Getting ready to start school

Getting ready for your child to start school can feel daunting. Choosing the right school, working out which local schools are in your catchment area, looking at the possibility of independent schools, filling in your application forms… and that’s in addition to getting your head around the idea that your toddler is soon going to be putting on a school uniform and waving you goodbye in the mornings. It’s a lot to think about.

We understand that, as parents, you may often come across many unfamiliar – and perhaps confusing – terms and procedures when considering schools, and again throughout your child’s education. Here are some key terms you might come across, some key dates to be aware of, and some top tips to bear in mind when preparing for your little one to begin their school journey. 

What ages do children start school in the UK?

In the UK, children must legally attend school from the age of five until they are 16. Most children start in education before they are five years old, attending Nursery, or Pre-School and then Reception, which is the first year of primary school. Young people have to stay in education or training until the age of 18. 

What are the different school Year Groups?

The school system is, in general, made up of four distinct stages: 

  • Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) including Pre-School, Nursery and Reception classes
  • Junior School/ Primary School which may also be known as Pre-Prep and Prep School
  • Senior School
  • Sixth Form or Sixth Form College.

Often, Pre-School, Nursery and Reception are integrated into a Primary School, Junior School or Pre-Prep School. 

Pre-Prep schools are independent schools (also referred to as private schools) for children before they begin a Prep School, in Years 3 or 4 (age 7 and 8). Often Pre-prep and Prep schools are integrated into schools that are “all through” – as are most GDST schools – running right from nursery until Sixth Form.

How and when should I apply? 

Applications to primary school tend to open in September of the year before your child would start school. The closing date is usually 15th January; you should contact your Local Authority for more information. 

Applications to independent schools such as those in the Girls’ Day School Trust family, vary from school to school, and many of our schools will accept applications throughout the academic year. 

How do I choose a school?

Most parents choose the school that is nearest to the family home, however, proximity to your local primary school is not a guarantee that your child will be offered a place. Local Authorities allocate primary school places according to certain criteria, such as whether a child already has a sibling in the school, whether the family practises a certain religion, or whether a child is eligible for the ‘pupil premium’. All state primary schools are obliged to give top priority to children who are, or who have been, in care. Contacting your local authority will give you an overview of your local school’s admissions criteria. 

As parents, you will want to choose a school which you feel will nurture your child and build academic and personal confidence through excellent pastoral care and creative, inclusive and fun approaches to learning. 

To read about the pastoral care and educational ethos of GDST schools, click here

What if my child has special educational needs?

Most children with SEND (Special Educational Needs/Disablities) can attend a mainstream primary school. If your child has an EHCP (Education Health Care Plan) this might mean they could attend a Specialist school which can offer extra learning support. These schools cater for children with dedicated needs, beyond SEND support provided within schools. If your child does not have an EHCP, a diagnosed educational need is sometimes taken into account when prioritising and allocating school places. Check with your Local Authority for their SEND policy. 

How do I know if my child will get a place? What if s/he doesn’t?

Most families are successful in gaining a place for their child at their preferred local school provided they live in the ‘catchment area’ (the defined area of proximity to a school) or that they meet other criteria. Don’t panic!

If, however, your child is not offered a place at your preferred state school, you have the option to appeal this decision and you can find out more about this process through your Local Authority. 

You may also wish to consider an independent school for your child. 

Top tips for choosing a primary school

  • Think about what you are looking for in a school, and the environment in which your child will thrive best. This might include smaller class sizes, opportunities for outdoor education and whether you can walk to school with your child.
  • School is not just about learning, it’s about playing, making friends and building confidence. Look into the pastoral care in your local primary school and the opportunities for a broad and varied curriculum that includes the chance for your child to enjoy singing, painting, doing sport, being outside, dancing – and whatever else s/he enjoys doing.
  • Speak to friends and colleagues whose children are already at school: what do they appreciate most in their child’s school?  Is their child thriving and happy? Look for community groups on social media to get the lowdown and get to know other local parents.
  • If you and your partner work, you may need to consider what ‘wraparound care’ is available at your child’s potential primary school. This is childcare support provided by schools to parents outside of school classroom hours, for example Breakfast Club or After School Club.
  • Be practical. Don’t apply for a school that you know is not your catchment area, and that you know is oversubscribed. If you have the option to put down a few different schools, make sure they are schools you’d be happy for your child to end up going to.

What other options are available in addition to my local authority primary schools?

You may be interested in investigating independent schools in your local area. 

The Girls Day School Trust (GDST) is a family of 25 girls’ schools across England and Wales. We have 23 independent schools and 2 academies, educating over 19,000 students. We also have the largest women’s alumnae network of its kind in the world, with over 70,000 members. 

We pride ourselves on putting girls first, allowing them to learn without limits, to be confident, happy and fearless, and prepared for the opportunities of the future.

To read our research about the benefits of a single sex education, click here.

For more information about our family of schools, and the benefits of a GDST education, click here

To read our education jargon buster and find out more about the different types of schools available to you as you begin your child’s primary school application, click here.


Cathy Walker –  Head of Education Development at the GDST