Choosing a primary school can feel like a daunting task. Depending on where you live and other factors like – whether you work, your family and support network, your religious preferences, any additional needs your child may have (and a whole lot more) - it may seem like there’s too much choice or very few options.
It’s not compulsory for children to start school until the beginning of the term after their fifth birthday, but most start infant or primary school the September after their fourth birthday.
This guide includes the information that every parent needs to know, as well as our tips to help you decide what else you need to find out, ask and look out for at each school you visit, so you can pick the school where your child will be happiest.
Which schools can my child go to?
If you want your child to go to a state school, then the best place to start is the ‘schools information pack’ provided by your local authority. A quick online search should lead you to something like this example from Leeds.gov, and your local library will have a printed copy. The schools information pack usually includes: where to find more information about schools in your area, how to apply for a school place and how to make an appeal.
Are all state schools the same?
No, but most have to follow the national curriculum. All children aged five to sixteen are entitled to a free school place at a state school.
While the number of academies in England is growing, with new schools being started and others converting to academy status, most state schools are ‘maintained schools’ which means they are 'maintained' by the Local Authority and must follow the national curriculum.
Types of school
- Community schools are controlled by the local council. They used to be known as county schools.
- Foundation schools and voluntary controlled schools have more freedom to change the way they do things than community schools.
- Faith schools (voluntary aided) can set different admissions criteria (although anyone can apply for a place). They follow the national curriculum, but can choose what they teach in religious studies.
- Funded by the government, free schools are not run by the local council. They have more control over how they do things. They can be set up by charities, universities, teachers and other groups and individuals.
- Academies are run by a governing body, independent from the local council – they don’t have to follow the national curriculum.
- These specialise in educating children with special educational needs.
Admission policies vary depending on the type of school, common factors are distance from the school, siblings already at the school and number of places available. It’s unlikely your child will be offered a place at a school where you don’t meet their admission criteria, so save yourself time and disappointment by checking the information on the school website first. FindASchool is a useful free research tool that lists schools by area with their admission criteria and whether they were oversubscribed at the last intake.
More about the school admissions process.
Finding schools in your area
If you’ve lived in the same area for a while, you probably already have a good idea which schools are nearby; you may know them by reputation, or even live close to the primary school you went to yourself. But a school’s performance can change quickly and for many reasons – just as a high achieving school can fall victim to complacency, a new headteacher can quickly turn-around a once poor-performing school. Bottom line, don’t pick a school based on reputation and distance alone.
Search and compare local schools.
You can find and compare exam and test result and Ofsted reports on gov.uk. Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the scores and ratings, you can click to open up descriptions and further information on the website and we’ve got it covered in our guide to Ofsted.
Enter your postcode to find schools near you and select the schools you want to compare. The information includes:
- Percentage of children meeting the ‘expected standard’ in reading, maths and writing.
- Progress score (e.g. 0.4) and description (e.g. Average). These scores show how much progress pupils have made in reading, writing and maths between the end of key stage 1 and the end of key stage 2, compared to pupils across England who got similar results at the end of key stage 1.
- Percentage of children achieving a ‘higher standard’ in reading, maths and writing.
- Average score in reading.
- Average score in maths.
- Ofsted rating and link to Ofsted report.
- Absence rates.
- Staff numbers.
Getting to know the schools
Once you've put together a list of schools in your area, check which ones meet your practical needs:
- Does the school need to be in walking distance?
- What’s the parking situation like near the school?
- Will you want your child to be able to walk to school on their own when they’re older? If so, are there school crossings on busy roads?
- Will you need before and after school care (known as wraparound care) from the start or in the future?
- Would your child be happier in a smaller or larger school?
- Are any of their friends going there?
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few possible schools, spend some time looking at each school’s website, talking to other parents and checking out local forums before arranging a visit.
What you'll find on school websites
Ofsted inspections often start with the school’s website, which for all maintained schools must include:
- School contact details
- Admission arrangements
- Ofsted reports
- Exam and assessment results
- Performance tables
- Behaviour policy
- School complaints procedure
- Pupil premium
- PE and sport premium for primary schools
- Special educational needs (SEN) and disability information
- Equality objectives
- Governors’ information and duties
- Charging and remissions policies
- Values and ethos
- Requests for paper copies
But most schools run their websites as more than just a box ticking exercise. It’s the school’s chance to make a good first impression on prospective parents, and a place for them to connect with parents and carers of their current pupils. Look out for:
- Class information – what are the children learning in each class? Does it look fun and varied? Where do they go on school trips?
- Photo gallery – what kind of activities happen at school? Are there pictures of outdoor learning? What’s being celebrated?
- Inclusiveness – is there evidence that it’s an inclusive school? Is pastoral care mentioned?
- Homework – what is the homework policy? Are there links to class homework? Is there a home learning hub for parents and/or pupils?
- Parents – does the school have an active PTA or parent council? Does the school work in partnership with parents? Are parents kept informed e.g. is there a newsletter online?
- Clubs – is there a breakfast and/or after school club for childcare provision? What other clubs are offered before and after school and during lunchtime for fun, to learn a new skill or to support children that may be struggling with playground friendships?
Word of mouth.
If you have friends with children at local schools ask them (and their kids if they’re ok with it) what it is they like about the school and why they would recommend it (or not), because even a close friend’s idea of what makes a school great may be different from yours. Not all schools will suit all children - even the ‘outstanding’ ones - so have a good think about the kind of environment your child will be happy and thrive in.
Have a look for conversations on local social media groups and forums for an idea of what's going on at the school and how well the school and parents communicate. Do bear in mind that it's often only the very best and the very worst that are discussed, so read with caution.
If your child goes to a local pre-school or nursery, ask staff which schools children move on to, and whether there are any they have strong connections to.
Another resource worth looking at is Ofsted’s Parent View survey, which is the main way Ofsted gather parents’ views and gives parents the opportunity to have a say about their child’s school on a range of issues. Parents answer a set of questions, indicating how strongly they agree or disagree. You can view the reports here.
Once you’ve done all your homework, it’s time to start looking around. If you’re not in a rush, then look for opportunities to make ‘informal’ visits before you book a tour or attend an open evening.
School fairs are an excellent way to get a feel for a school. As well as having a chance to look around the grounds and maybe some classrooms, you’ll see how teachers, parents and pupils work together:
- Is the event well attended?
- Does everyone look like they’re pitching in together?
- How do the kids interact with each other and adults?
- Are the parents and teachers running the stalls friendly and welcoming?
- Is the headteacher present and do they engage with kids and parents?
Arrange a tour of the school
Go on school visits with an open mind. Use what you’ve found out so far to put together a list of questions. A school that’s not top of your list on paper might just surprise you in the flesh.
Again, consider what’s most important to you and the type of school that will suit your child. For example, some schools concentrate more heavily on maths and literacy when delivering the curriculum, while others build more creativity and outdoor activity into the timetable.
Phone or pop into the school to arrange your visit. It’s a good opportunity to see how office staff interact with parents. Do they welcome questions and visitors, or are they acting as ‘gatekeepers’ for the head?
What to ask and what to look out for
There’s no definitive list of things to look for because no school will suit every child, and each parent has different priorities and expectations for their child’s schooling. But being clear about what’s important to you will help you decide which questions to ask and what to look out for when you visit. For example, how much time do you want to spend on homework? How much time would you want your child to be outdoors? Do you want to be able to go on trips and help out in the classroom?
Here are some questions that might be useful:
- What do they do for children who are struggling?
- How do they stretch children who perform above the expected level?
- How do they approach tests? Do they tell children when they are doing tests?
- What information do they provide for parents so they can support learning at home?
- What reading schemes or method do they use?
- How do they encourage children to read at home?
- Are children taught at different levels? Look for children working in small groups using different equipment and learning tools.
- Is there variety and creativity in the children’s learning?
Praise and encouragement
- What are children praised for – good work, kindness, behaviour, helpfulness?
- How are successes celebrated – for individuals, as a group?
- What support is there for children who struggle with good behaviour?
- Is the classroom colourful and full of the children’s work?
Support and wellbeing
- How does the school support emotional development?
- Are children involved in supporting each other e.g. as buddies, class discussion?
- How are children’s individual interests and skills supported?
- What type of clubs are available at lunchtime and outside school hours and which year groups are they open to? (sport, music, craft, Lego, friendship, languages etc.)
- Who can you talk to if your child is unhappy at school and how will your child be supported?
- How many teaching assistants / support staff do they have in the class room – for which year groups and how many days a week?
School environment and staff
- Are the staff welcoming and friendly?
- How big is the school?
- What security systems are in place?
- Is it clean and well maintained?
- Does the play equipment or school garden look like it’s used?
- What is staff turnover like and how often do they use supply teachers?
- Do the staff know the children by name and how do they interact?
- Are there teaching staff in the playground during breaks?
- What wraparound care is available? (breakfast and after school clubs)
- Can parents help out in class / attend trips / help with reading?
- Is there a parent voice group and are parents invited to have a say in policies like homework or uniform?
- What financial contributions are requested from parents?
- Is there a staggered intake? What’s their attitude towards half days?
- Are there any taster sessions for children?
How to apply for a place
Can summer born children start school later?
Summer born children are those with a birthday between 1st April and 31st August.
Studies have shown large differences in test scores between autumn-born and summer-born pupils, which can have an impact on their wellbeing at school.
2.17 Parents may seek a place for their child outside of their normal age group, for example, if the child is gifted and talented or has experienced problems such as ill health. In addition, the parents of a summer born child* may choose not to send that child to school until the September following their fifth birthday and may request that they are admitted out of their normal age group – to reception rather than year 1. Admission authorities must make clear in their admission arrangements the process for requesting admission out of the normal age group.
* The term summer born children relates to all children born from 1 April to 31 August. These children reach compulsory school age on 31 August following their fifth birthday (or on their fifth birthday if it falls on 31 August). It is likely that most requests for summer born children to be admitted out of their normal age group will come from parents of children born in the later summer months or those born prematurely.
Sarah told us on Facebook: "My middle daughter was due to start school last September. She was four years and four days when she tried to start. It didn’t work; she wasn’t ready and was just too young. The headteacher was great about letting her start in foundation the following year at compulsory school age (the term following her fifth birthday). Best thing we could have done for her. She is now nearly five and so ready and excited to go."
If you are considering delayed entry, make sure you still follow the timetable for school applications as you would if your child was starting in the September after their fourth birthday.
summerbornchildren.org is a group that campaigns for flexible school admissions for summer born children, their website has more information and support for parents.