10 questions to ask when visiting a primary school
What should you ask – and what should you look out for – when you're touring a primary school? These questions, plus advice from education expert Judith Judd, will help you choose the right school for your child
If your child is due to start Reception or P1 next year, you'll need to apply for their primary school place by early January. So in the 4 months leading up to Christmas (September, October, November, December), it's wise to organise visits to any of the local primary schools you think you'd like your child to attend.
- If you live in England or Wales, you can use the Government's online tool to find your local council's list of the primary schools in your area, the admission criteria for each of them and contact details so you can make an appointment to look around or check when their open days are.
- If you live in Northern Ireland, you can find your area's primary schools on the Education Authority's online list.
- If you live in Scotland, where primary-school places are allocated by catchment area, you can check which primary school your child will be allocated by using the Mygov.Scot online tool to find your local council's info pages on catchment areas (there's also info on the Mygov.Scot page about what you can do if you don't want to send your child to their allocated school).
Once you know what your potential primary school choices are, looking at official performance data (see How to check a primary school's performance data, below) can provide you with a steer for narrowing your choices down.
However, the impact of the pandemic has meant recent performance data for some schools is either not available or is not dependably comparable with previous years or other schools. It's also important to remember that a school could, say, get a brilliant inspection 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 report, potentially many years later.
This is why taking the time to visit primary schools in your area is such a good idea: as a general rule, your instincts and gut reaction about a school can often be more helpful than any amount of written reports.
How to check a primary school's performance dataData sets and inspection reports for primary schools are published online but their format and content varies, depending on which area of the UK the school is in...
- For English primary schools, you can check SATs results and Ofsted reports
- For Scottish primary schools, you can check the Primary School Information Dashboard and Education Scotland's inspection reports
- For Welsh primary schools, you can check My Local School Guide and Estyn inspection reports
- For Northern Irish primary schools, you can check Schools Plus and ETI inspection reports
But before you visit a primary school, 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 a primary school?
Here are 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.
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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 saysEducation 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. "The relationships between the kids and the teachers are key. Look carefully to see 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 reports and results. "You want your child to be enthusiastic about ALL learning. Yes, reading and writing is important. But just because a school gets decent results doesn’t necessarily mean they’re giving brilliant teaching. If you do look at 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 example. 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 think hard about how your child will fit in at each 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).1
But schools can differ in the kind of extra adult support – from teaching assistants and student teachers to other support staff and 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 your 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 at primary school in England or Scotland, then they'll get free school meals for at least their 1st 3 years of school.² Many primary schoolchildren in Wales also get free school meals – and the Welsh government plans to roll this out to all primary schools by 2024. The rules are different for Northern Ireland, where free school meals depend on your family income and which benefits you receive).
But what kind of food can your child 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?
If you’re a working parent on full-time hours, you'll need to think about the work-school juggle. While 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 early morning and late afternoon care, knowing a school provides it could be really useful and save you time working out other arrangements, such as using a local childminder.
If the school does provide this kind of wraparound care and you'd like to take advantage of it, do find out if there is a waiting list and, if there is, how long it is and how soon you can get your name on 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 must 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 about how bullying issues are dealt with might resonate differently with you from school to school.
7. How long have the staff been working here?
It might make you super-reassured to hear that Miss Smith and at least 4 other teachers have been there for 30 years and none of the staff has been there less than 6 – after all, long-term staff commitment is often a sign of a happy, stable school.
On the other hand, perhaps you're more one for innovation, in which case this news might make you wonder if the school 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 sign of a school's openness, transparency and positive attitude to parent-teacher relationships
9. How do you support high or low achievers?
Most children are, by definition, in the 'average' bracket. But if you are concerned that your child might have some 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 that 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.
It's also worth bearing in mind that sometimes it will be a pupil who takes you around on your visit. If this is the case, you should ask them questions about what they like about the school, what the rules are, what their favourite subject is and what activities they like doing best. This will really give you a good insight into how children themselves experience the school.
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:
- You'd made to feel welcome
- The children in classrooms look happy and engaged
- There are displays of artwork and other schoolwork on walls
- The place is tidy, bright and well presented, even if the building is old
- The teachers you see look happy, warm and relaxed
What happens next?
Once you've done your school visits, you should have a clearer idea of the primary schools in your area that you'd prefer your child to go to. Now's the time to pick your preferred schools (see 4 steps to narrowing down your choices, below), fill in the application form and submit it by the deadline your local council has set (15 January for schools in England and Wales; 27 January for Northern Ireland). Some councils do prioritise applications that come in before the deadline, so do check if that's the case for your council.
If you live in Scotland, the enrolment period for a child starting in P1 varies a lot depending on where you live, so do carefully check your local council's requirements. If you're not happy with the school your child has been allocated, they'll be a place on the online form where you can request a school outside the catchment area.
4 steps to narrowing down your choicesIt can be really tough to try to select which primary schools will be the most suitable for your child. These 4 questions will help you rank your choices if you're stuck, and will also serve as a sense check if you're being unrealistic...
- Is the school really within manageable walking/driving distance?
- Is the school oversubscribed?
- Are there special admission critera – proof of church attendance for faith schools, for example? If so, do you meet the criteria?
- Have you ruled out your nearest school just on their published results?
The application will be online (although you may be able to request a paper version from your local council) and your local council will usually require you to register for an account first and upload documents that provide proof of address and the date of your child's birth – so leave yourself plenty of time to get this all done. You'll be able to save the form part-completed and come back to it.
Once your application is registered, you'll be asked for other details and then to list schools in order of preference. In England, and Wales, you can choose up to 6 schools; in Northern Ireland, you can choose 4 (though this can be extended to 6 in some areas). It's wise to use up all your preferences.
Once you submit your application, you'll get a reference number/receipt. And then your council will send you out an offer of a primary school places on 16 April.
Do 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. Good luck!
Pics: Getty Images
About our expert Judith Judd
Judith Judd is a former editor of the Times Educational Supplement (TES) and former education correspondent at The Observer, the Independent and the Independent on Sunday. She has a lifelong interest in, and has done much reseach on, how children learn. She is co-author of How To Succeed At School: What Every Parent Should Know
1. Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage. Department of Education. Published July 2023
2. Universal infant free school meals (UIFSM). Education and Skills Funding Agency. Last updated June 2023; School meals. Mygov.Scot. Last updated May 2023.
Helen is author of the classic advice book Parenting for Dummies and a mum of 3. Before joining MadeForMums, she was Head of Community at Mumsnet and also the Consumer Editor of Mother & Baby.
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