What to look for in a primary school (by a teacher)

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Last Updated on February 18, 2021 by Melissa S.


What to look for in a primary school

I can’t believe that after over 20 years of working in primary education it is finally time for me to view schools as a parent and not a teacher! My daughter is due to start school in September, so for those of you with similar aged children, you may have begun looking into which primary schools you are going to put down on the application form.

For some this might be a simple choice if siblings or other family members already attend the school, or you live very close to one, but for others it can be a minefield! I am often asked my opinion on what to look for in a primary school  so I thought it might be useful to share this.

How do you apply for a primary school place?

You can apply for a primary school place from the year before your child is due to start. This is for children born between 1st September  and 31st August in the year they turn 5. The application for may vary between local councils but can be completed between September and early January  (check your council website for the cut off date). There is no “first come first served” criteria so it is worth attending open days in the Autumn term to look around the local schools before completing our application.

How do primary schools fill their places?

Every school has an admissions policy that can be found on their website. If there are enough places for every applicant then every child will be given a place. If there are more applicants than places then they will use their admissions policy to decide. Each school varies but they are likely to include (in order):

  1. Looked after children – children in care or adopted children are usually the first to be allocated their preferred place.
  2. Church attendance if a religious school
  3. Siblings already attending the school
  4. Distance from school
  5. All other applicants

Remember to check your individual school’s policy for an exact list. It’s not a job application form and the policy is strictly followed- you don’t get any extra brownie points for saying you’ll help at the PTA or run for governor, despite what I have seen people adding on their forms in the past!

So now you know how to apply, here are my pointers when considering the right school for your child.

  1. Ofsted is not everything!!!

When thinking about what to look for in a primary school, this is my number one mantra!

If you only take one thing from this post, let it be this. Judging a school on their Ofsted report is like judging a restaurant on one meal (and don’t get me wrong – I know people do this – myself included.)

A school is made up of many different people – Headteacher, Senior Leaders, Class Teachers, Learning Assistants, pupils.  At any one time any number of these people may have changed since the last report. A school could be classed as “requires improvement” because of an issue with Maths based on the Year 6 SATs results from 3 years ago, but that has no bearing on the current Reception class teacher who could be a dedicated, hard working and fantastic teacher. Similarly, the reverse can also be true – a fantastic Headteacher or teaching team could have significantly changed since the last report.

To give an example, I worked in a school that was judged as requires improvement and I every single member of the team was working as hard as they could. The pupils were well behaved and classrooms were lively and bright. There was a fantastic family atmosphere and the school went on to be rated good less than 2 years later.

When I left to work as an educational consultant, it was a real eye opener visiting many different schools and I was keen to see what an “outstanding” school looked like in comparison.

Obviously every school is different but one in particular was a real eye opener! Behaviour was appalling and the teacher had little control. Displays were tatty and past their best and I came away feeling angry about how hard my ex-collegues were working only to be judged as “requiring improvement” compared to schools like this that were coasting along based on an outstanding judgement that was probably several years old.

While writing this post I actually decided to look up the school’s Ofsted to see how it was doing now. My visit was in February 2014 so right in the middle of these 2 judgements – what a change and it illustrates my point far better than I could have imagined. I have covered up the dates to make the school less identifiable.

I’m not saying ignore it altogether – but if it is a negative judgement take the time to read the report online and find out why. Find out what the school have done to address the issues since the report – often you will find a new headteacher has come in and so the school could be in a completely different place to when the report was written.

My last word on Ofsted – increasingly we hear of parents boycotting the Year 6 SATs tests by taking their children out of school for SATs week. But did these same parents several years before judge the schools entirely on their Ofsted rating when choosing a place for their Reception child? The irony of this both angers and amuses me!!!

It’s basically saying: “You need to be an outstanding school for my child, but my child will not contribute to the SATs results that the judgement is based on – and that I judged you on as a prospective parent.”

what t look for in a primary school

  1. Think – will my child be happy here?

No one has a magic wand unfortunately but just like viewing a house, you may just get a gut feeling that this is the right school -or not – for your child. Picture them in the playground or dropping them off. They will be mixing with children from the local area to the school – without sounding blunt, are these the children you want your child to mix with for the next few years and beyond? Will they already know any of these children from playgroups or nursery?

Some schools are very academic based, others are more creative. On my visits as a prospective parent I have no idea if I was told more information by the head because I said I was a teacher, but if it’s something you feel strongly about, make a point in asking. Personally I want a school that addresses the whole curriculum rather than just hammering Maths and English. Several of the schools I visit for work now have children missing chunks of creative lessons such as PE and music  for extra Maths and English intervention groups  – guess why – to improve the SATs results for Ofsted.

what to look for in a primary school
back to school
  1. Location

When considering what to look for in a primary school, location can be crucial. It can be a major factor in deciding if you get a place in the school in the first place, but if you are considering sending your child some distance away due to a good reputation, consider the impact this might have on their friendship groups. My husband has an issue about this for our daughter because he lived on a farm (as we do now!) so was quite far away from his friends in the next village and felt a bit cut off from them. Things are different these days with mobile phones etc but it might be something to bear in mind. We don’t really have a choice in this ourselves!

To summarise, unfortunately there really is no magic formula in what to look for in a primary school. Nowadays, you would be very stretched to find a school where staff are not working their socks off every single day, but that does not always equal good teaching and can lead to burnout and stress – of which I speak from personal experience. Look beyond the data and the Ofsted reports and just think – will my child be happy here? With any luck, they will be.

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I’m taking part in the Mummy Monday linky with Becca from Becca Blogs It Out

4 Responses

  1. Great post! I’ll be going through this for the twins next year and I’m nervous about it already! It feels like such a big decision to make for them! #MummyMonday

  2. This is really useful. We are just moving house, so already thinking about future schools (for our now 9 month old) and it’s so hard to know which ones will be friendly. We’re also trying to pick crèches based on what schools they do future pick ups and drop off from. But I have to keep reminding myself a lot can change in 4 years!

    1. Glad you found it useful – yes so much can change! Looking around can give you a much better feel than a report on a piece of paper too.

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