Five Questions to ask when Choosing a Primary School

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So it occurred to me this morning that after this one, Flea only has one more year of primary school left.

Before I start the panicked visits to secondary schools, I thought it might be a good moment to look back on Flea’s primary years.

I agonised over which school Flea should attend. I went back and forth about a hundred times between three or four options.

But after seven years at school, it occurs to me I never asked the questions that have actually ended up being most relevant to Flea’s experience of primary school. Although things like faith-based education and formal testing and class sizes are obviously important, other things have determined how happy Flea is; how much fun she has each day; how secure and content she feels in her environment.

Here are some of the questions I wish I’d asked about primary school. What others would you add to the list?

 

Questions you should ask about Primary Schools!

What’s your view on participation in drama?

I think schools usually have one of two approaches to performances. Some schools believe every child should have a chance to participate in the class play, and will deliberately choose plays where every child has a single line, or at least gets involved in decorating sets or making costumes.

Other schools focus on the quality of the performance and will tend to pick the same, small group of kids for each performance, because they’re the ones who can sing/dance/act/learn lines.

I can absolutely see the merits of both approaches but if you believe that being part of a play is a quintessential part of a child’s school life and it really doesn’t matter to parents if the songs are out of tune and the lines get forgotten more often than remembered, you’re going to want to ensure your child’s school agrees with you.

Closely related to this: do you hold competitive sports days, and do all the kids take part? Personally I’m a big believer in letting kids learn about winning and losing with grace, but not all primary schools are.

If the school’s philosophy on extra-curricular activities doesn’t tally with yours, can you (and will you want to) pay for alternative out-of-school activities to fill the gap?

What are the lunch options?

Until your child starts school, you won’t realise just how big a part of their day the lunch break can be.

For the first two years, more often than not, it’s literally the ONLY thing they remember. When they’ve forgotten what lessons they did, who they played with, and what they played in gym, they’ll remember it was sausages and apple pie for lunch.

So I’d always recommend asking to see a menu, checking whether meals are prepared on site, and what the options are for children who are fussy eaters or have specific dietary needs. If the school insists on children eating school lunches, or if that’s your preference, do ask whether teachers are on hand to encourage good choices in the dining hall – will staff let your child eat white bread and ham sandwiches with crisps every single day for months on end without letting you know?

Flea’s school has compulsory school lunches which are freshly prepared, but I never thought to ask about them before she started – d’oh!

What’s your policy on gender equality?

This one’s tricky as I know for every parent you meet, you’ll probably have a different point of view on these issues and schools can’t possibly please everyone – but I think it’s important to know that school is roughly backing up the values you are raising your family with at home. If you’re raising a daughter to believe that there’s no such thing as a girl’s toy and a boy’s toy then you want to make sure reception class won’t be making that distinction in the toy box.

Does the school allow girls to play football? Can boys join the after-school dance club? If you tell your children that men can marry men if they want to and that’s perfectly okay, or that it’s important to respect difference but not necessarily treat people differently, then that message really needs to be backed up at school (should it arise). If I was choosing a primary school now, I’d definitely be asking about equality and diversity policies.

How do you encourage kids to play nice?

If there’s one thing guaranteed to stab you in the heart, it’s your child coming home from school and telling you that nobody played with them that day. Or that week. It happens. Primary school is a (very) slightly tamer version of Lord of the Flies, and there will always be those kids that take charge in the playground, and those kids who quietly slink away because they don’t want the confrontation.

How a school deals with this can be a big indicator of whether your child is going to thrive, or start dreading school. I know that some schools will have regular chats with kids about the importance of sharing and turn-taking, or teachers and older kids are involved in helping to organise games at lunchtime.

One of my friend’s kids goes to a school where they award merit badges and have a wall of honour for kids that play nicely together, with special notice paid to encouraging boys and girls to play together. I love that idea. Friendship is such a key part of the primary school experience, I’m surprised I didn’t ask more questions about it before we chose a school – we lucked out with a school that’s done a great job of supporting Flea in that regard.

What sort of homework do you set?

I’m not a big fan of homework in primary schools, full stop. In Flea’s younger years, I basically refused to let Flea do homework. I think there are WAY more important things to do during the hours between finishing school and going to bed.

As your child gets older though, it’s harder to stick to this philosophy, and homework becomes more useful as a way of helping kids build independent study skills.

But different schools have vastly different approaches to homework – I know some schools set term-long projects inviting kids to build games or models or create reports, while other schools focus on worksheets and lists of spellings. If your kid absolutely has to do homework, personally I’d rather it was engaging. It’s hard enough to get children enthusiastic about homework but when it’s yet another list of spellings to memorise or yet another worksheet of maths puzzles, it’s got to be a thousand times harder.

 

It’s amazing to me, really, how fast primary school has passed by – and I’m happy with the school I chose because, by and large, Flea has been very happy there. She has great friendships, she’s been supported academically and is performing well, and perhaps most of all, I feel she’s at a place each day where the staff know and care about her. But the things that have made that possible really weren’t the things I expected – when it comes to young kids, I think their happiness is really determined by simple things like food, and friends, and being able to feel a part of the fun things that go on at school. What questions do you wish you’d asked about schools before your kids started?

 

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About 

Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She's also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world's coolest ten year old.

9 Comments

  1. 26th February 2015 / 11:06 am

    My son is half way through his first year and we’re happy with our choice. He’s gone for the less obvious option of a large primary school. There were small village schools available but my reasoning is that one child can absorb the whole school in a tiny place like that (I speak from experience here) and in very small schools, years can be combined which is not always good in my opinion.

    My son likes structure and his day is very structured. He has access to two other classes in his year at break times but the school hasn’t gone down the route of having open plan classrooms as others have either within a year or within the whole school in my area. The school is also very focussed on manners and discipline which I am too.

    All of these things were obvious when I walked round by the behaviour of children and the attitude. I’m still early in my son’s school career but so far we’re happy and he’s thriving.

    It’s interesting what you say about drama. Another school had an obvious focus on drama and it was a bit smiley, happy clappy, aren’t we all great, “Let’s put on a SHOW!” 😀 To be honest, let’s not.
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  2. Lindsey - mummy and director
    26th February 2015 / 2:10 pm

    I really did not think about a lot of this! My daughter is in reception and we have had a number of issues that we have had to work hard to resolve and some are still ongoing.

    You think you have done all your research and you have visited the school on the open day and asked a quick one liner question about their menu, what their daily classes will be like etc; but, you don’t REALLY think about these things in as much detail as we probably would like to.

    I am lucky with my daughters school as they are really good with the food as she has a dietary requirement and they keep on top of asking me if something new is on the menu, if she can have it.

    If I had to go though the primary school process again I think one of the big things I would ask about is the supervision/provision on the playground. Don’t get me wrong they are very well supervised but some of the issues we have had is relating to a particular girl who has realised that she cannot get away with her ‘bullying’ (and I say that word with caution) in the classroom; however, she can in the playground.

    I might have to archive this for when we are due to look at secondary school! (this is in the far distance at the mo!)

  3. 26th February 2015 / 6:52 pm

    I specifically asked about menus, performance arts and PE when viewing schools. I also asked about their bullying policy, SEN policy and parental involvement. (Mostly because of Sam’s special needs, I’ll grant you)! I didn’t even consider homework or gender equality though. Great tips, Sally! Good luck with the secondary school search!

  4. Mel
    26th February 2015 / 8:57 pm

    You really make great points there, Sally. I would never have thought of asking those questions, and like you, I was really stressing about the school I would send my first to. At the end of the day, we didn’t get what we wanted and to be fair, he is happy and that’s all that matters.

    The 5 questions you make all play a crucial part in our children’s development and enjoyment of the school experience.

    I am pinning this on my parenting board. I wish I’d had your list three years ago!

  5. 26th February 2015 / 8:59 pm

    Some very good tips for new parents when choosing primary school. We have a different problem now. As we have moved, Isabelle still attends the school she has been attending since she was 3 years old… but hate commuting and it’s a nightmare in the morning rush hour.

    There is an excellent primary school just literally 5 mins walk from our new house but as it is very popular there is no chance for Isabelle to get in. She has been on the waiting list to 3 closest local schools since last May… Olivia will be starting pre-school this September, and should get in one of the local school.

    The dilemma I have is how to do 2 school runs, which is timewise impossible as isabelle’s current school so far away. Let’s see maybe a magic will happen and isabelle will get in one of the local school by then. Fingers crossed.

    Just do not get the schooling system here in the UK. back home in the CR you move, you get in the school, no waiting lists, etc… such a nightmare for parents!
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  6. 26th February 2015 / 9:23 pm

    I looked around the schools and checked out the policies before sending my son to the one I thought best.
    The school was so good that I ended up working there and still do to this day !
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  7. 27th February 2015 / 4:09 pm

    This is really useful. Thanks for sharing..I’ve got a couple of years yet until I’m in primary school but worth knowing 🙂 Baby Isabella x
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  8. 4th March 2015 / 6:30 am

    great tips…secondary school looms for us off to meet the comp co-ordinator today ..not sure if its right for us and in agonies over the decision . AAAAgh can you do one for secondary schools pls,
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  9. 16th March 2015 / 4:13 pm

    Such good advice here. The sad truth is that often things are “hidden” and you don’t truly know you’ve made the right choice until it’s too late!

    Lively wall displays are good.

    And there’s the “snotty nose” test in reception. If one of the kids (or more!) have encrusted snotty noses, then it’s a sign that they’re not being well cared for!!
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