Circle Insights

Managing oversubscription criteria in the school admissions process

Marcus Le Brocq

When an admissions authority receives more applications for a school than it has spaces available, it must order the provision of places according to its oversubscription criteria. These rules can be bespoke to each admissions authority. The criteria must be transparent and easy to understand, with a public outlining of the criteria available. So, how can this process be handled fairly and transparently?

Admissions arrangements must be in line with the School Admissions Code. “The purpose of this code is to ensure that all school places for maintained schools and academies are allocated and offered in an open and fair way.” The code has the force of law.

Exceptions to oversubscription criteria

There are exceptions to whom oversubscription criteria do not apply. Children with identified special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) who have an education health and care plan (EHCP) which specifically names a school, must be offered a place.

Once they have been offered a place, the highest priority must then be given to looked after children and previously looked after children.

Having a record of any EHCP or child looked after status in the authority’s system already makes it easy for admissions teams to validate the status of such an application. A joined-up approach is essential for handling applications fairly and transparently. A robust evidence base also makes handling appeals much easier.

Once EHCPs and children looked after have been allocated places, the rest of the applicants must be sorted through. In the easiest case scenario, there will be fewer applications than there are available place and, simply, they must all be offered a place.

Setting out your oversubscription criteria

Every admissions authority must set out its arrangements against which school places are allocated in the event of oversubscription. Each authority can define and order the criteria in their own way. There is no prescribed ordering of criteria, or even which criteria must be included.

The following is an inexhaustive and unindicative list of oversubscription criteria:

  • Siblings: It may sound obvious, but the authority must outline its interpretation of the term ‘sibling’. This is to cover step-siblings and adoptions. Linking family records in a central system makes defining and implementing the interpretation straightforward.
  • Catchment area: These must be designed by the authority to be reasonable and clearly defined. Linking this to digital mapping solutions can further help define a catchment in a system by considering factors such walking time to a school.
  • Feeder schools: These must be nominated by the authority and clearly defined. Linking records in a central system helps determine this, since obtaining current school attended information is easy.
  • Social and medical records: Authorities must clearly set out how social and medical records will be used in this context. Enabling parents to submit any records as part of their initial application makes the process easier for everyone.
  • Ability or aptitude: Any such requirements must be publicly available. Only grammar schools can base their entire intake based upon this.
  • Faith schools: Enabling parents to submit supporting documentation at the point of application makes determining this much easier for everyone. Where faith schools are undersubscribed, places must be offered to all applicants regardless of faith.
  • Children of staff: The School Admissions Code states that this applies to children of staff who have been working at the school for two or more years, or where the staff member has been recruited to fill a vacant post for which there is a demonstrable skills shortage. Linking records again helps to make determining this easier.


Oversubscription criteria are essential to a fair and transparent admissions process. Where places are appealed, a robust set of protocols also helps to argue the admission authority’s decisions.

It is also a process that can be automated. Where complete information on a child is held in an authority’s education management information system, all relevant information can be submitted by parents, schools and professionals, recorded against the child and considered when oversubscriptions criteria are called upon in the school admissions process.

This makes collecting evidence for appeals much more straightforward. No more manually trawling through records, aspects such as catchment areas can simply be called upon and put forward to an appeals panel.

It also makes determining admissions based on the bespoke criteria of the admissions authority much easier. To use catchment area as an example again, linking to mapping tools makes determining distance from a school incredibly straightforward. The decision can then be logged in the central system, with no need to resort to spreadsheets and physical copies of children’s records and the outcomes of their admissions.

The technology exists now to make the admissions process easier to administer, as well as fairer and more transparent for children and their families.

This is a topic that we’ve covered in greater detail, examining the entire admissions process, in our recent white paper, A fair school admissions process for all. You can download a free copy here.

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Marcus Le Brocq