I wrote this blog in 2019 - BC (Before COVID), which rather than a year ago feels a lot longer! Much of it still applies but I am updating it slightly to account for the possibility that physical visits to some schools may not be possible and because there are now extra things to consider. So here goes...
From the minute your child is born you’ll be offered advice and opinions left right and centre but by the time your child starts school you will have learnt that the number one place to go for direction is your gut. Your parental instinct. This is to be heavily relied on when you’re choosing your preferred schools- above and beyond Ofsted reports and hearsay. You know your child and when you're considering a school you will know if it will meet their needs and suit their interests, personality and character. HOWEVER the weight of the decision (if you have much choice) can weigh heavily. Therefore it is also a good idea to be armed with a bit more knowledge than simply your instincts. In addition to this you may have the additional concern of having to make a decision based on a video tour or phone conversations and emails.
Obviously due to COVID, schools may decide to do things differently and you may be required to make your choices by watching video tours, or through having phone conversations or via email. What I will say is to try and remember that this is the first time that schools have ever been required to do things this way and they have not been given additional resources or funding to do so. They may have limited staff, time and expertise in certain areas and will also be learning during this experience. Therefore I would try and go in to this experience with an open mind and manage expectations from the schools. If one school does their school 'tour' one way and another school doesn't, they may have many reasons for that.
You may need to dig deeper to find people and parents with knowledge of the school, to ask them questions. This can always be tricky because you will get people with very different opinions. Everyone's expectations and experiences are different - as are their children. I would always trust those who give a balanced view - those who can tell you the things they love and the things they aren't so keen on, so that you can decide if you feel it is aligned with you and your expectations.
Questions to ask I get asked every year what sort of questions to ask when visiting schools so I have cobbled together all my answers in this list. I hope these questions will help give you an idea of what to think about when you are looking around. By no means expect to ask them all but choose those that stand out as most important to you and your child and ask away. Primary schools are generally lovely, nurturing places with staff who go above and beyond. It would be hard to find somewhere truly awful but equally, it is important to find the right one for your child.
1. What has your staff turnover been in the last couple of years? Lots of people leaving/ moving on = not great for morale or good relationships. Weigh this up. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing but lots of people leaving at once means it will take a good few years to build up strong teams of teachers. 2. Do any staff have their own children at the school? An indicator that they are happy with it!
3. Who reads with the children and how often? Some schools have parent volunteers for example (great but should never replace the teacher).
4. What additional staff do the children get to work with or see? A good answer will be a mixture of the following- their TA(s), intervention teacher(s), PE coaches/ teachers, music teacher, pastoral care staff, SENDco... The more staff that are involved = more specialist teaching and more time given per child. Even if your child doesn't need extra support it's important that you know it's there for those that need it so that these children's needs are being met. Otherwise the class teacher is stretched. Your child won't get as much time either. Obviously there is a huge issue with cuts at the moment and schools are having to make difficult decisions and redundancies so keep this in mind. also ask if any of the teaching assistants HLTA trained? (Higher Level TA) - can make a difference.
5. Representation matters - is the staff team diverse? I'm talking ages, races, genders and cultures. Your child will learn a lot from this in itself and it will mean that their learning environment in school is similar to the reality of life outside of school.
6. Who would take my child's class if the teacher is ill? Sometimes it is the HLTA on their own. Or supply. Or somebody else? It's up to you what answer you'd prefer to hear but it's good to know. A TA shouldn’t be on their own with the class.
7. What is on your School Improvement Plan, and why? Is there something that the school continues to under-perform on? Ask the Head why they think this is and what they are doing about it. They will have had to answer this question many times so don’t worry about asking them.
8. How and how often are parents contacted or kept up to date with their child's progress?
9. What is the homework policy? How much and how often as the children go up through the school. Is it compulsory?
10. Does the school have ways of letting parents know how to help their child at home? Online system/Letters/ workshops/ website/ meetings?
11. What phonics scheme do the school use? It doesn't really matter which they say (letters and sounds is the best in my opinion) but it's VERY important they follow one throughout the school. If they hesitate or say they don't really follow one scheme...I personally would run a mile.
12. What opportunities will my child get as they go up through the school to participate in art/ sport/ drama/ music…? (whatever your child is interested in).
13. What is your settling period in September? Some schools start children straight away, others stagger it over a matter of days and some even weeks. Have you got the capacity to deal with this in terms of taking time off work or getting childcare? It is just what some children need but not all.
14. What would you do if a child was continually upset on settling in beyond the normal few weeks? Has this happened before and what was the solution?
15. What is the transition like in to Year 1? This can often be a tougher transition than starting Reception so really worth thinking about. The children should still be 'playing' or learning through play for the first term at least. It should not be overly formal with children suddenly being expected to sit at tables all day.
This is particularly important at the moment and you can ask general questions about how the school have welcomed the children back to the school and how well it has gone.
16. Considering that more and more children are suffering with anxiety, what sorts of things have the school done to help tackle this in the past?
17. What is your behaviour policy? (Do they focus this answer on positive reinforcement or negative behaviour/ punishment?). If the focus is on the negative I’d be put off.
18. What approaches does the school take to tackle the issue of racism or bullying? They should have a policy but lots of schools should be doing stuff all the time to address anti-racism and anti-bullying. If they say these things aren’t a problem at all I would be dubious. Bullying and racism are a problem; it is just how it is approached and dealt with that matters.
19. Are the classes set by ability groups for all their subjects? This is a tough one because as a teacher, it's 'easier' to do this for logistics, marking, some teaching, keeping books etc organised BUT over and over again it's been proven that all children regardless of ability don't actually learn better this way. Mixed ability is important as we know being pigeon holed does not help us achieve our best.
20. If your child has Special Educational Needs or you think they might then ask about support available. Not just for the children but for the parents.
21. How many siblings are you expecting to provide places for? Siblings get priority so if the school have thirty places and are expecting twenty-nine siblings then there will be 1 space. It might be worth prioritising a different school but that is up to you.
Obviously the Head Teacher might address some of these points and you don't have to ask all of them but these are the sorts of things that should matter to your child personally, which Ofsted can't answer for. When applying for your schools, you should put down in order of preference (considering distance/ sibling rule and which you like the best) and fill out all of the choices.
Many of you won’t actually have much of a choice as school places can very much be a postcode lottery but it is important to visit a few schools so that a) you’re making an informed choice and b) because you absolutely should put down ALL available choices. I’ve heard so many people say ‘I’m only putting the school that I want and if I don’t get it I’ll appeal’ as if their child has an importance above and beyond everyone else’s and the school will suddenly be able to admit an extra child on the basis of ‘but it’s not fair’.
The schools do not receive your application. It has nothing to do with them. It is all managed by the Local Authority and worked out depending on the list of priorities (check your local authority website who will publish this list). If you don’t get a place at your number one school (because there were lots of siblings and maybe a couple of looked after children and a few that live closer), then you have no grounds for appeal. They all deserve their places. You will then have needed to have put a second choice and so on and so on. I know people that only put one choice and when they didn’t get it they got a place at the least popular school far away. One family had to get four buses. They completely ruined their chances of getting a better choice nearby and took an unnecessary risk. Putting a second, third and fourth choice is not the same as saying “I don’t mind if I don’t get my first choice” but you are making sure you don’t get a really terrible choice, or worse still- no school at all.