but the school has never allocated a place to a child living further than 6 miles away, there is no point in listing it on your CAF, even if it is the “first preference school” of your and your child’s dreams.
  2. If you live 8 or 9 miles away from that same school, you can take a gamble. Who knows: this year there might be fewer children applying, fewer children living closer to the school, fewer children who qualify living nearer? Hope springs eternal, and it is worth a go to list it as your first preference.
  3. If your child is taking the 11 plus, you must list all your preferred grammar schools above any other type of school. If your child fails to qualify, those schools will simply be “erased” and the first non-grammar school you have listed will become your new “first preference”.
  4. The further down your CAF preferences you need to go, the more realistic you need to be about the chances of getting a place. Your last preference should always be a school that will be acceptable to you and your child and one at which your child is certain to get a place – the ultimate fallback if all else fails.
  5. If you do not obtain a place at any of your listed preferences, your home local authority will allocate you a place at one of their schools that is not yet full. The rules for doing this vary between local authorities, but should be published on their admissions website. Statistics from previous years may suggest which schools are likely to be undersubscribed, but watch out for changes in conditions. If you are absolutely certain which school you would be allocated in this way, you might be able to omit it from your preferences to make room for another school. We would strongly advise you to check carefully with your local Admissions Department or with the School Choice Advisers before doing this.