There are many factors to take into consideration when choosing the right school
Starting school is the beginning of a new adventure, but how do you choose which school is best for your little one? We offer some expert tips.
At a glance
- Think ahead and get your application form dates early
- Check out the admission criteria before you apply to see if your child will be eligible
- Consider your little one's personality and talents and try and find a school that is best matched to them
Check your local council’s application form dates: you usually have to apply for a place in the January before a September start. Open days are usually in the September-November almost a year before they start. If you’ve got a lot of potential schools on your list, perhaps go to the open days the year before, when they’re aged two to three, so you can whittle the list down. Perhaps go to the summer or Christmas fair to get a sense of the school’s atmosphere.
Will they get in?
You might fall in love with a school only to find you have to live within 200 yards of the gate to stand any chance of getting in. It’s a bit tedious, but reading each school’s admissions criteria carefully before you even start may save some heartbreaks later. Councils publish a booklet outlining the choices and criteria every year. Call them if you have queries.
How is the school performing?
Before you visit, look at the school’s website: is it updated regularly; does it seem friendly and positive? Look at the latest Ofsted report, but note that it may be several years old. Check the league tables to see how the school is performing academically, but be aware they don’t tell the whole story (look at the ‘value added’ column which takes account of what level the children started and ended at. This is the best indicator of a good school.) A high score in the SATs tests is not everything – it might just mean they drill kids endlessly for the tests in year 6.
What’s the local goss?
Is the school on the up? Is there a dynamic new head who’s making big waves? Are there lots of staff changes? (this can indicate an unhappy atmosphere, but may just mean lots of teachers are taking maternity leave). Ask other parents how they’ve found the school for their own children; would they recommend it?
Go to the open day
This is vital as you will get a real sense of what the school is like, albeit on its best behaviour (they won’t be letting the naughtiest kids show prospective parents around!) Ask loads of questions and suck up the atmosphere.
The Good Schools Guide recommends thinking about these points:
- What is the head like? How do children (and staff) behave in her presence? Does she know the children by name?
- What are the classrooms like? Lots of artwork by all children, or a select few?
- Are the pupils well-mannered, making eye contact? Is the classroom atmosphere busily productive or strangely too-quiet?
- Are the loos clean? Can children go to the toilet when they need to?
- Do they have access to drinking water or encouraged to bring in water bottles?
- What happens at playtime?
- How do they teach reading? Do they follow a particular programme, and who listens to children read (and how often)?
- Is there additional help in class from teaching assistants and other volunteers? Do they welcome help from parents?
- How are the children grouped for teaching – are there ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ tables? What extra help is available?
- What technology is available (whiteboards etc)? How often is it used?
- Extra curricular activities: are there chances to learn music or sport? What after-school clubs are available and how many pupils take part?
What’s your gut feeling?
This is the most important part – you may not be able to explain why you feel one school is a better fit for your little one than another, but keep your antennae on high alert when you visit, and go with your gut instinct. Close your eyes; could you picture your little one at this school? Would they be happy here?
Consider your little one’s personality and talents
If they’re quiet and easily spooked, then a three-class intake big primary of 600 or more pupils may not be the best option if you have a choice. If they’re boisterous and need to let off steam regularly, how much outside space is there and when can they use it? (Some schools teach some lessons outside.) Is discipline very strict or is there a more relaxed feel? Where possible, match a school to your child.