If your child is starting Reception next year, around May is a good time to start organising visits to any of the local primary schools you think you’d like them to attend, though if you’re getting to it a bit later – that’s OK.
As a general rule, using your instincts and gut reaction about a school is a good start: after all, while looking at Ofsted reports can provide a steer on how somewhere’s doing, it’s important to remember that a school could be doing brilliantly one year and then for all sorts of reasons – like a change of head teacher – might go down in the rankings 12 months later.
But even with this in mind we do reckon it’s worth jotting down a few questions to ask when you’re there. And be sure to take note of the way staff 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.
We’ve looked at our forum to see the kind of things our MadeForMums mums think are worth asking when you go. Take a look:
1. How do they settle children if they get lost or seem unhappy?
Your child is really quite young when they start school, 5 at the most or maybe barely 4, so you want to know that they’ll be OK if they fall over in the playground or get lost between the lunchroom and class.
Are they kept separate from the older kids in the playground in the first few weeks? It’s a while away now but once their first day arrives you’ll really want peace of mind that they’re going to be OK.
2. What’s the child-to-teacher ratio?
While there are Government standards on this (no class should have more than 30 children) you might find some schools differ slightly, especially among the older children, in terms of how many teaching assistants (if any) they have per class.
You might be swayed towards one school if it turns out they have more adults per class as the pupils get older.
3. Does the school provide lunch – and if so, what’s it like?
Every child in the first 3 years of school is currently entitled to a free school meal – but what kind of food can they expect? And what happens after that?
Do you need to provide a packed lunch? This can take some time to get used to so the sooner you know the sooner you can get your head around it. If they do need to bring lunch with them when they’re bigger what can and CAN’T they have? (Some schools can be VERY particular.)
4. Are there morning and after school clubs?
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 – 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 like using a local childminder.
If you do want to go for it make sure you find out how popular it is too – and get your name on the waiting list 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 me to come into the school and meet with my child’s teacher or the head teacher at fairly short notice if I have any concerns or issues?
It’s really important for a parent to feel there will be someone on hand to talk to if you have any worries about how your child’s doing.
6. What’s their take on bullying?
Depending on your own views about discipline, the way one school deals with bullies might resonate with you more than another. And while it’s not something any parent wants to have to deal with – knowing your child’s school’s views on it and yours are aligned can only be a good thing.
7. How long have the staff been working here?
It might make you infinitely happy to hear that Mr 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 stability, right?
On the other hand, perhaps you’re more one for innovation, in which case this news might make you wonder if the teaching is a bit old-fashioned – either way, could be worth knowing.
8. Is there a recent parent survey I can look at?
Not all schools, but some, carry out 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 – that’s a pretty good start. Plus it will hopefully be something you can take away and read in your own time which is an added bonus.
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 perhaps they seem exceptionally bright – it might be worth asking if they put on extra classes for these children or offer alternative teaching.
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 secretary to a teaching assistant to the head.
We’re not saying they should skip into school every morning with limitless joy in their hearts as though every school day is entirely and utterly peachy. But any hesitation on this one, or side glances to a colleague, and it might just get you wondering if it’s the best environment for your child.
Other stuff to look out for
As well as asking plenty of questions and gauging the general vibe of the school, be sure to look out for those little signs that could well indicate this is a productive, happy and creative school.
- If you go during class time, do the children look happy and engaged?
- Are there displays of artworks and recent school trips on the wall?
- Does it look (generally) tidy and fairly well presented?
- Do the teachers you see look happy and relaxed or are they rushing around looking more than a little stressed?
What happens next?
You should be able to apply for schools online within plenty of time before place are allocated and communicated: check out your local council website or visit the Gov.uk website.
You should 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.
If you are not happy with the outcome you can appeal (read more about that process on Gov.co.uk).
IMPORTANT: If you are happy with the school place your child has been given remember to ACCEPT your place in the way requested or you could be at risk of losing it.