I can’t quite believe that we’ve already applied for Ben’s primary school place, starting in September 2016. In so many ways, he still seems so new, so young. He will be one of the youngest in his class, as he is August-born (which is something I am constantly a bit worried about), but I don’t intend to keep him back from starting, as you are now technically allowed to do.
With the applications come the invitations to visit the schools. I’ve made the most of being on maternity leave and have been able to attend some of the daytime tours. I’ve actually taken Ben with me on both of them that I’ve done so far, as they were afternoon visits. I have to say, this was one of the best things I could possibly have done in terms of putting my own concerns to rest. At the first school we visited, he clung to me for all of 5 seconds in the reception classroom before running off to investigate what the pupils were doing. He then happily played on the climbing frames outside before joining in with the construction of a train set. I concluded that in 10 months time, he would be ready for school!
Even though I’m a secondary school teacher, I’m very comfortable in a primary setting, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I felt I was able to get a good sense of the school and the direction it is moving in. So when a couple of friends asked me for advice on what to look for, I thought it might be helpful to,put it into a blog post. Not all of these things will apply to every school, and I’ve written this guide according to my own experiences, which are all related to state schools. But hopefully you wil, find it useful.
Before you go:
- Read the school’s latest Ofsted report. You can find them at http://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/ . This will not only give the school’s all-important rating (1 = Outstanding; 2 = Good; 3 = Requires Improvement; 4 = Serious Weaknesses/Special Measures, depending on what the issues are), but it will also give you information on the leadership, the teaching, the results and provision for SEN pupils.
- Find out how big the school is. One-form entry means that they only take in up to 35 students in one year group. Many schools have multi-form entries. Some schools may have mixed ages in a classroom – for example, 15 year 1 students and 15 year 2 students. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will present extra challenges for the teacher.
- Find out how long the headteacher has been in post. Is he/such a relatively new appointments? If so, you can expect lots of changes to have been made recently, in terms of staffing and provision. If the headteacher has been at the helm for a long time, you might be glad of the stability.
- Talk to other parents whose children attend. I have quizzed our neighbour in detail about her daughter’s experiences of Reception in our local school. The same is true for the school attached to our church, which is another of our options.
On the day:
Many of these things will be covered by the member of staff (most often the Headteacher) leading the visit. In some schools, tours will be led by older children, so you may wish to find a member of staff to direct these questions to.
- Find out about transition arrangements – can the children visit in advance of their September start? Do they have a graduated start, e.g. only doing mornings?
- What’s the child-to-teacher ratio? It’s worth digging a bit deeper into this one to find out what the child to teacher ratio is, and what the teaching assistant allocation is. Many schools will have a teaching assistant per class, which is excellent, but some teaching assistants may be allocated to one child. Be aware that on open days, everyone gets drafted in: governors, trainees, part-time staff, because it’s all hands on deck. This might not give you a particularly typical picture.
- How do they support children who seem to be struggling with starting school? I’m very aware that Ben will only just be 4 when he starts school, as he’s August-born. He may well need a bit more support with the day.
- Are there before and after-school clubs? This will be essential if you’re a working parent.
- What’s the lunch system like? At the moment, children in the first three years of school are entitled to a hot lunch. Find out how the school manages this, and what provision is made for the younger children, who might need longer to eat lunch. This might surprise you: one school we visited changed from the reception children eating first and then going outside to play to the older children eating first. The reception children were eating well, but then getting cold outside.
- What’s the staff turnover? As a teacher, this is a big indicator for me of a happy or unhappy school. If a school is thriving, staff will want to stay. More than a few staff leaving each year suggests discontent.
- What is the school’s view on homework? I can’t remember getting much homework in primary school personally, but some schools seem to give at least one piece a day. Remember, your children will be very tired when they first start school. If they’re working hard at school, they shouldn’t need much homework in the early years.
- What’s the balance between academic teaching and play? This is particularly true of reception classes, which may well be more play-led. I’d personally be wary of a school which seems to push a lot of energy towards the phonics tests in Reception – but perhaps that’s my opinion of testing Reception-age children coming through.
- What’s the policy on bullying? This is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth checking out.
- If there are books left out, feel free to have a look. What is the standard of the work? Do the teacher’s comments really help the child to improve? Does the child seem to be taking pride in their work? One of the schools we visited really encouraged us to do this, and I personally appreciated that.
- How many applicants generally get a place? After hearing loads of scare-stories, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard the answer to this at our first-choice school, so it might not all be bad news.
- Does the school have any plans for expansion/building work etc? If the plans are definite, this may well be a selling-point for the school. But with primary school places at a premium, it’s worth probing this a bit.
If you have any questions following your visit, please make sure you get in touch with the school. A good school will always be pleased to answer – it says a lot about how much they value their parents.
Of course, on the way round, remember to mutter to yourself, “I can’t believe we’re looking at schools already… It doesn’t seem like 5 minutes since he was born.”