For many parents, school choosing and applications can be a time of anxiety - especially if there's lots of choice and competition for the most sought-after schools in the local area.
Learning as much as you can about the process of school applications will help you feel more confident and will arm you with the tools you'll need to calmly steer your way through what can often seem like a confusing and complex process.
A good idea to start with is first to talk to local parents about the schools in your area - playgroups and children's centres are usually good sources of information.
Choosing primary schools in the UK
When should I start looking for schools?
Some parents start worrying about primary schools when their children are still babies, which may be unnecessary, but it pays to think ahead. For example, if parents know there is a particular primary school with an excellent reputation, they may consider moving house to be closer to it.
Plan ahead and be aware of the choices and the possibilities in your area long before your child reaches the stage when you need to apply. As childcare expert Miranda Russell says:
"Choosing schools is something that I suggest is thought about with plenty of time to spare and around your child's 3rd birthday - and never hurried, if possible!"
What types of primary schools are there to choose from?
All children in England between the ages of 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place at a state school, where the national curriculum must usually be followed. The most common types of state schools are:
- Community schools - controlled by the local council and not influenced by business or religious groups
- Foundation schools - with more freedom to change the way they do things than community schools
- Academies or Free schools - run by a governing body, independent from the local council - they can follow a different curriculum
- Grammar schools - run by the council, a foundation body or a trust - they select all or most of their pupils based on academic ability and there is often an exam to get in.
Alternatively, you may choose to send your child to a private or 'independent' school which charges fees to attend instead of being funded by the government; here, pupils don't have to follow the national curriculum.
Finding schools in your area
Identifying the schools within your area can be done relatively easily using the Department for Education website, which provides you with the distance a school is from your postal code, age of intake and size of school, along with exam results to compare against.
It's important to consider what options are available to you locally, and - if applicable - how your own working pattern and childcare arrangements will fit in with a particular school setting.
Ofsted is the body that inspects most schools in terms of their educational standards, quality of teaching, and social and cultural development and so on.
Ofsted provides reports on schools and grades them in the same way pre-school provisions do, by using the school's reference number or postal code found on the Department for Education website. There are other similar bodies that inspect private schools, such as the Independent Schools Inspectorate.
Once you have a short list of schools, do proceed to phone and ask for a prospectus and if there are any dates for Open Days arranged. There's nothing to stop you going along a year earlier to visit!
Visiting prospective primary schools
Ideally, you should explore a number of different settings until you find one that you happy with. Also ask your friends what they know about local settings; they may be able to offer some useful snippets of information.
Miranda advises that parents ask as many questions on those days as they can. Parents should consider the school's resources (for instance, its ICT suite), ask to see some workbooks or discuss topics covered, and maybe get to chat with some existing pupils too.
You should find the school that most suits your child. These points of consideration can help you initially decide whether the school would be one you are happy with:
- Are the children happy and busy with lots of activity and a stimulating atmosphere?
- Are there friendly and helpful staff, who clearly care for the children?
- Is there a warm welcome for you and your child when you arrive?
- What is the outside play area like?
- Is the building clean and safe, with an effective security system?
- Additional thoughts when viewing schools are what the extra-curricular clubs are. For example, karate, foreign languages or cooking, and do they have an after school club, open until 6pm for working families?
- You might also want to ask questions around how they implement the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), and when the school was last inspected.
- Ask the Headteacher what their ethos is and what they are currently working towards - you could ask about homework, behaviour management and their admissions procedure.
- Find out what the procedure is for new children starting school - do they attend for half days only until Christmas, and is there a staggered start for different age groups over the first few weeks?
The most important thing is to take in the atmosphere, look at display work throughout, and trust your gut instinct.
Most schools have a very comprehensive website to glean more information, such as recent newsletters. Dates for the summer and Christmas fayres can be diarised, as they are open to the local community and a good way to informally chat to current parents.
When should I apply for a school place?
Applications open on different days in each local council area - usually at the start of the autumn term of the year before your child is due to start school. Every Borough has a different date in which applications need to be submitted and can be as early as the October a year prior to your child starting school.
Find out from your local council when applications open for primary schools in your area.
You are given the option to put down 3 schools, in order of priority. Miranda offers useful advice when you are making your choices:
"Don''t leave any options blank because if your first choice (and in your mind the only option) is very popular, it is best to consider a backup rather than be perhaps given your least favourite school."
Appealing against a decision made
You can appeal if you've been awarded a school that you aren't happy with, along with a timescale to submit a complaint and a process to follow.
Hopefully you'll be pleased with the choice awarded, starting to make plans and talking with your child about what September holds for them. The school will hopefully organise some 'play dates' for new children to go on - where they can play with the current Reception children - the term before the summer break.
Your child's teacher may even make a home visit; you'll certainly be invited to attend a meeting, giving you further information.
Starting at a new school
Do take some tissues with you on the first day! It's a big step for all concerned, but the start of a great new journey as well...