You are a guest user.



How to apply to a school the right way

Starting from scratch now we would probably not produce an educational system anything like the one that we...

3 years ago

Starting from scratch now we would probably not produce an educational system anything like the one that we have, but there are so many fine things about the greatest schools in this country and they are the envy of the world. Obtaining a place for a child in some of these institutions is not a straightforward business. Selecting and visiting schools, managing deadlines and understanding what exactly is required by a school can present considerable difficulties, even to the initiated.

Admissions processes can seem complex and the impressive profiles presented by prospectuses, websites and open days can conceal pitfalls which parents need to be aware of.

Some of what follows may seem either obvious or absurd, but the range of experiences and problems presented in Admissions processes are considerable, and sometimes the obvious is not spotted and the absurd can be only too real.  

Manners Makyth Man

Schools are looking at parents just as much as they are looking at schools. Sometimes it is love at first sight but equally, awkward manners can unseat the confident, the powerful and the determined. Most visitors are delightful but there are some who make elementary blunders that stick in the memory. Answering a mobile phone without good reason in the middle of a conversation, stopping for a cigarette break while touring the school, arriving late without notice or an apology, or gate-crashing an Open Day or deviating from the carefully planned tour: these are the sorts of things that will not go down well. 

The two-way nature of the process may make the thought of visiting seem intimidating, but this really should not be the case. It is, after all, in a school’s interest that a visitor should be made to feel welcome and that they should enjoy their visit. It is important to underline that for all Admissions departments the chief focus will be the child in question, and that schools and parents are united in the mutual goal of making the right decision for the child.

Do your homework

Parents can sometimes assume that nothing much has changed since they were at school and will not have undertaken any basic research about the changing educational landscape. With such an expensive and important investment lying ahead, a degree of preparation is advisable. Schools will not be expecting experts, but these days parents are thought of as partners in education (digital communication has changed things for the better in this respect) and a degree of engagement and interest will always be appreciated. 

Parents should ask questions about teamwork, resilience, creative thinking and entrepreneurship as well as the use of IT, well-being and pastoral care. 

Of course, exam results and university entrance are important, but the obsession with league tables has (thankfully) diminished. Schools are now looking at ways of replacing the ancient diet of GCSEs and A levels and questions about the future provision may be helpful. Inspection reports too are easy to find and can provide plenty of food for thought. 

Entry statistics

Questions are often asked about the overall number of applicants and the chances of getting in. At first glance the statistics for entry into some well-known schools may be depressing. These establishments will enjoy great popularity but parental indecision and indeed hedge-betting will result in changes in the lists in the years after Year 6 tests. Places will appear in years 7 and 8.

Those parents who hold places at numerous schools and then boast about this fact are in fact causing huge disruption, upset and expense to other parents who are forced to make other plans and pay additional registration and acceptance fees elsewhere. It is entirely understandable to have ‘insurance policies’ in early planning stages, but the collecting of firm places is one of the worst aspects of the whole system. 

Sibling places

Those parents who plan to send their children to different schools need to think very carefully about this decision. Many of the most popular schools will not guarantee places for siblings because they are inundated with sibling applicants and they cannot appear to be closed shops to families without connections, but of course they will think very carefully about showing loyalty to families who have complicated juggling acts on their hands. They face a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation with this problem. Some schools could fill over 50% of the available places with siblings, and parents need to be aware that they might have thrown points out of the window for a younger child as a result of having not sent an elder sibling to the school. There may of course be very good reasons for doing this, and it could be worth sharing the thinking behind the decision with Admissions staff. 

What to do if things don’t quite go according to plan?

In the event of the school of choice offering a child a waiting list place, the best way forward is through regular updates of a child’s progress accompanied by communications which express an appreciation that the situation with places may not have changed. Not keeping in touch tends to speak of a loss of interest. All assessment processes are flawed, and hairs’ breadths can divide the successful from the unsuccessful. If the assessments took place a week later different results could be obtained because children are developing all the time. The results of any process represent a snapshot of a specific moment. 

Gone, thank heavens,
is the whole business of names down at birth.

It is also good that the ruthlessness of everything depending entirely on an exam in the term before entry is now a thing of the past, but over the last decade the processes have become more challenging. Limiting damage caused by parental disappointment, keeping on the right side of the Heads of feeder schools and managing internal politics within the school itself can present all Admissions staff with serious challenges. Be nice to them. Their job descriptions never match what they actually do, and if you treat them with the sympathy that they tend to deserve, they will do their very best for you and will be there to help with all manner of anxieties in the run up to the start of that (much more) important first term.

About the author: Niall Hamilton was a housemaster at Marlborough College and then ran the admissions department for ten years. Since 2018 he has been a consultant and he continues to work at the College as the International Admissions Tutor.


Read more

Discover the dynamic world of apprenticeships – a gateway to diverse career avenues, showcased by



Scholato comes from the team behind Bonas MacFarlane and the Independent Schools Show.

Victoria House, 1a Gertrude Street, London, SW10 0JN