A good state primary school will not only launch your child into a happy and fulfilling educational journey, but also engage you in the local community. But how do you pick the best one for your child?
Paying a visit
Visit as many schools in your area as you can. Local gossip may not have caught up with latest developments – good or bad. A school that suits your neighbour’s child may not suit yours. A less-than-glowing Ofsted report may be due to aspects that don’t bother you or are already being addressed – struggling schools generally get plenty of extra help and maybe a new, dynamic head. A glowing report may result from ticking boxes rather than providing a genuinely inspiring education.
So antennae at the ready… it takes all your senses to sniff out a good school.
- What is the head like? How do children (and staff) behave in his or her presence? Does s/he know the children by name?
- What about the teachers? Do they have a good rapport with the children?
- Are the classrooms busy, interesting rooms with imaginative displays? Is children's work thoughtfully displayed and is it work from all or just the chosen few? Remember to look beyond the reception class - a promising start is important but you should look for sustained development, progress and continually high standards.
- Are the children curious and engaged? Are they absorbed in their learning or are they wandering around like lost sheep?
- What can you see that will encourage your child – whatever their passions - to learn, progress and develop socially? Some children love a library, for instance, while others want lots of outside space in which to run around.
- Is there sufficient space, both indoors and out? Are classrooms a good size for their charges?
- What happens at playtime? Is there plenty to keep them all occupied, or does a football game take up the playground? And what about wet play?
- Do the children appear to respect their environment and are they proud of their school?
- Are there dedicated areas for outdoor learning?
- Are there noticeboards for children? What messages do they convey?
The Covid pandemic has impacted education in many ways. Read our recent blog on different approaches to open days in 2021.
There will probably be 30 children in a class, the limit for infant years, possibly with a teaching assistant (TA) as well as a teacher. Village schools and those in remote locations may have much smaller classes or mix year groups and ages to fill desks.
- What is the ratio of pupils to teachers and pupils to TAs? And if there are TAs, what do they provide and how qualified are they?
- How are children grouped? Is this flexible? And is there setting?
- How long is the school day? There can be an hour or more’s disparity between different primary schools. And are there breakfast and after school clubs (essential information for working or commuting parents)?
- How does the school use technology? Is it used or over-used? Are children plugged to screens passively or do they take an active role when screen-bound?
- What’s the PE and sport like? Is equipment well-kept and cared for? Do children make use of nearby parks or other space? What sports teams play regularly and for what ages?
- Ask about music. A budding Chopin may require greater stimulus than the recorder. What musical instruments are provided? Are children encouraged to play an instrument? Is there an orchestra?
- Is it an arty school? Displays will give a clue, but it’s also worth asking whether it’s a dedicated class with a dedicated space, as well as what mediums they use.
- Is drama on curriculum? If not, how can children involved?
- Is drinking water readily available and what’s the food like?
Sats results may provide the headlines, but at what expense?
- What value does the school add and what they do to help children who are struggling?
- Do they screen youngsters for learning difficulties? What kinds of SEN do they have experience of? Are there any children with EHCPs? Who is the SENCo and what do they do to help children with SEN?
- How many children have English as an additional language, and how are they supported?
- Are there special programmes to stretch those who show real potential?
- What emphasis is placed on tests and how do they prepare for them? Does the curriculum narrow down at the top of the school, with little time for enrichment?
- How much are parents expected to help at home?
Arguably nothing in education is more important than learning to read, nor more joyous than comprehending the printed word.
- How are children taught to read? Does the school use a particular reading scheme or method?
- How much are parents encouraged/expected to hear their children read at home? And is any help or advice offered to parents, so they can ensure their children become confident readers?
- What screening and subsequent help is in place for those who don't make expected progress?
- Do any of the teachers have specialist training in reading recovery, dyslexia or similar?
- Do children have regular visits to the school library and are they are encouraged to choose books to enjoy at home?
- What provision is made for gifted readers? Is age appropriate extension material provided? Is there a limit to how quickly they can progress through the stages?
Praise, rewards and sanctions
Children won't always get things right and there are differing approaches to behaviour management. Is the school's policy in line with your thinking?
- How does the school encourage positive behaviour and promote confidence and collective responsibility?
- How are rewards and moments of naughtiness conveyed to children - star charts, badges, smiley (or sad) faces, certificates, 'golden time' or similar? Young children like to see visible evidence of how well they are doing.
- Are there celebratory assemblies or similar? Are parents encouraged to attend?
- What happens when a child misbehaves? At what stage are parents informed?
- What about bullying? All schools should have a policy on bullying - and no school is bully-free. What is important is how victim and perpetrator are dealt with. Never think it beyond the realms of possibility that your child could be either or both...
- What role does faith play? How? Which faiths? Are the children encouraged to be inclusive of all?
Keeping in touch
Poor school comms is a very common niggle among parents we speak to when we review schools. How do you contact the school and, importantly, how do they get in touch and communicate with you? What do they communicate, when and how often?
- Is there a home-school book or parental intranet?
- Can you email teachers?
- Are you permitted into the playground or classroom at the beginning or end of the school day?
- How long will the school leave potential issues and problems before involving you?
- What can you do if you have concerns about your child? Who should you speak to, and for what?
- Is there a website? How helpful is it? What is the tone of newsletters or other communiques?
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