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.
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 grant-aided school, then the best place to visit for guidance is The Education Authority – www.eani.org.uk. There you will find a ‘Guide for Parents on Admission to Primary Education’ along with an application form. The guide includes: children to whom the arrangements do and do not apply, how to apply for a school place, how to make an appeal, school transport availability and much more. If you want to register your child at an independent school or preparatory at a local grammar school, then you need to contact that school directly.
Are all NI schools the same?
Schools in Northern Ireland fall under two categories - grant-aided and independent. The majority of schools are grant-aided, but there are some independent schools. Below explains the different types of schools there are:
Controlled schools are managed and funded by the Education Authority (EA) through school 'Boards of Governors' (BoGs). Primary and secondary school BoGs consist of representatives of transferors - mainly the Protestant churches - along with representatives of parents, teachers and the EA.
Controlled nursery, grammar and special school BoGs consist only of representatives of parents, teachers and the EA. There are no transferor governors.
Within the Controlled school sector there are a number of Controlled Integrated schools and a small number of Irish-Medium schools.
The Controlled Schools Support Council (CSSC) supports and represents the interests of Controlled schools.
Catholic Maintained schools are managed by BoGs nominated by trustees - mainly Roman Catholic - along with parents, teachers and EA representatives.
The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools (CCMS) is responsible for the effective management of the Catholic Maintained sector and is the employing authority for teachers in Catholic Maintained schools.
The Catholic schools trustee service is funded by DE to provide support and advice to trustees on area planning.
Voluntary Grammar schools
These are managed by a BoG. A BoG is constituted in line with each school's scheme of management - usually representatives of foundation governors, parents, teachers the DE and in most cases EA representatives.
The BoG is the employing authority and is responsible for the employment of all staff in its school.
Voluntary grammar schools vary in the rates of capital grant to which they are entitled depending on the management structure they have adopted, with the vast majority entitled to capital grants of 100%.
The Governing Bodies Association is funded by DE to provide support and advice to Voluntary Grammar schools on area planning.
These schools seek to add value to the education process by inviting Protestants and Roman Catholics to come together with other traditions in order to improve their understanding of one another, their own cultures, religions and values.
Each grant-maintained Integrated school is managed by a BoG consisting of trustees or foundation governors along with parents, teacher and DE representatives.
The BoG of a grant-maintained Integrated school is the employing authority and is responsible for the employment of staff.
There are also a number of Controlled Integrated schools (see the section on 'controlled' schools above).
DE has a duty to encourage and facilitate integrated education. With funding from DE the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) promotes the strategic development of Integrated schools and provides advice and guidance to all Integrated schools, both Controlled and grant-maintained.
Irish-Medium education is education provided in an Irish speaking school or unit. DE has a duty to encourage and assist in the development of Irish-Medium education. Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (CnaG) was established by DE and its remit is to promote, assist and encourage Irish-Medium education.
There are Controlled and Maintained Irish-Medium schools and units. Maintained schools are Voluntary schools owned by trustees and managed by boards of governors which consist of members nominated by trustees along with representatives of parents, teachers and the EA. See 'Controlled' schools section above for Controlled Irish-Medium schools and units.
A Special school is a Controlled or Voluntary school which is specially organised to provide education for pupils with special needs and is recognised by the DE as a Special school.
An Independent school is a school at which full-time education is provided for pupils aged from four to 16 and is not grant-aided. These schools set their own curriculum and admissions policies and are funded by fees paid by parents and income from investments.
Each Independent school must be registered with DE and is inspected regularly by ETI.
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.
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 principal 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 inspection reports on www.etini.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 ETI website.
Recent inspection reports for many schools do not provide detailed reports. This is due to four of the teaching unions which make up the Northern Ireland Teachers’ Council (NITC) having declared industrial action primarily in relation to a pay dispute. This includes non-co-operation with the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI). The ETI has a statutory duty to monitor, inspect and report on the quality of education under Article 102 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. Therefore, inspections go ahead, but evaluations can only be made on the evidence made available by each school at the time of the inspection.
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 within 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?
- Is the school accessible to your childcare provider?
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.
Check out the school’s website and look 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.
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 classroom 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
Applications for children due to start primary school in September 2022 close on 28 January 2022 at 12 noon. To apply online or by post, go to https://www.eani.org.uk/parents/admissions
Starting age for primary school in NI
Compulsory school age is governed by Article 46 of the Education and Libraries (Northern Ireland) Order 1986. Children who have reached the age of 4 on or before 1st July will start primary school at the beginning of the September of that year.