If you live in a rural area, you may not have much choice about the school you choose for your child to attend, and even in better-served urban areas, nearly all schools use proximity in their admissions policy so competition for places may depend on your exact home location.
Where there is an element of choice, it can be a nerve-wracking experience for parents. Some schools have become very good at glossy brochures and marketing campaigns which are full of somewhat meaningless claims (“We aim for the very best for our pupils.” You don’t say!) But these don’t necessarily reflect the reality of day-to-day life at a school.
Ploughing through heavy Ofsted reports may not be particularly helpful, either, especially as these are always going to reflect a school’s exam marks. You can find the results more easily from the Department for Education’s league tables website (www.education.gov.uk/schools/performance). This site contains a lot of useful information such as spend per pupil and value-added and expected progress data, which may give a better picture of attainment by less academic pupils. For primary schools, Ofsted is focused on results in maths and literacy, and perhaps doesn’t give a total view of what a school can offer.
I suggest you want a school that feels right for your child; take a dispassionate look at their abilities and ask what sort of environment is best for them. The parental grapevine can help a lot, but there is no substitute for visiting the school.
School open days
There is nothing to stop you asking to see round a school on an individual basis, particularly for primary schools, but many schools offer an open day when prospective parents and pupils can visit during a working day. How the day is organised will tell you a lot about the general running of the school. Was it friendly, efficient and well-organised, or did it feel improvised and a bit chaotic? Note what you aren’t taken to see as well as what you are, and whether you are given the chance to speak to a range of teachers and children. If you are forced to listen to a series of pre-prepared presentations, this might smack of an over-controlling administration or a lack of trust in staff and pupils.
Time to talk
Talk to the pupils, and don’t be surprised if they are very honest in their answers – they won’t always present a completely rosy picture, but you can spot whether or not the school offers a good experience. Talk to the teachers, who will be the ones dealing with your child every day. As one teacher suggests in The Guardian, ask yourself: “Are the teachers enthusiastic? Knackered? Knowledgeable? Clueless? Human?” If you take a younger sibling with you, do the teachers bother to include them in the conversation? Is there genuine warmth in the way staff and pupils interact with each other? Are the reception staff friendly and helpful too?
Look at the classrooms. As well as the colourful displays staff and pupils are bound to have created for the event, notice whether the room is well cared-for – or are the displays drawing the eye from basic neglect? Snoop around at classrooms which haven’t been ‘done up’ for the evening. If the school has a lot of facilities – a well-equipped performance stage, an art studio, a grove of trees for little ones to explore nature – are these truly well-used, or is the school actually focusing all its energies on SATS or GCSE grades?
Sometimes, even before you have got beyond the reception area, your child’s reaction, as well as your own, will tell you about the feel of the place. Primary schools often have a happy feeling about them and if it’s not there, you’ll know.