Choosing a primary school

If your child was born between 1 September 2013 and 31 August 2014, you will need to apply for a place at primary school by the middle of January 2018. If this applies to you, you might find yourself asking two questions:
1. Wow, primary school already, where did the time go?
2. Now, where is my child going to go to primary school?

NB: These dates will vary slightly in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If you are in Wales or Scotland, visit your local council website for further details. For those in Northern Ireland, click here for information.

If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where you have a choice of primary schools, now is the time to think about choosing where you’d like your child to go. As a prospective parent, there are lots of factors to consider and lots of sources of information to help you make your decision.

What are you looking for in a school?

Before we get started, it is useful to think carefully about the things that are important to you as a parent. These will vary from family to family and might include:

  • Atmosphere and ethos: Does the school feel friendly? Are children valued and cared for? What is behaviour like at the school?
  • Academic standards: How do children do academically at the school? Does the school have high expectations for all children? Do all children make good progress?
  • A rich curriculum: Does the school invest time and money in the wider curriculum? How does the school’s Early Years curriculum work? What is music teaching like at the school? How much emphasis does the school give to sport and healthy living? Are drama and the arts taught throughout the school?
  • School site: Does the school have plenty of outside space? Is it well-used? What are the classrooms like?
  • Location: Is the school near to home? What will the journey to school be like and how will you get there each morning?
  • Before and After-school provision: Will you need to use a breakfast club of after-school club? If so, what does the school offer and how much does it cost?
  • Friends: Is there one school where your child’s friends are planning to go? Is this important or are you happy that they will make new friends in Reception?

Just like with house-hunting, it is worth drawing up a list of the things that are most important to you when choosing a school. This could be done in three columns:

  • Things that are must-haves
  • Things that would be nice
  • Things that aren’t important to you

And just like house-hunting, it is likely that you’ll need to make trade-offs between different factors. If you are lucky enough to find the perfect school that ticks all the boxes, you’re doing very well indeed.

Sources of information

The easiest way to find out about the schools in your local area is to search by postcode on the government website:

  • In England, use the Department for Education’s Find and Compare Schools in England service. This will give you a list of the schools near you, both state schools and private schools. You then have the option to search by school type, Ofsted rating, religious character and pupil gender. You’ll probably also talk to friends and other also local parents, perhaps at nursery or playgroup. The DfE site allows you search by school name too, so you can look at the schools that are recommended.
  • In Scotland, use this schools directory
  • In Wales, you can find out about your local school on the My Local School website
  • In Northern Ireland, use the government’s pages on finding a school to suit your child.

Choosing the school

There are lots of sources of information to help you make your choice, but unfortunately none of them offers a cast-iron way of deciding which school is right for you and your child. However, it can be useful to think about:

National test results

Each year, children in Year 2 (7-years-old) and Year 6 (11-years-old) sit assessments in reading, writing, mathematics and grammar, punctuation and spelling. The results of these tests are shared on the school’s website and the DfE site. The reported headline figures tell you how many children reached a particular standard in English and mathematics in a particular year (87% at the expected standard, for example).

The DfE site also offers an overview of the progress that children make between KS1 and KS2 in reading, writing and maths. As with the other sources of information, national test results offer one source of information, but they are not a perfect measure. The last couple of years have seen a change to the National Curriculum and the assessments that children sit and some schools have adapted to this more quickly than others. They also assess a small area of the National Curriculum, and don’t tell a parent anything about the rest of the curriculum, including science, the humanities, music and the arts or sports and games.

Ofsted rating

There are four possible gradings from Ofsted, the body that inspects schools across England. The highest rating is ‘Outstanding’, then there is ‘Good’. The final two are ‘Requires Improvement’ and ‘Inadequate’. Ofsted ratings can be useful in making decision, but they shouldn’t be thought of as a definitive verdict. It is worth remembering that they are based on Ofsted’s decision, not yours. Likewise an Outstanding school might have a very different ethos and set of priorities to you. A school that Ofsted decides is ‘Good’ might be perfect for you and your child. It is also important to check when the inspection was carried out. ‘Outstanding’ schools are no longer inspected, meaning that the report might be anything up to ten years old. Obviously things can change a lot in that time. Equally, a school that ‘Requires Improvement’ may have improved significantly since its last inspection and might now offer the perfect education for your child. Ofsted reports are a useful starting point, but that is all they should be.

Reputation

It is very possible that you will know people who have a view about the schools near to you – perhaps parents with children there already or other parents who are looking at local schools too. While these are useful, it’s worth remembering that everyone is looking for something slightly different in a school. Also, schools change as the head teacher or staff change. Another person’s ideal school might not be right for you and your child and vice versa. This is also true of information on websites or online parents’ forums. Posts will share an individual’s opinion or experience and that might be very different to other parents whose children attend the school.

The school’s website

A school’s website can provide plenty of information about the school – both assessment results and Ofsted reports and details about the curriculum and extra -curricular activities. Perhaps the most interesting parts, however, are things like copies of the newsletter for parents or the diary that lists events and clubs at school. These give a valuable window into life at the school and how the school communicates with parents.

Visits to the school

Once you’ve considered the other sources of information available, this might be the most useful thing to do. Attending an open morning or visiting the school is the most important thing you can do. This is your chance to see what the school is like in reality, meet the head teacher or other senior staff and perhaps ask some questions.

Applying to the school

Once you’ve made your choices, the next step is to fill out the application form. This can be found on the website for your local authority. Even if you are applying for schools that are not under LA control, such as academies and free schools, or if you are applying to schools in other LAs, you still add them to the form from the area where you live.

The most important thing to do is to look carefully at the entry requirements for each school you’ve chosen. For some schools, including faith schools, places are awarded based on specific criteria and it is important to check that you meet these criteria. Unfortunately, just because you have chosen a school, it doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed a place there.

If all of the information that is available seems overwhelming, try not to worry. It might sound a bit woolly compared with all of the numbers and data available to you, but most the important thing is to visit and get a feel for the school. By all means listen to the opinions of others, but ultimately you know your child best.

Good luck!


James Clements was a teacher and school leader for ten years. He now works as an education writer and researcher. He’s also the parent of two small (but unbelievably loud) children, one of whom starts school in September. Twitter: @MrJClements