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Apply for secondary school place - 2015-16

Why important

Applying for a secondary school place can be a stressful business, so a smooth experience will be appreciated by the vast majority of parents and carers across England who now tackle this process online. Some of those applying may need access to a considerable amount of information in order to complete the application, and how this is handled is a vital aspect of the customer experience.

Date of assessment

November 2015


English county councils only


Considerable investment has been made by central and local government to support development of online schools application in England. The latest DfE data shows that 86% of applications for September 2015 entry were made online, ranging from 100% in Islington and Nottinghamshire to 15% in Rotherham. For county councils, the average figure is 94%, so our expectation was that online provision would be good, and this proved to be the case, with 78% of county councils providing a good or very good service. Some poor practice continues on lower performing sites, as the task report indicates.

Find your council report

Check ‘coverage’ to see if your council has been surveyed. Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2016-17 results

Headline results


Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey

Better connected rankings


*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off

  • 4 stars (Very Good)
  • 3 stars (Good)
  • 2 stars (Unsatisfactory)
  • 1 star (Poor)



Log in to view question set or View sample question set from 2016-17 (pdf)

Task report

This was generally a well-supported task on most sites with clear deadline dates and obvious links to the online application form.

Most councils have tried hard to sell the benefits of applying online and do so effectively. One thing to watch out for is not driving the user off the application form too early in the task, when they perhaps haven’t read all the relevant supporting information.

Too much information is buried in very lengthy PDFs. Certain key information, such as catchment area arrangements, were often hidden in these documents. A good approach is to present the most important concepts on the web pages and then direct people to the PDF guidance documents for more in-depth explanations. Otherwise the applicant is quickly dumped into a 60+ page document without guidance on which bits they actually need to read.

Most of our recommended sites get the balance right between pdf and webpages and have thought through the customer journey.

Ideally the application form would be presented as if it were part of the website so that users don’t experience a “cognitive break” in the journey by being taking to a totally different website and interface. It was very rare to find any attempt to introduce that type of consistency, and also rare to be warned beforehand that you would be taken to a form on a separate site.

Some sites exhibited a lack of attention to detail that is crucial for a task of such importance to those undertaking it. For example, the reviewer noted that for one site:

The first link from Google that I followed took me to a page called "Applying for a place in Year 7 (secondary school) for September 2014". Although seemingly 2 years out of date, the link did thankfully go through to a more current page about 2016. [There was] a page in the navigation called "Stop press" which is not very helpful as a page name. Bizarrely there was another page that actually tells me to locate the "Stop Press" page for "information on how to apply". When I got to the right page, I found it to just be a long list of links, in no obvious order. I had to go back and forth between several pages to build up a picture of the process. Occasional typos were not helpful - giving the impression that these pages have been thrown together with not enough care. Overall, very difficult to piece together the full picture and far too many niggles that really shouldn't exist.

On another site, the reviewer found:

‘…. several pages with out of date information, referring to previous years' information or dates that have passed, and also several rather technical warnings about internet browsers which are even more likely to confuse non-technical users. A search only offered me a long list of PDF lists of schools, and the A-Z only had a link to school admission appeals. If you click the large image of the 2016/17 booklet, you instead go through to the 2015/16 version.’

More than one site made previous years’ admissions booklets available, and it is hard to see why – surely a recipe for confusion?

Other sites were careless about phrasing, for example, one referred to a closing date for ‘first time admission applications’. Applicants that don’t know the terminology (why would they?) might think this is for "first time admissions" to secondary school. Elsewhere in the table there is a different date for "secondary school transfers" - again, applicants could be forgiven for thinking this means transferring a child from one secondary to another.

One site provided a "catchment finder" but no explanation of how catchments work or whether applicants have to stick to ‘their’ catchment area. Attempts to access specific information sent the reviewer round in circles and eventually to a series of documents with information about when the documents were produced and how someone can object to them. These sort of pages appear to be written more with council processes in mind than what parents might actually need to know. Examples of official council speak can still be found:

Every school has a legal Published Admission Number (PAN) applicable to the year of entry, which is the maximum number of places available in the year group concerned. The Published Admission Number is set to maximise parental preference within the resources available and to ensure that there are sufficient school places across the local area.

Where maps of schools and their catchments are used they need to be very easy to use - a cluttered cluster of pins with no way to filter by type of school means a lot of scrolling around and clicking randomly.

Good practice

Finding the task

  • Entering ‘council name’ council secondary school places into Google (or other search engine) should find the task
  • There should be a prominent link from the home page and schools (or education) landing page to a brief description that include the all-important deadline dates
  • Site search results for secondary school places or links from the A to Z entry for schools should take site users to the same page

Completing the task

  • There should be a range of options to identify your nearest (or, if applicable, catchment) school, including easy-to-use maps where a simple postcode search provides all the relevant information.
  • There should be information about each school, including clear contact details, with links back to the application information.
  • Provide good links to related information such as eligibility for free school meals
  • Provide links to the latest inspection reports from Ofsted (or equivalent outside England).
  • Make creative use of flowcharts or similar step-by-step presentation to help explain the process
  • Where ‘pdfs’ are used, provide clear links at the right time with a brief advance description of what the document covers.
  • Offer full online application facilities with clear guidance on how to complete the process and what will happen next.
  • Where appropriate, publish placement data from the previous year allowing parents to estimate the likelihood of getting a place at a specific school

Poor practice

  • No clear indication of application deadlines is provided
  • The site relies too much on large ‘pdf’ documents for crucial information, such as a basic overview of the application process.
  • Content is scattered across multiple pages and documents with no clear sense of the correct order in which to read them.
  • There is no way of discovering your catchment school without contacting the council.
  • There is no link to related information such as inspection reports, which parents may not realise even exist.
  • Free school meal information is only found within a separate ‘Benefits’ section of the website, rather than under ‘Schools’.
  • Meaningful search results when using common terms like ‘Apply for a school place’ are cluttered with other results relating to ‘applying’ for other services.

Sites that we recommend

Please note that page links will not show application forms and details for September 2016 entry since the online applications window closed in November 2015.

East Sussex

I felt the deadline could have been better advertised - you have to drill into the section called "Timetable" (which, in a Schools context, could mean something else to the parent and therefore be overlooked). But generally lots of good content, presented in a way that walks the user through the key questions and tasks in a logical manner. It was really good to see Free School Meals given such a prominent mention as part of the online application form. Very good.


Fantastic - great presentation of information, nice and simply worded with clear links to relevant info to support each step of the process. Excellent.


Truly exceptional - the page makes it so easy to understand the process and provides all the right links at the right time. Very good indeed.


Generally excellent - clearly presented information making good use of a "top task" approach to highlight the key things the user is likely to want. The PDF information document was a bit of a let down - this was very wordy and not especially easy to browse through. But the web content itself did a good job of walking you through the process.

West Sussex

The information is presented in a very logical and clear way - it's made very obvious what you need to read and in what order, with relevant links served at the right time. Good attention to the user journey with a strong GOV.UK feel. Excellent.

Further information

Schools applications is one of the only sources of national statistics about takeup of local authority servcies online. Data for England's 151 local education authorities (Isles of Scilly is not included in the dataset) is published at It is not possible to compare performance in this Better Connected survey with take up of online admissions, since the data relate to two different admissions cycles, BC data from applications for September 2016 entry and the DfE data from applications for September 2015 entry. Last year, DfE published data about applications in June.



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