What to do if you don’t get your first choice school

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible for everyone to get their first choice of secondary school and some families will be left disappointed.

And while you will be keeping your fingers crossed that your child gets a spot, you should be prepared in case your wish doesn’t come true. 

Popular schools will be oversubscribed so it’s important to remain realistic when waiting to hear if you’ve been successful.

Also, it’s vital to spend some time preparing yourself in case you want to appeal a council’s decision. It may well be that you are happy to accept a place at a school further down on your list if it is still a good option for your child. But if you feel the decision made is not reasonable or the procedure has not been followed correctly then you are within your rights to appeal.

Your case will be heard by an independent appeals panel and the system allows you to argue that there are extra reasons why your child deserves a place at your top choice. 

For anyone considering appealing the decision, here is some more information on the process:

What are the first steps? 

Parents are advised to accept the place you have been allocated regardless of whether you want it – this is a safety net to ensure you have a place for September if the appeal is unsuccessful. It can always be rejected at a later date if a space becomes available, or if the appeal is upheld. Then you should contact your preferred school to be put on a waiting list should the school have one. This may happen automatically but it is always worth checking that it has been done. This could remove the need for an appeal hearing if a place is freed up by other means, such as a change in circumstances for another pupil. 

How is an appeal lodged? 

Parents should lodge their intention to appeal with either the local authority or, if it’s a free school or academy, the governing body. Details of who to contact, instructions for beginning the appeal process and the deadline will normally be provided with the place offer letter sent to you by the council. If more than one school declines to admit your child, you are allowed  to make separate appeals.

What happens next? 

If you think there are good reasons why your child should go to your preferred school then you can present your case to an independent appeal panel. You should provide a list of reasons why your child needs to go to that school. Focus on positive reasons why your child needs to attend that school as opposed to the allocated one. Don’t just state why your child should not go to the allocated school. This might include the pupil’s specific talents if the chosen school has specialist science or language facilities. It is recommended that parents take along evidence such as school reports to back up the argument.

What happens at the hearing?

Appeals must be heard within 40 school days of the deadline for making an appeal. Either the school or council will give you at least 10 school days’ notice of the hearing. The panel is usually made up of three to five members of the public – both with and without experience of the education system. Local authorities recommend that you provide evidence of why your child should attend your first choice and why it would be bad for them to go to another school. 

The school will also present its case for why it cannot take extra children and why it would be bad for the school if they had to. You will be able to pose questions to their representatives so think about what you may want to ask in advance.

Members will listen to both cases and ask questions. During the hearing, the panel will also check that the school’s admission arrangements comply with the Schools Admissions Code. 

If the admissions criteria are legal and were properly followed, the panel must decide if they were followed fairly and thoroughly. If the criteria weren’t properly followed or are illegal, your appeal must be upheld. If your appeal has not already been upheld, the panel will decide if your reasons for your child to be admitted outweigh the school’s reasons for not admitting another child. The result is sent by post within seven days and the decision is legally binding – it can only be overturned by a court. If successful, your child will be allocated a place at their preferred school regardless of the class size.

What happens if I lose the appeal? 

If the appeal is unsuccessful you can still put your child’s  name on the waiting list in the hope of a place becoming available. There is plenty of time for circumstances to change by September as families may move out of the area meaning spaces can free up. But understand that you can move both up and down a waiting list. If a family was to move into the area and be closer to the school, they could go above you. If you’re unhappy about the way the appeal process was carried out, you can complain to your Local Government Ombudsman. They can recommend a new appeal, but they can’t review or overturn the appeal panel’s decision.


It’s easier said than done but its worth remembering to keep an open mind throughout the application process.

If it doesn’t all go to plan then you will need to remain positive about the school your child has been allocated because that will make it easier for them. Children pick up on your mood and if they know you’re unhappy with their school it could affect how they settle in. 

Concentrate on all of its positive attributes. If you are still feeling uncertain contact the school to arrange a visit and speak to staff to allay any fears. Touring the site for the first time or second, if you attended an open day, may help you see it in a new light. 

Also, remember that your opinions and priorities may well change and the reasons why you ruled the school out may not matter so much in the future. You may be worried about how you are going to manage with your child attending a school further away but then find it easier than you were expecting. 

Maybe you are concerned about previous performance figures but then see test and exam results start to improve. It’s also very likely that after your son or daughter starts at the school you will come to realise that it was the best fit for them after all.