How to choose a primary school

Choosing a primary school for your child can be complicated. In reality, though, the process could turn out to be (fairly) painless and, if you get it right, your child will enjoy long-term benefits.

There’s a lot to consider before setting your child on their path to infinite wisdom (or, at the very least, to decent GCSEs and a bit of common sense). From catchment areas to key stages, league tables to local education authorities (LEA), there is much to get your head around. We’ve put together a guide to choosing the best primary school for your child.

As with many parenting dilemmas, you might find the theory behind choosing a primary school differs wildly from the practice…

How to choose your child’s school: the theory

Armed with Ofsted reports and league tables, the discerning parent visits all their local schools and decides where they think their child will thrive. Parent applies and child is offered a place.

How to choose your child’s school: the practice

Having made the key decision, the parent finds out that, in order to get into the school of choice, they will need to move to within a metre of the school gates, convert to Catholicism and come up with an elder sibling already at said school.

When should I start looking at primary schools?

From the age of five (though most children start the September after they turn four) parents are legally obliged to make sure that their child receives an appropriate level of full-time education, if not at a state school, then privately or via home education.

If your child is expected to start school in September 2019, for example, you’d need to apply by January 2019 and therefore need to be looking at schools and making decisions in the autumn of 2018.

Can I defer my child starting school?

If you have a summer-born child, you may be able to defer them starting for a year. But whether and how this happens is up to the school and the local authority. The Department for Education has more advice on summer-born children starting school.

What is my catchment school?

A catchment school is the school you get ‘assigned’ by your LEA. It’s usually your nearest but each school has a designated ‘catchment area’. Your local council will have a list or a map you can look up online.

You’ll be told what your ‘catchment’ school is, but you have the right to apply for others if you prefer. How much choice you have about where your child starts his state education depends on the situation in your area.

In some areas, if schools are undersubscribed, you may be able to choose between two or more schools. In others, you might be lucky to get into the school that’s closest to you or be sent out of the area. In most areas, if you already have a child there you will get some priority, although some councils are starting to phase out ‘the sibling rule’. Looked-after children and children with special educational needs (SEN) also get priority.

However, even at a private schools there is no guarantee of a place and schools can set their own tests and criteria. So, in summary, ‘choice’ can be a broad term.

Where are my nearest state primary schools?

Your local council will have details of all the state schools in your area. You can find out here which LEA you fall under and look up the schools closest to you. You’ll usually be able to look up your ‘catchment’ school on the local authority’s website, too.

What are the different types of primary school?

There are several different types of state school and it’s worth learning about them before you start the application process.

  • Community – common or garden state schools (formerly county schools)
  • Foundation – mainly former grant-maintained schools. Governing body owns land, employs staff and is the admission authority with the LEA. Some LEA representation on governing body
  • Voluntary aided – owned by a voluntary body, usually religious, which appoints most of the governors. LEA-funded except building and repair costs which are shared between governing body, LEA and government. Governing body is admission authority – with consultation again from LEA – and may prioritise practising members of the relevant religion
  • Voluntary controlled – like voluntary aided but with mainly LEA-appointed governors and the LEA as admission authority
  • Community special and Foundation special – for pupils with severe SEN
  • Free schools – funded by the government but not run by the local council, so they have more control over how they do things and don’t have to follow the national curriculum
  • Academies – publicly funded independent schools. They don’t have to follow the national curriculum but must observe the same rules on admissions, exclusions and SEN provision as other state schools. They are given money directly by government, rather than local council, and may also have sponsorship from businesses or community groups. They’re run by an academy trust, which employs the staff

Religious schools can be over-subscribed in some areas and historically have done well in league tables, although this isn’t always the case. To get your child in, you may need to ‘prove’ your religious affiliation and commitment, to the extent of getting a letter from the priest (or equivalent). There are many true stories and urban myths about the lengths to which people will go in order to get in – it is down to your conscience how far you are willing to adapt or bend the truth.

Oh, one last thing: be aware that the fairly widespread practice of giving false addresses constitutes fraud. Authorities have been known to prosecute.

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How to find an independent primary school

Independent (or private) primary schools are sometimes known as pre-prep and prep schools. Pre-prep goes from 5 to 7 years old, while prep schools generally take girls up to 11 and boys to 13 – the point at which the Common Entrance exam to independent secondary schools is sat.

You can find a list of all the independent schools near you on the Independent Schools’ Directory website.


Give up your career, move into a less expensive area, cancel all social engagements for the next 12 years and educate your children at home. For some, it’s an excellent option. Those considering the idea of home tuition – and there are currently around 150,000 children in England and Wales educated at home – may want to check out Directgov (or see Home Education or Education Otherwise for a rather more entertaining and informative view).

What should I look for on a primary school visit?

There is no better way to get to know a school than by setting foot through the door yourself. Even the closest of friends can disagree fundamentally about the same school, so don’t just rely on word of mouth – valuable though it is. One parent’s ideal school will be another’s reason to move house.

Most primary schools have open days in the autumn term when you can go and look around, but if not will usually show you around in a small group or on your own. If you want to, go more than once. Schools are usually very happy to show off their wares and will understand that it’s a decision you want to get right.

Here are a few things to ask or consider as you look around a potential school:

  • What’s the welcome like? Are the office staff approachable and helpful? Is the building well-maintained? Even if it’s tatty, a well-loved school will still exude a warm welcome, with pictures on the walls and lots of evidence that the pupils are happy and proud of their school
  • What’s the head like? You’re likely to be shown around by the head teacher and, although day to day your child might not spend much time with that person, his or her beliefs and behaviour are crucial to how successful a school is. Does she know the children by name? And how do they treat her? Relaxed but respectful is what you’re looking for. If they look at her blankly and like she might be there to change a lightbulb, that would be a concern
  • How do the kids behave? A bit of noise is to be expected in a primary school, but it should look focused and controlled rather than like total chaos
  • What’s on the walls? As well as seeing fabulous displays on the Great Fire of London and the story arc of The Highway Rat, expect to see displays of the school’s core values, reward systems and signage that helps children understand what’s expected of them
  • How do the teachers behave? Do they seem to get on well with the head teacher? Are they teaching ‘at different levels’ so that the children are engaged no matter what their ability (they might be doing close work with some children while more able ones are working at greater depth, having completed a task)?
  • How safe and clean is it? Are the loos clean and easy to access? What are outside areas like? Is there lots of new equipment for the children to use and can they access it easily? Do they have access to drinking water?

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Questions to ask when looking round a primary school

The more questions you can ask, the more you’ll get a feel for the school. Some schools will send you off on a tour with older pupils, which can give you the chance to get brutally honest opinions, but you should also be able to talk to a member of the senior leadership team.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What reading schemes do they use?
  • What discipline and reward systems are in place?
  • What is SEN provision like (even if your child doesn’t have special education needs, every child benefits in a school where SEN provision is top notch)
  • How does playtime work? Are the children separated by age?
  • What is lunch provision? Are there kitchens or is the lunch brought in? Is there a healthy eating policy?
  • Do they have any peer support, e.g. buddy benches, Year 6 ‘helpers’ for reception children in the playground etc?
  • What does a typical day look like in your child’s prospective year?
  • Do they have teaching assistants in every class? Are they full time? How many other adult staff are available to help in classrooms?
  • What extra-curricular activities are on offer?
  • Is there a breakfast or after-school club?
  • Is there a PTA and how active is it?
  • What tech do they have and how often do they use it? How much e-safety do they cover?
  • What non-core subjects (e.g. music, art, drama) are covered and do they have specialist teachers for those subjects?

What do the primary league tables tell you?

The primary school league tables can be found online. The tables show the type of school, e.g. Community, Foundation and whether it is infants (reception to Year 2) or Juniors (Years 3 to 6) or goes all the way through from age four to 11, as well as other information such as absence levels. Then the crucial columns show the Key Stage 2 results (end of Year 6). These include results in reading, writing and maths and how these compare to national figures.

As with the Ofsted reports below, be aware that the tables represent only a snapshot – things can change quickly with the arrival or departure of key teaching staff, a particularly bright year group or one that struggled. Results are easily skewed in primary education, and particularly in a small school where one or two pupils can change a percentage result significantly.

Also be aware that, as much as anything, a ‘good school’ may mean a high level of motivated and interested parents and teachers, rather than anything intrinsic to that school, or simply that the school in question is ‘teaching to the test’ (ie hot-housing the kids to get good results on one day).

League tables will give you an idea but you won’t get any decent overview without a visit to the school.

Is it worth looking at Ofsted reports for primary schools?

Ofsted is the body that inspects and aims to improve schools with regard to:

  • Quality of education
  • Educational standards achieved
  • Management of financial resources
  • Spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils

Ofsted is unrelated to league tables. You can read Ofsted reports online – they’re particularly useful for insomniacs. Joking aside, the reports do carry lots of information – you just need to remember that it’s a snapshot that they got on one day and they can happen as infrequently as every four years. By all means feed it into what you know from a visit and talking to other parents, but don’t let a bad Ofsted report put you off completely. Equally, don’t plough on blindly because a school has an excellent Ofsted report – it still might not be right for your child.

Looking at the reports, a quick calculation will tell you whether the Year 6 number of pupils is roughly equal to the total number of pupils divided by the number of years. If not, check out whether the school is either getting more or less popular over the years, and ask around to find out why.

The report then gives a brief description of the school, how diverse it is, what percentage of children have special educational needs or English as a second language, and more.

The bulk of the report then looks at the provision for all children from teaching and pastoral care to SEN provision and facilities. It also inspects the standards of teaching and behaviour and points out any areas for improvement.

What do the ‘Key Stages’ mean at primary school?

At primary level, the material covered in the state sector encompasses Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and Key Stages 1 and 2:

EYFS covers nursery/preschool and reception.

Key Stage 1 covers ages five to seven (Year 1 to Year 2) and is tested at the end of Year 2 (age 7), although this may change soon.

Key Stage 2 covers from seven to 11 (Year 3 to Year 6) and is tested at the end of Year 6 (age 11)

The material covered is not compulsory in the private education sector, although most do follow it and selective schools will often aim to go beyond it.


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