If your child is starting Reception or P1 next year, this spring is a good time to start organising visits to any of the local primary schools you think you’d like them to attend.
As a general rule, your instincts and gut reaction about a school are a good start. Looking at Ofsted reports can provide a steer, too, but it’s important to remember that a school could get a brilliant Ofsted report one year and then, for any number of reasons (changes in key staff, for example) have bit of a wobble that might not be picked up until the next Ofsted report, many months later.
Before your visit, it’s definitely worth jotting down a few questions to ask when you’re there. And be sure to take note of the way staff or pupils respond to your questions, as well as what they actually say. It speaks volumes if you feel they’re engaging with you – and genuinely seem to care about putting any of your fears and worries to rest – rather than hurrying your questions along.
So, what do you ask? And what do you look for, particularly, when you’re going round the school?
Here, we’ve got the 10 best questions to ask when visiting a primary school, plus key advice from education expert Judith Judd…
1. How do you settle children if they get lost or seem unhappy?
Your child is really quite young when they start school – if they’ve a summer birthday , they may be barely 4 years old – so it’s good to know that they’ll be OK if they fall over in the playground, feel a bit homesick or get lost between the lunchroom and class.
Ask if Reception/P1 children are kept separate from the older kids in the playground in the first few weeks. And if there are any specific policies or programmes in place for spotting and reassuring any new children who get upset or don’t seem to have anyone to play with at break times.
Choosing the right primary school for your child: what the expert says
Education specialist Judith Judd, a former editor of Times Educational Supplement, and co-author of How To Succeed At School: What Every Parent Should Know has this advice for every parent who’s looking round primary schools...
- Look at the relationships in the school
“Key for looking at a primary school is the relationship between the kids and the teachers. The first thing to look at is if the teachers are paying individual attention to the children.”
- Get to know the head teacher
“It’s really important to have a chat with the head teacher. Good leadership is key, and the head teacher is a really important figure. If the school has an Open Day, the head teacher should stand up and give a talk.”
- Don’t just go on exam results
“You want your child to be enthusiastic about ALL learning. Yes, reading and writing is important. But just because a school gets decent exam results doesn’t necessarily mean they’re getting brilliant teaching. Don’t just look at the raw results: drill down to see how much progress a school has made with the children there.”
- Know how the school does with different types of children
“If you look at school’s inspection report, you can see how a particular school does with different types of children. Some inspections might reveal that a school doesn’t necessary do well with very clever children, for examples. Or maybe children who are in the ‘middle’ are getting overlooked.”
- Think specifically of your child and if they’ll fit in
“Don’t be swayed by where other people are sending their children: put your child and their personality at the heart of your decision. You need to think about your child. One size doesn’t fit all, so you need to imagine how they will fit in at that particular school.”
2. What’s the usual child-to-staff ratio?
Government rules say that, in an ordinary infant teaching session, a qualified teacher should teach a group of no more than 30 children (if the Reception/P1 class includes younger children, the ratios are stricter).
But schools can differ in the kind of extra adult support (from qualified teaching assistants and student teachers to parent volunteers) they give each class.
Find out exactly what support is offered in what would be your child’s class – both in the early years and later on, as you child progresses through the school.
3. What’s the school lunch like? And is there a packed-lunch policy?
If your child’s going to be going to primary school in England, Scotland or Wales, then they’ll get free school meals for their 1st 3 years (the rules are different for Northern Ireland, where free school meals at all ages depend on your family income and which benefits you receive).
But what kind of food can they expect? Is there a typical week’s menu you can look at? Can you opt to send in a packed lunch instead? And, if you can, are there any rules about what kind of food and drink can you put in your child’s lunchbox? Some schools can be VERY particular about this.
4. Are there clubs, before and after school?
Life, let’s face it, is busy. If you’re a working parent on full-time hours, you’ll need to think about the work-school juggle. Whereas nurseries often run from 8am to 6pm, school hours are more like 8.50am to 3.30pm – and that’s a big difference.
So if you need to think about morning and afternoon care, knowing a school provides it could be really useful and save you having to do the time-consuming research around other options, such as using a local childminder.
If you do want to go for it, make sure you find out how to get your name on the waiting list (they can be popular and spaces can be limited) as soon as you can if you know you’re going to need it.
5. Is there an ‘open door’ policy?
Or, put plainly, as a parent is it possible for you to come into the school and meet with your child’s teacher or the head teacher at fairly short notice if you have any concerns or issues? If not, what’s the procedure you must follow to set up a meeting?
It’s really important that you feel there will be someone on hand to talk to if you have any worries about how your child’s doing.
6. What’s your take on bullying?
All schools will have a policy on bullying and most of them say pretty much the same thing (and rightly so). But listen carefully to both the content and the tone of the answer you get when you ask this question: depending on your own views about discipline, the way you’re told this school view dealing with bullying might resonate with you more than another.
7. How long have the staff been working here?
It might make you infinitely happy to hear that Miss Smith and at least 4 other teachers have been there for 30 years and none of the staff have been there less than 6 – after all, long-term staff commitment seems like a good sign of a happy, stable school, right?
On the other hand, perhaps you’re more one for innovation, in which case this news might make you wonder if the teaching could have got a bit stuck in a rut.
Either way, it’s worth knowing.
8. Is there a recent parent survey I can look at?
Not all schools, but some, carry out regular parent surveys to find out how parents think they’re doing and to look at what they can do better.
If you ask and they do have a recent one you can look at – and preferably take away to read properly – that’s a pretty good start.
9. How do you support high or low achievers?
Most children are, by definition, in the ‘average’ bracket when it comes to education. But if you are concerned that your child might have learning difficulties or may be exceptionally bright, it’s worth asking if they put on extra classes for these children, bring extra adult support into the classroom, or offer alternative teaching. And actually, it’s interesting to ask this question even if you don’t think your child will need this kind of support: the answer may give you an insight into how the teaching is organised to cater for all levels and abilities.
10. Do you enjoy working here?
Hopefully you’ll get a resounding YES to this one from anyone you ask at the school – from the school secretary to the teaching assistants to the head.
We’re not saying you should make sure they all skip into school every morning with limitless joy in their hearts; we all know not every school day can be entirely and utterly peachy. But any hesitation on this one, or side glances to a colleague, and it might just get you wondering if this school’s the best environment for your child.
Is there anything else I should look out for when I’m visiting a primary school?
Yes, as well as asking plenty of questions and gauging the general vibe of the school, there are some little signs that could well indicate you’re looking round a productive, happy and creative school:
- The children in classrooms look happy and engaged
- There are displays of artwork and other schoolwork on walls
- The place is tidy and well presented, even if the building is old
- The teachers you see look happy and relaxed
What happens next?
You should be able to apply for schools online within plenty of time before places are allocated and communicated: check out your local council website for the closing date for applications for school places – or check out the government’s primary school application page, if you’re not sure which council website you need.
You’ll be asked to put the schools in order of preference from 1 to 6 (don’t worry if you don’t have 6, just put in as many as you want to include up to that number). Submissions should normally be in around January time, but, again, check on the Gov.uk website.
You’ll be advised usually in April where your child has a place. Do remember to accept the place as soon as possible (assuming you’re happy with it) or you could risk losing it.
If you are not happy with the outcome, you can always appeal.
About our expert Judith Judd
Judith Judd is a former editor of the Times Educational Supplement (TES) and former education correspondent of the Observer, the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. Until recently, she was Pro-chancellor of the University of Essex, and chair of its Council. She has a lifelong interest in how children learn and research that shows what does and doesn’t work, and is co-author of How To Succeed At School: What Every Parent Should Know
1. Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage. Dept of Education March/April 2017.