A guide to choosing the right primary school for your child

school chair, lunchbox, school bag

Parenthood is synonymous with decision-making and one of the biggies is schools. Next year’s application deadline – for the UK – is 15 January, so primary school teacher Eleanor Sapienza tells us what to look for in a school…

Under current law, children in England must be in education from the term after their fifth birthday but can join reception class aged four. The application needs to be in the January before you would like them to begin

Choosing the right school: where do you start?
This is a huge decision and something many parents start thinking about while the child is still in the womb! However, there is some caution to be taken with this approach as schools are often like restaurants, they can be good for a while but then go off. It can also go the other way; they can improve dramatically with a change of management.

A good place to start is by going to visit the schools in your local area, to see them for yourself. Talking to other parents in the area can also help give you a basic understanding of the pros and cons of the school that their child attends, but what is right for them may not be right for you and your child.

How do you find out about schools in your area?
When looking to buy or rent a house, estate agents will always mention the schools that are local to the property, as catchment areas can be so tight and competitive. It is not unusual in some areas for parents to buy an extra flat closer to the school to ensure their child a place, however this is not an automatic guarantee!

Word of mouth is also another good way to hear about different schools; perhaps your childminder will know which ones the older children in the area attend, etc.

When out and about in your local area you’ll see schools and it’s always a good idea to check out what’s displayed on the notice board; has it been recently updated? When you go past during break times do the children seem occupied and does the adult supervision look engaged?

Then check the school or any you have heard of on school finder, a government website which allows you to check catchment areas, compare attainment league tables and Ofsted reports.

Children will only take the risks they need to – to learn and push themselves – if they feel happy and secure in the environment

How do you work out which is best for your child?
As a parent you know what is best for your child, but people can often be swayed by a reputation. Before going to visit a potential school write a list of questions that are important to you and don’t be afraid to ask them.

On the visit, insist on going in to see lessons and trust your instincts on the atmosphere of the school. Children will only take the risks they need to – to learn and push themselves – if they feel happy and secure in the environment.

What can an Ofsted report tell you?
Ofsted reports are usually the first thing people reference when looking at a school. They can be useful, but there are other considerations too. For example, some schools that hold an ‘outstanding’ status may have been given it over six years ago under the old framework.

A lot can change in a school in that amount of time and the staff may have completely changed. Often, ‘good’ or ‘requires improvement’ schools are at the forefront of teaching practice as they have to improve quickly and may have more resources to do this.

When reading a report, look at when it was done and think about the things the report seems to be focusing on. In a two-day inspection, it is impossible for them to see all elements of the school and the school community. If you are concerned about an area that has been flagged up, go and visit the school and ask what has been put in place to tackle that area.

Before inspectors visit a school, the first place they reference is the school’s website. Have a look at this to see how informative it is and what impression it gives you.

What should ring alarm bells?
Lots of things can raise concerns about a school. The first would be a school which is reluctant to have you visit or on a visit not wanting to let you in the classrooms. Another would be a school where there are no senior management present or available to meet potential new parents.

Additionally, when a school is unable to give you clear answers, for example, if your child has extra needs and you don’t feel they were able to give you a satisfactory explanation of how they would support their needs.

When going past at home time, seeing unhappy parents or children should ring a big alarm bell, as if it is a good school both should be leaving the school happy with the day that has just passed.

What questions should you ask?
How many educational visits will they go on each term? What extra curricular activities are provided for younger children? What outdoor learning facilitates are available? If my child needs speech and language therapy, how would the school provide this? What is a typical day for my child and how is the learning time distributed between the different areas of learning?

Also, what reading scheme do you use? Do you run parent and child learning workshops? What is your homework policy? What makes this school unique? If I have a concern what should I do? How can I get involved in the school? Can I see a copy of the curriculum from the start to the final year of the school? What before and after school care provision do you have?

For more information on applying for primary school, see the UK government website.