Before becoming a full time stay at home parent, I was a primary school teacher for almost ten years. My husband is still in primary education (he’s a head teacher), so we discuss school politics and education on an almost daily basis! Our eldest child is also due to start school next September, so we are about to embark on school applications with the shoe very firmly on the other foot!
Last year, I spoke at length to my friend Hannah from Hi Baby Blog about how to choose a school for her daughter, Lu. She recently told me that I should write this blog post, as she has generously credited my advice with helping her make the right decision. So, here it is! I hope it helps anyone else out there through this emotional, exciting and somewhat daunting time – the school applications process!
The school’s website can tell you huge amount about it. First impressions count; if there’s not very much on there in the first place then it’s unlikely to be the best school for communicating with parents.
Most schools publish their newsletters on their website. Newsletters can give you valuable information about what’s going on in school and the sort of thing that’s a priority for the school at that time.
You can also often get a good indication of staff turnover from newsletters. For example, if you look at the last newsletter from the previous school year, you can see often messages of thanks to departing staff members. If the school has multiple staff members leaving at once, this is an indication of high staff turnover, which probably means it isn’t the best place to work. On the other hand, if Mrs Smith is leaving after 25 years of loyal service, then it’s probably a pretty lovely school.
Obviously OFSTED is important, but it can only tell you so much about the school. Also, keep in mind that it may not be particularly accurate. The first thing you should do is look at the date of the last inspection. If it was more than a year ago, it’s less likely to be a true reflection of the school.
For example, a school that got a ‘Good’ OFSTED four years ago, could have become a coasting school which is now on the verge of becoming ‘Requires Improvement’ (RI). Conversely, an ‘RI’ school graded within the last year has probably had an enormous amount of input from the local authority or academy trust to improve, and may actually be better than the other school graded ‘Good’. Which leads me to my next point…
This is vital if you don’t already know the school. You can learn so much from simply setting foot over the threshold. How does the school feel when you walk in? Is it a calm and positive learning environment? What is on the walls? Is there evidence of children’s learning? Of extracurricular activities? Of the school ethos?
If you can, I would strongly encourage visiting during the school day, while the children are in lessons. If possible, visit on a ‘normal’ day, rather than an open day, when the school is on show and no doubt on its best behaviour! This will tell you a lot about what the general learning environment is like. It’s a bit like when you view a house to buy; when you find the right one, it just feels right!
On your visit, ask questions about things that are important to you. Is the school a church school? If it is, and you are unsure about sending your child to a Christian school, then ask about how the Christian ethos is reflected in the school day. Some church schools are ‘church lite’, whereas others have Christianity more deeply embedded in daily life.
If your child has additional needs, then it’s important to think about whether the schools that you’re considering will be able to meet them. It might be natural to assume that your child will get more attention in a smaller school, but if they require additional staffed services such as a nurture classroom, it’s unlikely that a very small school will be able to provide that, realistically.
It’s important to note here that all schools are supposed to be able to meet all children’s needs. However, you must be savvy about this and seriously consider whether the school has resources in place that will allow them to do so.
If you think your child might be particularly academically bright, it’s worth asking what happens if a child finishes their work quickly. I’d be looking for answers which demonstrate deepening the child’s knowledge on the learning completed so far, rather than allowing them to race ahead or, worse, occupy themselves with a book or games on an iPad.
There’s so much more to a school that the lessons. To get an idea of the school community, go back to the school newsletters and look for evidence. In the upcoming dates, are there reading cafés or celebration assemblies that parents are invited to?
When you’re looking around the school, is there a display to show the school council representatives or stars of the week? Is there evidence that children are developed as citizens, as well as learners? For example, M’s prospective school has key words from the school’s values such as ‘respect’ and ‘responsibility’ printed on the wall in the entrance.
At the end of it all, it’s pretty unlikely that any school is going to be 100% perfect. All you can do it research your options, weigh up the pros and cons of each school, and see which one comes out on top. If in doubt, follow your gut!