It is that time of year again. The time that schools start opening their doors for next years prospective parents to come in and have a look. I was one of those prospective parents this time last year and I found the whole experience completely over whelming. I hope, with this post, to be able to put a few stressed minds at ease with my tips on what to look for when viewing primary schools.
Start the Process
Before you go and view any schools it is a good idea to speak to some parents in your area who have already been through this process. Did they get their first choice? Is there a lot of local competition for places? These parents will have a very good idea of what to expect.
You can check where your local schools are on your Council Website. From here you can apply for a school place and view the admissions data for previous years. This will give you a good idea of the school catchment area if it isn’t otherwise stated on the school website. Obviously some of this data can change from year on year. For example we looked at a faith school last year and although we didn’t select it as our first choice (after some intense deliberation) I can see the differences in figures from this year and last. Last year 50% of their admissions were siblings of students already attending the school. This year there have been 20% of siblings admitted. Last year their furthest admitted student live 2.2km away, this year it is 1.6km away. Naturally this can change but it can give you a good basis to go on. Each area has a slightly different application process. In some areas you can make a choice of three schools. In my area you can choose to apply to four schools.
I’m sure everyone knows that Ofsted is the regulatory body that inspects all childcare settings from childminders to schools, but just in case… now you know.
To be classed as an ‘Outstanding’ school by Ofsted there are a lot of things a school has to do. I have visited both ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Requires Improvement’ schools and I can assure you there are vast differences. However, do not be put off by the Ofsted rating. Often a school will have put a plan in motion to improve when needed. Ask about that if you are concerned. It is also important to remember that just because a school is ‘Outstanding’ does not mean it will be a good fit for your child or family. One of the Outstanding schools we visited we really disliked. But I know parents who send their children there and they rave about it. You can look up all the schools in the country and read their latest Ofsted reports HERE.
In many ways, as long as there are no safeguarding issues highlighted, what Ofsted say is irrelevant to us parents and more of a guide for the teachers and governors of the school.
Check the School Websites
This may just be me because I am quite the web browser fanatic but if a company/shop/school has a badly designed website I am automatically put off. You may think it unfair for me to say but I felt that schools play a huge part in preparing my children for the big bad world. The internet is a huge part of that world now and if a school can’t embrace it fully and effectively do I really want my children going there? I have honestly scrubbed a choice of the list due to their website.
If you are not bothered about the state of the website it is still worth checking as it should display the information you need to find out when their open days are and if you need to book a place in advance for a tour or just turn up on the day. Each school is different so you must check. If you can’t find that information on the website you will at least be able to find a phone number so you can enquire.
Visit During the Day
I appreciate that this will not always be possible with working hours and when the school do actually open their doors but if you can you should visit in the day. I have done school visits in the day and the evening and I felt that the evening visit was a total waste of time. Teachers and adults will tell you anything they think you want to hear. Visiting 3 hours after the kids have gone home gives everyone the chance to make sure everything looks perfect. Do you want perfect from a school? Or do you want a fun, interactive, supportive learning environment?
The bonus with visiting in the day is you can see the school at work. Do the kids look happy? Children can’t fake happiness. Do they look like they are having fun? Are they interacting with each other and the teachers? Is there the sound of laughter and excitement? Learning can be fun when you are in the right school. Are there one to one teachings going on? Is each child getting the chance to have their voice heard? You can tell a lot from a school during the day if you are willing to look and listen to the kids and not just the adults.
Visiting during the day also gives you the chance to have any concerns you have put to rest by the people who are actually going to be teaching your child and maybe even the children themselves.
Listen to the Other Parents
I didn’t have any questions when I went and visited schools. Generally I am a very relaxed parent and find I learn more by absorbing my surroundings anyway. One of the best things I did was stay within earshot of the tour guide. I could hear each parents question and the answer given. Some of the questions were not relevant to me but it was good to hear how professionally each were answered and how they took each childs needs into account.
Take a Pen & Paper
You may not use it but it is better to have it. Take notes on things you like and don’t like. Write down any questions you have as you go round. There will always be one parent asking 100 questions so you may struggle to interject with your own. Write it down so you don’t forget and maybe stay behind at the end to ask if you have to.
Visit More Schools Than You Need
I could apply to four schools but I visited more to ensure that I would be happy with any of the four I did put on the application. In some ways this was pointless, as I know from talking to other parents in my area and the schools themselves that you need to be sensible with your choices and unless you put a school as first choice you won’t get it. Please don’t all panic. Not all areas in the UK are like that but that is the reality where I live and for many other areas in the country.
Fill Out the Application in Full
If you can choose four schools then choose four schools! Even if you are applying for a sibling space. There are so many children around me that there is huge competition for places in all the schools, good and bad. Due to this competition, parents that had only applied for one school on the application form often found themselves given a different school all together. Rather than narrowing options for the council to place the child it opened up the chance for the council to allocate them elsewhere. Filling out all choices may still not stop this. Especially if you make 3/4 choices that are not logical to your location at all. But it certainly reduces your chances of having a surprise placement.
Trust Your Gut
Hubby and I spent so many evenings trying to decide between two schools. Which was going to be our top choice? One was a faith school and one wasn’t. We had always planned to send our girls to the faith school but after doing our visits we changed our mind. Our gut said otherwise. It took a lot for us both to recognise and accept that but now we are three weeks into Ellie’s first year of school we already know we made the right decision for her. We trusted our gut and it paid off.
You know your child better than anyone else so you know what environment works best for them. Don’t worry about what your friends are doing. Their kids are not yours.