What is the equal preference system?

Equal preference explained
How do schools take your rankings into account when you apply for a place? We explain how equal preference works.

Whether you’re applying for a primary or secondary school place for your child, it can be tough deciding which schools to list on your application form, let alone in which order you should rank them.

In the past, some schools and local authorities operated a ‘first preference first’ system. Admissions authorities could prioritise those who had listed a school as their first choice on their application form. In practice, this meant that a child who lived some distance from a school but had made it their first choice could be offered a place above a child who lived nearer but had listed it as their second choice.

The Schools Admission Code outlawed the first preference first system. Admission authorities are now legally required to operate an ‘equal preference’ system. This means that places are offered purely on the strength of how well children fit the admissions criteria. Schools can’t favour children who listed the school as their first choice, nor rule out those who placed it lower down their list; in fact, they are not even told where they were ranked in your list of preferences.

The equal preference system was introduced to prevent admission authorities being able to give higher priority to children who listed a school as their first choice. This is particularly important where a school’s admission authority is the school itself – for example, foundation schools, where the governing body controls admissions – as they are no longer able to select pupils based on where they ranked the school.

How it works

  1. School applications open on different dates in different areas, usually near the beginning of the autumn term of the year before your child is due to start Reception for primary school places, and the beginning of the autumn term of Year 5 for secondary school.
  2. On the form, you will be asked to list your top choices of school in order of preference. You must be allowed to list at least three schools.
  3. After the closing date, the LA will put your child’s name on the list for each of the schools you have listed. Their position on the list will depend on how well your child fits the school’s admission criteria – for example, they may be higher up a school’s list if you live very near to it.
  4. The equal preference system means that at this stage, the order in which you ranked the schools will not be taken into account. Your child will be put on the list for every school you have applied to.
  5. Each school has a published admission number (PAN): the number of places it has to offer. The LA will mark up the names at the top of each school’s list, up to its PAN. This is known as the School List. Those children whose names fall outside the PAN will be placed on a waiting list.
  6. If your child’s name appears on only one School List, your child will be offered a place at that school, regardless of where it ranked in your preferences.
  7. If your child is on more than one School List, the LA will then take into account the order in which you ranked the schools on your common application form. Your child will be offered a place at the school that you ranked highest. This happens around March 1 for secondary places and April 16 for Reception places.
  8. If your child isn’t allocated a place at any of your ranked schools, the LA will allocate a place at the nearest school with a space.
  9. If you have been offered a school that wasn’t your first choice, your child will remain on the waiting list for any other schools that you ranked higher than the one they have been offered. If a vacancy then comes up because another child decides not to accept a place, the LA will allocate the place to the next child on the waiting list. You can find out where your child is on the waiting list by contacting the admissions authority: this is the LA for community schools and voluntary controlled schools, the academy trust for academies, or the governing body for foundation or voluntary aided schools.

Top tips for the equal preference system

Some parents think that if they have a very clear first choice of school, they should leave all their other options blank to show the admissions authority how strongly they feel. However, it’s important to list at least three choices, and ideally use all of your options. In some areas, around 50 per cent of children miss out on their first choice of school, and if you have only listed one, your child could be placed at any other school in the area that has space, regardless of your opinion of it. It’s important that your form includes at least one school, and preferably more, that you would consider as a reasonable alternative to your first choice.

Similarly, don’t be tempted to list the same school in every space on your application form. This won’t curry favour with the admission authority, and your application will only be counted once.

Remember, if your child doesn’t get their top choice of school, they will automatically be placed on the waiting list for all of the schools that you listed above the one they were allocated. You should accept the place you’ve been offered even if you intend to appeal, so you know your child has at least somewhere to go in September.