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Access to education

Duties and responsibilities of the local education authority

Local education authorities must find a free school place for all children who are ‘of compulsory school age’ - see under heading Compulsory school age. It must also find a school or sixth form college place for young people aged 16 to 19 who want one. If a child of compulsory school age can't receive education at school, the local education authority has a duty to provide suitable education in some other way, for example, home tuition.

The duty of the local education authority to provide full-time education applies to all pupils including those who:

  • are temporarily living in the area for long enough to attend school, for example, the child of a Traveller or a child whose parent is in the armed forces
  • have come from abroad
  • have special educational needs.

If a local education authority is refusing to provide full-time education for your child because of one of these reasons, you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

Local education authorities are public bodies and have a legal responsibility not to discriminate and to promote equal opportunities. If you think that the local education authority is discriminating against your child because of race, sex, sexuality or religion, you may be able to take further action. In England, this also applies to discrimination because of disability, gender reassignment and pregnancy and maternity.

We are Travellers, based in this area for the next six months. We want our daughter to go to the local school but they say she can't go because we aren't living in the area permanently. Is there anything we can do to make them change their minds?

The local education authority has to provide a school place for your daughter. If they refuse to do so because you are a Traveller family, this might be race discrimination which is against the law. If the local school already has too many pupils, your daughter should get a school place somewhere else. You need to get expert advice about how to take this forward, for example, from your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

For more information about discrimination, see our discrimination pages.

In addition to this legal duty not to discriminate, most local education authorities have equality policies that cover other areas of discrimination. For example, many will say that they will not discriminate against pupils who are being looked after by the local authority or who have HIV. It may be helpful to get hold of a copy of your local education authority's equality policy if you are having these sorts of problems. You may be able to take action to make them keep to their stated policy.

Duties and responsibilities of parents

If you are a parent, you have a duty to make sure that your child receives education during the compulsory school age years - see under heading Compulsory school age. A parent means either: both parents, or the pupil’s guardian or another person who has parental responsibility for the child. In some circumstances, this means that a child may have one, two or more parents with a say in their schooling. From the age of 18, responsibility for education falls to the pupil.

For more information about parental responsibility, see under Children in Living together and marriage: legal differences.

If you don't carry out your duty in relation to your child’s education, there are a number of measures that can be taken to make sure that you carry them out. This could include taking legal action against you.

If you face action by a local education authority or a court about your child’s school attendance, you should consult an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

Compulsory school age

Starting school

In England, most local authorities have a policy of accepting children into school at the beginning of the term during which the child becomes five. However, the child does not have to attend school until the beginning of the term following their fifth birthday. A child born from 1 April to 31 August need not start school until the September following their fifth birthday and a parent can ask for the child to be admitted out of their normal age group - to reception instead of Year 1. Some local authorities may accept a child outside of their normal age group if, for example, the child is gifted and talented or has experienced ill health or other problems.

In Northern Ireland, a child who is four years old on or before 1 July in any year must start primary school on 1 September that year.

In England, from the school year beginning September 2011, local authorities must accept children into primary school in the September following the child's fourth birthday. However, parents may request that their child does not start school until later in the year or until reaching compulsory school age. A parent will also be able to request that a child attends school part-time until compulsory school age.

Leaving school

In England a young person must continue in education or training until:

  • from summer 2013, the end of the academic year in which they turn 17, and
  • from summer 2015, until their 18th birthday.

This does not necessarily mean a young person will have to stay on at school after Year 11. The compulsory school leaving age is not being raised, so the young person cannot be forced to stay in school or college, nor participate in post-16 education or training. A young person will be given a choice about how they want to participate post-16, which could be through:

  • full-time education, such as school or college
  • work-based learning, such as an apprenticeship
  • part-time education or training if they're employed, self employed or volunteering for 20 hours or more a week.

The local authority is responsible for making sure that a young person has a suitable offer of a place in post 16-education or training.

In Northern Ireland, if a young person turns 16 during the school year (between 1 September and 1 July) they can leave school after 30 June and if they turn 16 between July 2 and August 31, they can't leave school until June 30 the following year.

A young person of compulsory school age who is registered at a school stays on the school register until their leaving date. If a young person leaves school before that date, this may be considered taking unauthorised absence or truancy. The school may not take any legal action but this will appear on the young person's school record and could affect future career choices.

Free education places for three-year-olds and four-year-olds

In England, every three-year-old and four-year-old is entitled to a free early education place. This is only if you want to take up a place.

In England, the place should be provided for 15 hours a week. You can spread this flexibly over at least three days a week during normal term times.

Not all nurseries, schools or playgroups take part in the scheme to provide free early education places. Your local education authority holds lists of places which provide early education. The places may be in nursery schools, nursery classes in primary schools or reception classes in primary schools. Other places may be in playgroups, private day nurseries, independent schools, or with childminders who belong to an approved network. Even if the place would normally charge fees, you will not have to pay for the number of hours you are entitled to for free. However, if your child attends for longer than that, you may have to pay for extra hours.

You can find information about schools and other organisations providing early education places in England by contacting the Children’s information service run by your local authority and at:

In Northern Ireland, many three-year-olds or four-year-olds are entitled to a pre-school education place. The availability of places varies from area to area and you are encouraged to apply if you wish to take up a place for your child. If free places are not available, you may have to pay for a place, but, if a centre has enough free places, all eligible children whose parents apply will be given a place. Schools and groups in the scheme will provide information about how to apply for a place and about the education they offer.

If you cannot find a suitable place offering free early education, you should contact your local education authority. For all other problems with free early education, you should contact the organisation involved.

For more information about problems with early education, see under the heading Dealing with problems at school, in Problems at school.

Free education places for less advantaged two-year-olds

In England, from 1 September 2013, some less advantaged two-year-olds were entitled to a free early education place, and from September 2014, more children are eligible.

Local authorities must make sure there are free early years places available for eligible two year olds. Parents don't have to send their children to early education if they don't want to. A two year old is eligible for a free place if any of the following apply:

  • their parent receives certain benefits or payments
  • they’re looked after by a local council
  • they have a current statement of special education needs (SEN) or an education health and care plan
  • they (the child) get Disability Living Allowance
  • they’ve left care under a special guardianship order, child arrangements order or residence order.

You can find more information about provision for two year olds on the GOV.UK website at

Children with special educational needs (SEN)

A pupil with special educational needs (SEN) is defined as a pupil who:

  • has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of pupils of their age, or
  • has a disability which means that they cannot make full use of the general educational facilities provided for pupils of their age.

In England, a pupil with SEN is entitled to receive full-time education that is appropriate to their needs. This applies to children and young people between the ages of two and 19. This may be in a special school or a mainstream school, or somewhere else. You have the right to educate your child at home subject as long as this meets your child's needs – see under the heading Home education.

In England, it may be against the law for a local education authority to discriminate against a pupil with SEN. This is because a child with SEN would usually be counted as a disabled pupil and disability discrimination is against the law. For example, a school must make reasonable adjustments to allow for a pupil's disability. However, not all pupils with SEN count as disabled pupils.

For information about disability discrimination, see Disability discrimination.

For more information about SEN in England, see Special educational needs.

In Northern Ireland, the local education authority doesn't have to provide full-time education to children with SEN until the age of five. If they think it would be appropriate, they can place children with statements of SEN in pre-school education which meets their needs. However, not all children with a statement will get a free school place. Local education authorities have a duty to promote the education of children over five with SEN in mainstream schools alongside other children.

You can find more information about education for children with SEN in Northern Ireland on nidirect at

Children who are too ill to attend school

If a child of compulsory school age cannot attend school because of sickness or injury, the local education authority must arrange suitable education for them. Some children will receive education in hospital schools or hospital teaching units, and some will receive tuition at home.

A child who is admitted to hospital should have their educational needs assessed as soon as is reasonable after admission. They should be given tuition as soon as their condition allows.

Children shouldn't be home unwell for more than three weeks without home tuition. If your child is absent from school for less time, the school is expected to provide work for your child to do at home.

In some cases, a pupil with medical needs could count as a disabled pupil. In England, it's against the law for a local education authority or school to discriminate against disabled pupils.

For information about disability discrimination in England, see Discrimination in education.

Disabled pupils

Schools must not treat disabled pupils less favourably than children who are not disabled. They must also make reasonable adjustments to take account of the pupil's disability. This applies both to current pupils and prospective pupils.

For information about disability discrimination, see Disability discrimination.

Pupils who have been permanently excluded (expelled) from school

If a pupil is permanently excluded (expelled) from a school, the local authority has a duty to provide other suitable education. This may be a place in another school or a place in a local special educational unit. Or they could provide home or individual tuition. If you want your child to go back to the same school, you have a right to appeal against your child's exclusion.

In England, the local authority doesn’t have to provide other suitable education for a pupil if:

  • they will stop compulsory education within the next six weeks and
  • they don’t have any more public examinations or assessments to complete.

In England, the local authority will only provide part-time education for a pupil if they have physical or mental health needs which mean it would not be in their best interests to receive full-time education.

For more information about exclusions from school, including appealing about exclusion from school, see Problems at school.

Home education

You can arrange education out of school for your child if you wish, including home education.

Although you don't have to tell the local education authority that you're educating your child at home, if you don't do this, they may make enquiries to find out what education you are providing. They have a duty to take action if it comes to their attention that a child in their area is not getting suitable education.

In Northern Ireland you need to notify the Education Authority if you are removing your child from a special school.You will need to inform the school in writing if your child already attends, so that they can be removed from the register.

If you're educating your child at home, you don't have to keep to school hours or follow the national curriculum. However, you must be able to show that your child's education is 'efficient'. This must take into account your child's age, ability, and any special educational needs your child has. If the local education authority believes that you aren't providing suitable education, they may decide to take action against you, for example, they could take legal action against you.

For more information about organisations which may be able to help about home education, see Education: organisations which give information and advice.

School admissions policies in England

You have the right to express a preference for your child’s school. In the case of secondary schools, you can make at least three choices which you can put in order of preference, giving reasons for your choices. You do not need to choose schools in your own local education authority area, but if a school has more applications than places, it may give preference to pupils in its own 'catchment area'.

Each school has an admissions policy and must consider your application in the light of this policy. According to government guidance, a school's admissions process must be clear, fair and impartial, and should take parents' preferences into account as far as possible. This guidance is legally binding, that is, if your school hasn't followed it, you can report them to:

The government guidance is called the School Admissions Code. It can be viewed on the

Local education authorities must have co-ordinated admission schemes for all maintained schools in their area. This means that you should receive one, and only one, offer of a school place for your child on the same day each year. This is March in the case of secondary schools.

If you need help with the secondary school admissions procedure, your local authority should have a Choice Advice Service which gives parents help and support. Your child's primary school should be able to put you in touch with an adviser.

If a school has more applications than places

If a school has too many applications, it may take into account a number of things when deciding how to allocate places, including:

  • whether your child has any brothers or sisters already at the school
  • whether your child lives in the school's catchment area
  • how far your child lives from the school
  • whether your child is eligible for a 'pupil premium' (additional funding paid to schools to support a disadvantaged child)
  • whether the school gives priority to parents who have said they prefer a single sex or co-educational school
  • any medical or social reasons for choosing the school
  • faith schools are allowed to give priority to pupils who share their own faith over other pupils. This does not apply to other types of school
  • by lottery (although this may not be the main oversubscription criteria and any lottery process must be supervised by someone independent of the school).

Infant schools are legally required to limit class sizes to 30 pupils for each teacher. However, there are limited circumstances when the school can make an exception.

A school must not discriminate against your child because of race, colour, religion, sexuality, sex, disability, gender reassignment or pregnancy or maternity.

For information about disability discrimination, see Disability discrimination.

Schools must not take into account what a child's parents do for a living, their financial situation or whether they are married. They must not ask for information about your personal details such as your educational background, your qualifications, criminal record or disability. They must also, normally, not take into account the behaviour of your child, their brothers or sisters or any other family member.

Faith schools are allowed to give preference to pupils of their faith in the school's admissions policy.

Special educational needs

If your child has special educational needs (SEN), the school which is specified on their statement of SEN has to accept them. However, if your child doesn't have a statement of SEN, they have no right to be accepted at any particular school.

For more information in England and Wales about SEN, see Special educational needs.

Selection on grounds of academic ability

A local education authority maintained primary school cannot select children on the grounds of academic ability.

Some secondary schools select wholly or partly on the grounds of academic ability, or ability in a particular subject area, for example, music. A school that is partly selective must not keep places empty if it does not have enough pupils of the required standard.

Pupils who have been excluded (expelled)

A school can refuse to take a pupil who has been permanently excluded from at least two schools. This rule applies for a period of two years after the second exclusion. It does not apply if a pupil has been reinstated following the exclusion. There is no right of appeal if a pupil is refused a place under this rule.

School admissions policies in Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the official transfer test (or 11 plus) is no longer in use for pupils entering post primary schools in September 2009. Grammar schools, and non-grammar schools with a grammar stream, can still use their own entrance tests. But they can only use these tests if there are likely to be more applications than places available for admission to the school. They can use the entrance test results when deciding who to accept.

All grammar and secondary schools can choose who they give priority to. For example, they may give priority to pupils living closest to the school, or to those who have brothers or sisters already at the school. The Department of Education has also recommended that all schools should admit a fair number of children entitled to free school meals.

If your child has a statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) they won't need to sit a school entrance test. Instead, the local education and library board will discuss a suitable place with the child's parents or carers.

A school must not discriminate against your child because of race, colour, religion, sexuality or sex.

For information about disability discrimination, see Disability discrimination.

You can find more information on choosing post primary education in Northern Ireland, on the Department of Education website at:

What you can do if your choice of school in England is refused

A school or local education authority can refuse to accept your choice of school. They must give you the reasons for refusal. If this does happen, you could consider choosing another school.

Alternatively, you can appeal to an independent appeal panel. There is usually a time limit on appeals, so be careful not to miss the deadlines.

If you believe that discrimination is involved in the decision not to accept your child, make sure you mention this in your complaint.

For more information about appealing against the decision of a local education authority or school, go to the GOV.UK website at

If you want to appeal against a decision by a school or local education authority, you might want to talk to an experienced adviser for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.

The Schools Adjudicator in England

In some cases, you might want to report the school to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator. They can't deal with individual complaints that your child hasn't got into the school you wanted but they can deal with complaints about admissions criteria which break the law or government guidance. For more information about the Schools Adjudicator, go to the GOV.UK website at:

What you can do if your choice of school in Northern Ireland is refused

If your child is refused a place at a school, you can appeal to an independent appeal tribunal. You can only appeal if you think that the school's admissions policy was not applied, or was not applied correctly. You may want to discuss the matter with an officer of your local education authority first.

There are strict time limits for making an appeal. You can find out more from your local education authority.

If you believe that discrimination is involved in the decision not to accept your child, make sure you mention this in your complaint.

If your child is refused a place at a private independent school, there is no right of appeal.

For more information about what you can do if your choice of school is refused, go to the nidirect website at

Financial help

You may want to send your child to a particular school but be concerned about the financial costs. Help with some of the costs, for example, school transport or school meals may be available.

For information about what help is available, see Help with school costs.

Some independent schools offer scholarships to help parents pay the fees at the school. If you are interested in applying for a scholarship, you should contact the school concerned.

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