The Waiting Game: how to navigate independent school waiting lists

Over the next few months, independent schools will make decisions on their applicants at 7+, 8+ and 11+. One possibility is that your child is placed on a waiting list. We discussed the implications of this with Rosamond Bowman, one of our expert schools consultants. A former head teacher with over forty years’ experience, she explained how parents might approach the decisions entailed by that outcome.

What are waiting lists and why are they used?

Although the competition for school places is fiercer than ever, waiting lists for places at top independent schools are nothing new. The schools’ business models depend on taking a certain number of students and keeping a waiting list is one way that schools can guarantee having the right number. The waiting list is for when other students don’t take up their offer of a place at the school. There will always be students and families who take up other offers or change their mind, and waiting lists give the schools an insurance in that eventuality.

Why has my child been placed on a waiting list and how long are they?

Ultimately, being placed on a waiting list means your child probably fell just short of the competition during assessment, either in exams or at interview. Applying for entrance at 7+, 8+ or 11+ is an incredibly competitive and intense process, so first of all you need to make sure your child doesn’t take this seeming rejection too badly: it has been a tough process for them up to this point. Now it is out of their hands there is no point in making it tougher. The important thing is making a decision, so they know what happens next.

One important initial consideration is how long the waiting list is, and how far down it your child is. The former will vary from school to school. Schools will try and preempt how many of their offers will be accepted and plan accordingly. The size of the school (and the number of places it offers), where the school is located, the presence of any siblings at the school, and their communications with other schools will all influence not only their final offers, but also the size of the waiting list.

What are the chances of getting an eventual offer after being placed on a waiting list?

Again, this will vary from school to school. You will need to bear in mind some of the considerations discussed above. For example, with more prestigious schools, the chances of offers being declined are correspondingly less and so it’s unlikely they’ll get very far into the waiting list. For larger schools, with more offers going out, there might be greater use of the waiting list (but that list itself might also be longer).

From both of these examples it is clear that an important point will be exactly how far down the waiting list your child is. Most schools will rank the waiting list in priority order based on the result of assessments. Accordingly, a good first step is to try and find this out from the school. Give their office a call and ask them directly. Not all schools with give you this information, but if they do then it will give you an important bit of information to factor into your decision.

What should you consider before making a decision?

The most important consideration should always be the welfare and happiness of your child. Remember that this has been a gruelling, stressful process for them. At this stage it might give them greater contentment and security to take a firm offer at a school they are happy with than hold out for something else.

Think about what is best for them. Whilst it might be that they eventually do get an offer from a waiting list, do you want them to be going somewhere where they were at the bottom of the pile? Arriving at this school, your child could struggle with self-confidence after the initial rejection and might then have to deal with other students outpacing them. In the end, they could be less happy, having waited, than if they’d gone for the firm offers, they’d initially received. Although these are tough realizations and tough decisions, if they result in your child being happy then they are worth it.

There is also a more practical consideration to do with timing. Whilst actual offers typically have pretty firm deadlines by which to respond, waiting lists will drag and drag depending on the responses of other parents and their changes of plan. This time limit makes it even more of a gamble to hold out for a place via a waiting list.

Therefore, if you have firm offers on the table there is a strong argument in favour of accepting the one your child most wants to attend.

Why hedging your bets might not be as clever as it seems

Many families these days, bearing in mind the above factors, try to hedge their bets by both accepting firm offers and keeping their child on school waiting lists. Then they can turn down the initial firm offer if a waiting list place comes through.

There are a number of reasons why this might not be as clever as it sounds. The first factor is financial - most schools require you to put down a deposit when accepting a place, which you forfeit if you then go back on it. More seriously, schools don’t like to be messed around and will communicate with each other. If your child has any siblings, they are very unlikely to ever be given a place at the snubbed school. Finally, it leaves your child with more uncertainty and potentially more worry.

Ultimately, plan around making it easier for your child and go from there. If that means taking a firm offer, even if it wasn’t your first choice, then that’s the way to go. If it means going on a waiting list, then it’s a gamble, but one where you know the risks and are still happy to take them on.

Hopefully this has helped you make sense of school waiting lists. If you are still unsure, or faced with a tricky decision, don’t hesitate to contact Ivy Education and speak with one of our expert consultants!