Primary School years are possibly some of the most important in your child’s life. In years gone by children had no choice and they would go to the local school. These days with choices opened up it is much harder for a parent to be certain that they have made the right decision.
There are many pressures in making that decision, from friends, location, transport, exam results to Ofsted reports. Even when you have applied, there is no guarantee that you will get your choice. Moreover, by the time your child gets to the school, there is no guarantee that school leaders who made the school so good will still be there. All decisions come with massive amounts of guilt and questioning ourselves.
The school choice issues are often not with our children, but more often than not with us, the parents. We are all very quick to judge despite every school having good points and not-so-good ones. Too much information can confuse our decision-making skills that’s when gut feeling must come into play. Add in the differences between siblings and you’ll soon lose complete track of what to do. Decision-making is a very tricky balancing act!
Choosing Your School
Before making any decisions or listening to pre-school gossip, visit the schools in your area. Even if you don’t think you are going to apply for them it will give you a good idea of what is going on. All primary schools offer open days, but you should be able to visit outside these times. On occasion, it’s a good idea to see the school on a normal working day. Your opinion may well change once you see the school and meet the teachers.
Ofsted – does it matter?
Ofsted reports do offer useful information but they are not the be-all and end-all. The assessors base their reports on what they see on the days of the visits. This is not necessarily representative of the actual day-to-day running. Ofsted gives the school a short period of notice of a visit but generally, it is not enough time to react and change. If you see ‘failing’ on the report, that doesn’t always mean don’t go! It may result in more focus on the school and more investment. Our children went to an ‘Outstanding’ school but in fact, as much as our son loved it, it probably failed him academically. Interestingly, Ofsted does not visit outstanding schools as frequently and they may therefore have changed quite dramatically.
Get the Views of Others
Talk to other parents about their experiences but remember your child is not necessarily like theirs. Most parents love to share the really bad stories with vigour, the good news stories are not always as forthcoming. This is why visits with your children are so important.
Other parents can subconsciously add to the pressures of choosing the best school. Whether it is primary school or secondary it must be right for your child. From what I now know, I am not sure I would move just for my child to go to a preferred school. My daughter wanted to do the 11+, she passed it and didn’t get in due to our location. When it came to making choices she was adamant she didn’t want grammar school. Her decision was right for her in the end.
These days getting the information is quite easy as schools must include most of it on their website. Admissions criteria, curriculum, Ofsted, and policies should all be easily accessible. But, make visits your priority.
Size of School
Village primary schools tend to have fewer numbers in the classrooms which can seem to make learning better. The downside is that teachers may mix year groups to balance numbers. That can bring the benefit that if your child isn’t quite where they need to be academic – they can build on the learning. It also means that there are fewer friends to choose from and if bullying does occur it is possibly harder to hide. Most schools, however, work hard to prevent or manage bullying issues. Moving from small primary school to big secondary school can also raise issues.
Big primary schools often attract more funding and tend to be based in towns and on larger estates. Bigger schools may help children to build resilience for their future but they can also be intimidating for some. There can be more opportunities with afterschool and extracurricular activities. Sports days for sporty children can also be more exciting.
What to Look For
Learning Styles and Structure
Does the school offer a very structured environment with precise rules and order or does it work on a more free flow? Ask which style helps your child to thrive more.
Age of Building
We chose our nursery based on the staff. The actual building was old and definitely not pristine compared to the others. However, when the school has not received any investment for years, it can have an impact on the teachers and how valued they feel.
Clubs and Support
It’s not just about where the school is located but if you work long hours you’ll need to find a school that offers breakfast and or afternoon clubs. That might be closer to work and further from home. However, if you only choose schools out of catchment, you could be allocated a school that is simply close to home. Make sure you have at least one safe choice.
If you have more than one child you will get to the point that your children may need to be in different locations at different times. You’ll need to consider this in your choices unless you want to spend you life in the car or waiting for buses. It’s also harder for children to develop friendships outside of school if it is too far away.
Most oversubscribed schools offer waiting lists. One school offered us a place on a waiting list. The school then offered our daughter, already settled elsewhere, a place. You need to balance stability with a change of school if the place becomes available.
Before a child is born, some parents will locate into an area that they believe will get their child into the best secondary school. Others choose a primary school out of catchment in the hope that they’ll be eligible for the right secondary school. Don’t rely on what has happened with someone else, check the admission criteria and look at the available places.
Admission criteria are written to clarify priorities in allocating school places. If the school is undersubscribed or new to an area it can be easier to get a place for your child. An over-subscribed school doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best in the area. The school or the local council set the criteria and so can be different even if they are in the same council area.
You’ll generally find the distance from the school is the main priority, followed by siblings and parents working at the school. Other considerations include looked after children and those with SEN needs. Even if the primary school is a feeder school to your chosen secondary school, don’t rely on getting a place. If you live too far from the secondary school they could still apply the distance rule.
How to Apply
School open days normally take place in the autumn term for entry in the following September. Most councils allow you to make applications from September – January for entry in the following September. The school or council will then usually offer a school placement in April. After this, there is a process of appeals and transfers as well as parents declining places (sometimes because they have moved). Don’t worry if haven’t applied or are new to the area you should still eligible to make a late application.
You will normally make your application online and so you will need access to the internet.
Northamptonshire schools usually offer a choice of three schools, in Milton Keynes it is up to four schools. In some London boroughs, you can choose from up to 6. It is essential that you check with your school area. Don’t only put down one school, because if you don’t get in, the council will choose for you.
Assume nothing, schools do not have to offer twins or multiple births their first preference. Incredibly, in some cases, schools will not offer the twins places in the same school. Equally, if your child went to the preschool feeder, that doesn’t guarantee a place.
Think carefully about the schools you select because if all your schools are oversubscribed your child may only be offered the school closest to home that still has places available. That doesn’t mean it is the closest school.
In over 90% cases, councils give children their first choice.
If you think this is hard …
Choices became even harder with academy schools. I don’t really understand how academy schools are better, particularly with all that I read in the press about failing ones. The LEA system, in my opinion, probably seems fairer and I believe offers more for the money. Not being in the system, I could be completely wrong here and you will have to make your own decision on that one. The other considerations are whether you want a faith school or prefer the private route. Maybe, you are going to choose homeschooling – good luck, this is something I know I could never do!
In addition, if your child has special educational needs your Education, Health, and Care plan (EHC) will name the school for you. The school must then offer you the place. If you are not happy with that, you are entitled to challenge the decision, although this can be a difficult process. There are also rules for children in care or being looked after. Normally state-funded schools must give them a priority.
There are so many things to think about but I will say that of all the teachers I know, their priority is always their students. At the end of the day, visit the primary school, get a feel, make a list of the pros and cons and then make your decision. Finally, we all hope your child will enjoy primary school as much as they should.