This post explains all about school catchment areas: what they are, how they are used in the admissions process, and where you might be able to find maps of catchment areas. Catchment areas are used to prioritise applications and help determine how school places are allocated when a school is oversubscribed. It is worth noting that you are free to apply to almost any state funded school that you choose, and if that school is not oversubscribed, they are obliged to offer you a place. Catchment areas, and admission criteria more generally, only become a relevant consideration when a school is oversubscribed.
There is a growing school age population in many places, and this increase in demand means that, unfortunately, more schools are oversubscribed. This makes it all the more important to understand catchment areas and admission criteria more generally.
What are catchment areas?
Catchment areas are predefined geographic areas associated with a school (or schools). They may also be referred to as priority areas or zones, priority admission areas, or designated areas or zones (and in the case of one local authority, the normal area). Despite the variety of names used to describe these areas, they all operate in the same way: if you live inside one of these areas then your application to the school(s) will receive priority over applications from people living outside the area. The exact nature of this priority depends on the full set of admission criteria set by the local authority (or the school in the case of faith schools). Living inside the catchment area certainly does not constitute a guarantee of a place at the school.
Outside London, most local authorities use catchment areas. However, across the 33 London boroughs only 4 have catchment areas for all schools (Barnet, Brent, Ealing, and Newham) and another 8 boroughs have at least one school which has a catchment area.
Regardless of your location, almost all local authorities use home to school distance as one of the factors to decide how to allocate school places. This leads to some confusion over what “catchment areas” are, and so we discuss this is the following section.
Catchment areas and cut-off distances
Community schools, i.e. those run by the local authority, often allocate places at oversubscribed schools according to some measure of the distance between your home and the school. Increasingly, local authorities publish the furthest distance of a successful applicant from the previous year’s applications – often referred to as the cut-off distance. This cut-off distance implies an area around the school which you would have needed to live in to get a place at the school. Understandably, many people refer to this as a catchment area. However, it is not a catchment area in the sense of a predefined priority admission area. To avoid confusion, we will refer to this other area as a cut-off distance area.
How catchment areas are used
The effect of a catchment area depends on how it is used in conjunction with the other admissions criteria. As noted, living within a school’s catchment area will usually mean that your application receives priority over people living outside the catchment area. However, this is not always the case. There are three common reasons why not:
- Sibling policies. In general, siblings of children already at a school will be given priority. In some local authorities the sibling priority only applies to families living within the catchment area. However, more often, the sibling policy applies regardless of where you live. Therefore, applicants with a sibling at the school don’t need to live within the catchment area.
- Faith based criteria. Many faith schools have nominal catchment areas, or prioritise applications from children living within a church parish boundaries. However, a higher priority is often given to more subjective measures such as parental commitment to the faith. As such it is difficult to judge the extent to which living with the relevant area will affect your application. It is likely to be more important that you attend church on a regular basis.
- Home to school distance. If there are more applicants from within a catchment area than available places (after allocating places to siblings), then local authorities will usually use home to school distance to prioritise these applications. As such, you might be within the catchment area, but still live too far away from the school to stand a good chance of getting in. See the following example of Wimbledon Chase Primary.
Wimbledon Chase priority area and cut-off distance area. Map Data copyright Google 2013.
The green area is the catchment area (referred to as a priority area by Merton). However, the red circle shows the cut-off distance area (based on the 2012 intake), which lies almost entirely within the catchment area. In this specific example, the existence of the catchment area has no impact on the outcome of the admissions process – the successful applicants are were all determined on the basis of home to school distance.
Nearest school criteria
A special example of catchment areas is created when the local authority uses a nearest school criterion to allocate places. That is, they give priority to people applying to their closest school. A number of local authorities use this approach including Leeds, Westminster, Northamptonshire, and Bath and North East Somerset.
This rule effectively defines a set of non-overlapping areas in which residents receive priority if they apply to the local school, i.e. a catchment area. Working out these areas requires a bit of complicated maths, but it is something we have started to add to findaschool. See this post for more details.
Where to find catchment area information
It can be rather difficult to find catchment area maps online. Local authorities are slowly making this available in a variety of formats, but there are still examples where you will be told to go and look at a printed map in your local library or in the school. The best place to start is your local authority web site, and if you don’t have any luck there, get in touch with the admissions team.
Where we can find the relevant data, we will add catchment information to the findaschool mapping application. At present, this is very limited, but we hope to add more areas in due course.