Finding a good school in London, and getting in!

Schools: This is a huge topic. And most probably the one that is most stressful for families moving to London. It certainly was for me. Important factors when deciding on the type of school you go for are a) the age of your child(ren) and b) your plans for returning to your home country. I will make a start at this ginormous topic today, but there is so much to cover – this is just a first overview.

In a nutshell: Primary school runs for 7 years, from age 4/5 (entering a class called “Reception”) until  age 10/11 (Year 6). There are exceptions in the independent (private) school sector (which I will not go into here). Secondary school covers a) Year 7 through to Year 11 (age 15/16), at which point students take a set of exams called GCSEs, and b) further courses until age 18, mainly “A-levels” for entry into higher education. Other options at this point include the International Baccalaureate (IB) and a range of vocational courses.

Schools are benchmarked against each other in two ways: 1) exam results at age 11 for primary school (SATs); age 16 for secondary school (GCSE); or age 18 for sixth form college (A-levels), and 2) qualitative assessments by a government agency, called Ofsted. Latter includes all state schools, but only some private schools (who volunteer to be inspected). All this data is freely available on the web (and I’ll write a post on these later on).

State schools:

If you have your heart set on state-schooling your kids, it’s important you live as close to the school as possible to increase your chances of getting in. At times, it may help if you are a practising catholic, and can provide ‘proof’ of regular worship – I’ll post something on faith schools later on.

Each London Borough (local authority) has a schools admissions website, which will provide information on all state schools within the borough. If there is a wait list (and I can almost guarantee you that there will be one), most schools give preference in this order: 1) special medical or social needs, 2) siblings of students already at the school, 3) proximity of home to school gate. (Faith schools and free academies may have some different/additional criteria.) You have to live in your London home before you can apply for a space. The interplay between criteria 2) and 3) may benefit or harm your chances of getting your kids in, depending on your children’s ages. To illustrate: We moved very close to an excellent school, and my daughter was first on the wait list throughout the summer. Until the school year started – she then slipped to 4th place. The cause weren’t families who moved closer to the school than us (although that could happen too), it was families living further away but where older siblings got a space in a higher-up class. This automatically moved the younger sibling ahead of my daughter on the wait list for her year. Bummer@#!

But I’m sure that’s not how the other family saw it.  BTW, once your child has a space, you can move away and keep your child in the school – and this includes sibling preference. You can think up all sorts of housing strategies here…

Independent schools:

Indepdendent (private) schools set their own entry requirements. For many, it seems to come down to how soon after birth you put your child’s name on their waiting list. Hm. But of course, people move away and slots do open up. Some schools require their students to pass an entry exam (especially at secondary school level, but even primary school-age kids are assessed). While independent schools will require you to part with some ££, there are distinct advantages:

1) You can apply ahead of your move, while you are still abroad.

2) Classes are smaller than in state schools (15 – ish versus 30 – ish). Your child gets more attention, which may be particularly needed if she is finding it difficult to adjust to the new surroundings.

3) They may be the best option if you are planning to return to your home country in a couple of years, especially if your child is at secondary school level.

OK, I made a start on this mammoth subject. Will keep digging away at it!

Her first day of school. Yes, those uniforms make them even cuter.

Her first day of school. Yes, those uniforms make them even cuter.


  1. Kapoor Abhishek · · Reply

    Hi there, when does the new school session start? Also, does the start of session for Primary and Secondary school together?

    1. Hi, see here: You can look up term times for any Borough / Council. The start of the new school year is in the first week of September. Primary and secondary (state) schools start at the same time (there may be 1-2 days difference, but nothing substantial).

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