Choosing a school: a guide for parents, revised November 2016

A guide for parents on choosing a school and the placing request system.

Section 1: Choosing a school

Deciding which school you would prefer your child to go to

Councils usually divide cities, towns and country areas into catchment areas. Children living in a catchment area usually go to the same local school.

Denominational schools can have large catchment areas that overlap those of non-denominational schools. Denominational schools are open to pupils of all denominations, all faiths, and none, but the way each council manages pupil intake for these schools can vary. Your council should be able to give you more information about any denominational schools in your area.

If you have a child who is due to start primary school or who will be transferring to secondary school soon, your council will probably suggest that you should use the local school designated by them. Of course most people are happy to do so, but the council must also tell you of your right to choose a different school. It can give you a contact address where you can get information to help in making up your mind. If you write to a council and request a place in a particular school, this is known as a placing request. The council has a duty to grant such a request wherever possible. However, the size of the school, the current roll and number of children who already live in the catchment area and other factors will affect the council's ability to grant a placing request.

If your child has additional support needs the council has a duty to grant your request for a place in a specified school, subject to certain circumstances that must be explained to you in writing. You can make a request for a special school (this includes independent and grant-aided as well as council special schools) or a mainstream school. If the specified school is an independent special school, in Scotland or elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the council must meet the fees and other costs.

The law relating to placing requests also applies if you want your child to change school, as well as when he or she starts primary or secondary school.

When deciding on the school you prefer, here are some important things to keep in mind.

  • Find out all that you can about the school your council suggests that you should use. If you can, arrange to visit the school and speak to the headteacher. Schools make special arrangements to welcome visitors and it is advisable to find out what these arrangements are. A telephone call to make an appointment always helps.
  • Look out for advertisements in your local paper telling you about enrolling new pupils in the school.
  • If you decide you want to know about other schools before you make up your mind, telephone or call at the address the council gave you to ask about other schools; or the headteacher of the school your council suggests can help to put you in touch with other schools. Try to arrange a visit, by telephone or by letter, to the schools you are considering. (Addresses of schools are usually listed in your local telephone directory under the name of the council.)
  • Councils are required to publish specific information about each school under their management. This information is available free of charge to parents who request it and you should always ask about it.
  • Further information of all schools in Scotland, including council and independent schools can be found on the Scottish Schools Online website. It provides contact details, links to school websites where available, and statistical and other information for every school. Scottish Schools Online website:
  • You may also wish to take into account when choosing a school the environmental impact of how your child would travel there each day if not eligible for free school transport. This may include exploring what options there are for travelling to the school in a sustainable way such as walking or cycling.

If you are happy to send your child to the school designated by your council, you usually only need to enrol him or her on the advertised date. Some councils ask parents to let them know if their children will be attending the school designated by them, or to enrol by a certain date. Make sure you know what your council expects you to do.

If you want to send your child to a different school run by your council:

  • You must tell your council. There may be a time limit for doing this - check whether the council has asked you to contact them by a particular date. You can still ask after that date, but if the council receives more requests for a particular school than there are places, your child is unlikely to get in if you did not ask in time. Most councils have placing request application forms that you will be asked to complete.
  • You must put your request in writing. All the law requires you to do is write your name and address, your child's name, and the name of the school you would prefer. It would be helpful to the council, however, if you also give your child's age and (if already at school) the name of his or her present school and stage of education.

If you wish to apply for more than one school you must indicate your first choice. This is important because the council is only obliged to consider your first preference.

You do not have to give reasons for your choice. However, councils may give priority to requests made on certain specific grounds - for example, that your other children already attend the school you have chosen - and it may be helpful to give the council relevant information where these factors apply.

The council will consider your written request. It will provide a place for your child in the school of your choice unless all the places are already filled, or there are other special circumstances (the circumstances in which a request can be refused are explained more fully in Section 2).

When to make your request

If your child is due to start primary school in August (normally he or she will be between 4 1/ 2 and 5 1/ 2 years of age by then) or due to transfer to secondary school, your council will provide information in the previous December, January or February on choosing a particular school.

If you do not get a letter from them or see an advertisement about this by the end of February, then you should telephone or write to your council. The headteacher of the local school, or of the school you are interested in, will also tell you whether there is a date by which your request must be in.

If you are already sure by February which school you would prefer your child to go to, then simply write to the council's education office to tell them. You should do this as soon as possible to allow the council to consider your request.

Choice of school for children under the age of 5

Some parents may wish their child to start primary school before they have reached school age. School age children are those who are 5 years old when they start school in August, or who will turn 5 before the following March. If you would like your child to start school early, before they reach school age, you should contact your council. If the council agrees that it would be appropriate to your child's ability and aptitude for them to start school early, they will provide a Primary 1 place for him or her in one of their schools. Parents do not have a statutory right to make a placing request for a child who will be under school age when they start primary school. However, if you have a particular school in mind, the council may be able to give your child a place there - but you cannot appeal if they do not.

Changing schools

The right of parents to express a preference for a particular school applies at any time until the child reaches school leaving age. If for some reason you feel that your child should attend a school other than the one he or she is attending, you should discuss the matter with your child's present headteacher or class/guidance teacher. If you decide that the best course would be a change of school, then you can ask for a place in a different school. You can do this at any time. You do not have to wait until the beginning of the next school year. Changing schools can be unsettling for children and can damage their education, so your decision requires careful thought. A council can refuse a request if they think a child has already moved schools too much and another move would be seriously damaging to their education.

Children's views

All parents naturally want the best for their children. That natural desire is underpinned by the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, which sets out parental responsibility to safeguard and promote their child's health, development and welfare, in their child's best interests. Like the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (to which the United Kingdom is a signatory), it also recognises the rights of children to have their views taken into consideration when any major decisions are being made that affect their development and welfare. Choosing a school is clearly a very important decision, and children may have views that their parents should consider, taking into account their relative age and maturity.

Young people over 16

In addition to the rights described above, once a pupil has reached the school leaving age the pupil - not the pupil's parents - may choose which school to go to. The time at which pupils are old enough by law to leave school depends on when their 16th birthday falls in the year.

  • Pupils who have their 16th birthday on or between 1 March and 30 September can leave school or decide for themselves whether they want to ask for another school from 31 May that year.
  • Pupils who have their 16th birthday on or between 1 October and the last day of February can leave school or decide for themselves whether they want to ask for another school at Christmas in between those two dates.

If the pupil wants to change schools, then he or she should write to their local council to say so.

Schools run by another council

You can ask for a place for your child at a school run by another council. You might want to do so, for example, if you live near the boundary of your council's area and think that a school just across the boundary would be best for your child. In such a case you must write to the council which manages that school, and not to your own council.

Right to send your child to your local designated school

Many parents will still prefer their child to go to the school their council suggests. Some of them may be worried in case there is no longer room for him or her there. There should normally be no difficulty about children starting their local designated primary school or transferring to their designated secondary school.

If you move house in the middle of your child's schooling into an area where the local school is very popular, you may find that the school is already full. In those circumstances, you may have to wait until someone else moves out and there is a place for your child. The council will arrange for him or her to attend a different school in the meantime.

So, if you know that you are going to be moving into a school's area you should let the council responsible for the school know as soon as possible.

Councils can reserve places in schools in anticipation of children who may move into the catchment area of the school during the school year. They must consider the overall demand for places at the school, and can only keep empty the number of places that they consider are reasonably required for pupils likely to move into the catchment area in the period up to and including the forthcoming year.

However, it is not always possible for a council to keep places in a school empty for incomers, for instance, if it is already full due to demand from children living in the catchment area.

Travelling to school

If the council has suggested a school for your child, the council must make arrangements to get them there IF:

  • he or she is under 8 years of age and lives more than 3.2 kilometres (2 miles) from school; or
  • he or she is 8 years of age or over and lives more than 4.8 kilometres (3 miles) from school.

If you decide that you do not want your child to go to the school suggested by the council and instead ask that he or she goes to another school, the council does not have to provide a school bus or any help with transport.

The council may be willing to help with transport although they do not have to by law. It may be worth asking if you would get any help before you decide to ask for a place in the school you prefer.

If the council decides not to help with transport, you will have to consider carefully how your child is going to get to the school you prefer. You will have to make sure that your child attends regularly, as in law, it is a parent's responsibility to ensure that the child receives an education.

Eligibility: EU citizens

If you are a EU citizen you can access a school place for your child. 

Local authorities have a duty to provide adequate and efficient provision of school education for all children residing in their local area. This duty does not distinguish between children and young people on the basis of their country of origin, and so applies to children who are EU nationals.

Eligibility: non-UK and non-EU citizens

If you are not a citizen of the UK or the EU then you can access a school place for your child.

Local authorities have a duty to provide adequate and efficient provision of school education for all children residing in their local area. This duty does not distinguish between children and young people on the basis of their country of origin, and so applies to non-UK and non-EU children.


Scottish Government Learning Directorate Victoria Quay Edinburgh EH6 6QQ

Back to top