The Postcode Lottery

Is there a postcode advantage in the UK education system? Read on and then draw your own conclusions..


A school catchment area is the geographic area from which students are eligible to attend a local school[1].

Local Education Authorities (LEAs) are the local councils in England and Wales that are responsible for education within their jurisdiction.[2] It is important to note that LEAs only control state schools not the independent ones.

On a number of LEA websites, they clearly state that there is a catchment area for most of their schools and they typically admit pupils from their own catchment areas. Although most of them admit that living in the catchment area is not a sure bet that the child will get into their school of choice, they do go on to say they are likely to be ranked above those who reside outside the catchment area.

Effectively the school your child will attend is largely determined by where you live unless you opt for the independent sector.

Some state secondary schools are selective and often rank ability or other criteria above living in the catchment area. Even amongst these there are some who will not permit pupils from outside their catchment area to sit the selection tests at all. Some schools will allow any pupil to sit the test but if two or more pupils with equal ability are competing for the last few places the pupil who lives the shortest distance away from the school may have an advantage.

Most of this information is in the public arena therefore parents should be proactive, plan ahead and take necessary steps to be in the right place at the right time. The most common admission criteria used by schools is the proximity rule: those who live nearest tend to get into the school of their choice. Basically you get a place if your postcode fits. Whilst some schools admit to accepting children that live outside the catchment area, such children are only considered if they have spare spaces.

As a parent, here are some of the things you can to do to get your child into a good school:

  • Act early – if you wait till your child is in year six before you start making your enquiries about secondary schools it is probably too late. For enquiries about primary schools believe it or not, it’s useful to start the groundwork once you are expecting the child!
  • Investigate – don’t just assume your child will be attending that good school a few minutes away from home without checking its admission criteria. It may be a selective school or faith school and your postcode may not have a high ranking in their selection criteria.
  • Remain informed  – catchment area boundaries may change from one year to the other so if your house currently falls within the catchment area of a fantastic school, remember to check at least once a year that the boundaries have not yet been remapped. It is also useful to regularly review whether or not the standards of the school are improving or at least remain the same.

All hope is not lost even if your home is not in the catchment area for the best schools; however time is of the essence, the earlier you know, the easier it is for you to do something to increase your choice. Here are some options to consider:

  • Apply for a selective school – this relates to secondary schools only and requires a combination of ability, tenacity and preparation well in advance for the tests.
  • Move house  – this may not always be feasible but if you have the flexibility and can afford to, then why not? It is not uncommon for families to move when expecting a child as they consider the options for their unborn child.
  • A broader approach –  rather than put all your eggs in one basket, spread out wisely, where possible, live somewhere that gives you a choice of more than one good school.  You may be preparing your child for that selective school but also have a good Plan B for an alternative school in case your child does not pass the test.


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