How to Choose a Primary School

Choosing which school to send your child to can be a bit of a minefield.  Asking other parents is OK to a point, but, their opinion is biased by their own child’s experience of the school, and for every parent who dislikes a school, there will be another who loves it. 

Here, I’m going to talk you through some things to look for, from the point of view of a teacher.  Many of these are things teachers look for when applying for jobs.  “Do I want to teach here?” often translates across to “Do I want my child to learn here?” 

Whether to choose state or private is a whole other blog post.  All I’ll say is, state does not automatically mean lower quality and a worse education for your child and private does not automatically mean superior quality and a better education.  They each have pros and cons.  (Did you know private schools don’t have to employ qualified teachers or follow the national curriculum?) 

If you are considering private, do visit local state schools too and compare them.  You might be surprised that there is sometimes very little difference between them and you can get just as good, if not better, schooling for “free” (you’ve already paid for it via your taxes) at the local state primary.

1. Ignore Ofsted reports (or at least take them with a pinch of salt).

Ofsted is the body that inspects schools.  It is 30 years old and has always been controversial.  Ofsted has proven itself to be not fit for purpose within the teaching profession.  In a recent survey of 4,888 state school teachers, 79% rated Ofsted as “inadequate” or “requires improvement” (TeacherTapp), less than 1 in 10 teachers think Ofsted has improved standards in their school (The Times) and it is one of the top reasons why teachers leave the profession.  There are increasingly loud calls for Ofsted to be scrapped and replaced with a more supportive and positive accountability system.

A book could be written about why Ofsted does more to damage schools and learning than it does to support and help them improve, so all I’ll say is, don’t base your opinion of a school on a one or two word phrase given to the school by someone who has come in for a day or two (with little to no understanding of the area and the demographic of the children in the school), caused stress and disruption to learning in the process, and made a judgement on this snapshot of time that stays with the school for years to come.

Imagine a stranger coming into your home for a day, with no understanding of who you all are, and saying you are a “good” family or a family that “requires improvement” based on that one experience.  That’s Ofsted inspecting schools.

Schools in more deprived areas get a disproportionate amount of “requires improvement” and “inadequate” grades and schools in more affluent areas get a disproportionate amount of “outstanding” and “good” grades, but the schools in deprived areas are having to work harder for their children, often with less money and resources.  In my experience, it is these schools that are often providing a better education.

Schools rated “outstanding” between May 2012 and November 2020 (yes, Ofsted were going into schools during the pandemic and lockdowns!) were exempt from routine inspections.  This means there are “outstanding” schools that have not been inspected for 10 years. That’s a long time.  Things will definitely have changed.  Is it really still “outstanding”?  What is an “outstanding” school anyway?  My opinion, and that of most teachers on that, is vastly different to Ofsted’s.  (These schools will now be inspected by August 2025.)

Just because a school has been labelled “outstanding”, it doesn’t mean it is. Just because a school has been labelled “inadequate”, it doesn’t mean it is.

2. How close to home is it?  Can you walk there?

A parent walking a child to school

Gone are the days when children went to their local school and that was that. Parents now have more choice.  However, anyone who works in a school, or lives near a school will tell you the nightmare that is caused twice a day by children being driven to school and the problems of parents parking dangerously.  I think every school newsletter these days has a monthly reminder not to park like an idiot. Police have to be brought in.  Honestly. It gets that bad.

Children who walk (or scoot or cycle) to their local school are fitter, happier and safer.  They have better road sense because they learn how to deal with roads and traffic, whilst the children being driven are more at risk because they don’t develop these skills so quickly.  There is less pollution – that’s good for everyone.  The children who walk learn better due to the exercise and the mental health benefits of this. 

If there is a school within walking distance check this one out first.

3. How diverse is the school?

Teaching, primary teaching in particular, is a dominantly female profession, so most staff will be women.  However, I would be a little concerned if the whole staff, including support staff, office staff, dinner staff and cleaning staff were female.  All children, not just boys, need positive male role models, so look for diversity of gender.

Also look for diversity of age/experience.  There is a retention crisis in teaching and most teachers leave within the first 5 years of their career.  Experienced teachers are expensive and find it incredibly difficult to get jobs. 

If the whole teaching staff is made up of teachers all within the first 5 years of their career (clues – they are likely to be in their early to mid 20s and called “Miss something”) I would be cautious.  Where is the experience in the staff coming from?  Without experienced staff, teachers in the early stages of their career do not grow and develop from learning from those who have been doing it for longer.  Schools need a mix of fresh new enthusiasm and experience for the best outcomes.

How diverse is the school in terms of race or disability of both staff and children.  If you live in an area with little diversity in the population then this is obviously harder, but in some ways even more important.  The more diverse a school is, the more vibrant it is and the learning wider and the children more tolerant of others.  We need more tolerant people in society.  Diversity is good.  If everyone looks and sounds like you and your child, that might be a concern.

4. Look at the displays

If displays are of a range of children’s work then my heart sings.  Some of the work might look a bit messy or there might be mistakes, but for that child it is worthy of celebration by being proudly exhibited on the wall.

If all the work is looking beautiful and perfect, are the children who find things harder not being celebrated?  Are expectations unrealistic for some children?  Is the culture about getting things right, rather than effort and mistake making?

If displays are predominantly print outs of educational resources (eg alphabets or numbers, or prompt charts) with little to no input from the children themselves, I would be concerned.

5. Do they genuinely focus on the whole child, or is it a bit of an exam factory?

This can be really tricky to spot.  ALL schools claim to focus on the individual child, work in a child-centred way and put their wellbeing to the forefront, and 99% of schools do do this, but, some are better at it than others.  If you can, find out if children in Year 6 (and possibly Year 2) are doing practise SATs tests from the autumn term, or if they are expected to attend after school or holiday revision sessions.  If so, the school is putting more emphasis on exam results than child-wellbeing. 

Children happy playing outside wellbeing pastoral care

Is there a nurture group or wellbeing sessions or strategies that are integrated into the school day, and not just fluffy add ons or one offs? 

Is there a pupil mentor or pastoral member of staff who helps children and families deal with difficulties. 

Is there a breakfast club?

Is there a wide variety of after school clubs that appeal to all sorts of different interests? 

Do the children seem happy, settled, and engaged in a variety of activities, or a bit “meh” and flat or robotic? 

What resources are around and do they look used, or is there just a lot of desks, paper, books and shiny resources that look nice but the kids clearly aren’t getting their hands on them. 

How much focus do the school put on foundation subjects (everything apart from maths, English and science)?  There should be a balance and evidence of other subjects being learned about.

Do visitors come in and do the children go out on educational experiences? 

Do they do Forest Schools or similar?

6. How do the staff come across?

Do the staff (not just the teachers, but office staff, Teaching Assistants, dinner ladies etc) seem happy and enjoying their work on the whole (there’s always one who doesn’t want to be there or is having a bad day!), or do most of them look tired, fed up, or exhausted (if it’s near the end of term, expect a bit of tiredness/exhaustion!)?  A school full of unhappy, stressed staff means they are not able to give your child the best learning experience they can.

If you can, find out about staff turnover.  Now, this might be hard, but if the Ofsted report is recent, it is one good piece of information you may find in it.  If staff have worked at the school for years, then that is a very good sign.  It indicates they enjoy working there, feel valued and there is likely to be a good mix of experience among the staff.  If there is a high turnover of staff, with lots of newly or recently qualified teachers taking up the vacancies, then that should ring some alarm bells that maybe not all is good up the ladder in management.

Talking of management – what do you make of the headteacher?  How much classroom teaching experience do they have (some are promoted very early in their career and have very little experience at the chalkface. In some academies or private schools, the headteacher will not even be a teacher!)  Do they keep their finger on the pulse and still take classes (even if occasionally) and muck into the wider school life? Are they respected by the staff, or are they sitting in their ivory tower and have lost touch with what teaching is all about?  This may be difficult to tell, as they will be putting on their best show to encourage you to join their school.  How do teachers/staff react around them?  Does the relationship seem natural and mutually respectful or fake? 

7. Teaching methods

children in a classroom at school sitting at desks in rows facing the teacher with their hands up in the air

The way children are being taught should look a bit different to how you were taught at school.  What we know about how children learn has moved on leaps and bounds in recent years, and some schools are very good at keeping up with modern pedagogy (the method and practise of teaching) and some are stuck in the early 2000s. 

If children are seated in ability groups I would be wary.  Research clearly shows that grouping children in this way hinders their progress rather than helps it.  Yet, so many schools still cling onto this outdated way of working.  Working in mixed ability ways doesn’t mean children aren’t being challenged or supported, but more sophisticated and developmentally appropriate ways of doing this are being used instead.  If the school follows a “mastery” approach then this is a good indication that they are keeping up to date with the research, so long as they are applying it correctly.

If there is a behaviour chart or smiley and sad faces on the board as a behaviour management tool, again I would be wary.  These approaches have been shown to be ineffective in helping children improve their behaviour and can in some cases make it worse.  Restorative justice systems and systems where children are rewarded for effort rather than achievement are much better and more effective. 

If children have points or rewards that they have already achieved taken off them, that is a big red flag to me.  If you have achieved something, that achievement still stands, regardless of how you behave afterwards.  Past successes should not be used to punish current wrong-doings.

Keeping children in to finish work in playtime is also a warning sign.  The children who need to get out and play the most are often the ones kept in more often.  It’s also a sign that either the teacher is struggling to pace their lessons appropriately, or deeper reasons why children are not finishing (eg processing delays or hearing loss) are not being picked up on.

8. Friends

a group of children walking together as friends

You can send your child to the fanciest, most excellent school in your area, but if they don’t have friends there and are unhappy, it is pointless because they won’t be learning.  To learn we need to feel settled and happy.  If one school is amazing but your child has no friends there (and therefore is not happy about going) and another is not quite so good but they have friends there, the best option is usually option 2.  Unless your child finds making friends easy, or they are open to moving to a school where they don’t know anyone, they will find it much easier to settle and learn with friends around them.  The school day is long and hard without them.

9. Ignore strangers on the internet

I see so many posts on local Facebook pages asking about what schools are like. Just because little Tommy had a bad experience because Mrs Smith took a disliking to him (highly unlikely btw!) or little Jemima had the most wonderful time with Mr Jones, that doesn’t tell you anything useful about how your child will find the school. 

When I read comments about a school I used to work at online, we had to laugh (otherwise we’d cry) at some of the grossly inaccurate things parents were saying.  It’s school gate gossip gone online.  It’s mostly nonsense.  Don’t listen to strangers on the internet (or at the school gate).

10. Visit

Instead – visit the school for yourself.  Look out for the things I’ve mentioned.  Take your child with you if possible, but don’t base your decision purely on what they want – you are their parent and you need to make the ultimate decision taking into account all the elements and what fits best for them.  Get a feel.  If your gut is saying yes, or no, trust it.

No school will tick all of the above boxes (if you do find it – let me know!)  Focus on the most important elements for your child and family and go with a best-fit approach.  You will have to make compromises, but your child will receive a good education whatever school you choose.

If you have found this blog helpful, then do come and join my free Facebook group Primary Matters for more help and advice about learning in the vital primary years.

To discuss how I can help support your child’s learning, please contact me.

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