Visiting schools when you move is both time consuming and daunting but also really important. You won't choose a school from information on the internet I'm afraid - much as I love the world wide web for everything possible. You really do need to walk and talk to those who are there. That said when someone says you need to trust your 'gut' I always worry mine will be focused on the smell of lunch and won't spot the important issues. This is a guide - it might help you if your gut forgets to send you a message.
The first top tip has to be to visit the school on a normal day. Open days can help you to short list but don’t necessarily give you a real accurate view of the school – on Open Days, displays are put up, everything is gleaming and all is a show. You'll need to meet the Head (or at least someone senior). We appreciate heads can't always spend an hour showing every parent around the school but you should at least get to meet them and say hello. The Head of the school really does play a vital role, both in terms of the daily life of the children but also staff motivation and that's critical for a sense of a school.
There are some basic questions to get you going if you’re feeling blank – such as what are the class sizes, do they have teaching assistants. You can also ask if they have a buddy system for pupils joining and how they help children settle in if they aren’t arriving at the usual start time, what happens if they join midterm etc. You can also ask to see a lunch menu – all of this gets the ball rolling and helps to open up a dialogue.
Looking around – what am I actually looking at?
- How well are the facilities maintained? Are bathrooms clean and well supplied, and do the grounds look safe and inviting? Is the playground up together with facilities repaired and safe and cared for. Schools don’t need to have the flashiest facilities but knowing they are well looked after does make a difference. Are the classrooms linked to the internet?
- What are the staff like with the pupils? How do they interact with the children? Do teachers seem enthusiastic and knowledgeable, asking questions that stimulate students and keep them engaged? When the pupils are moving from area to area what is there behaviour and mood. Do they seem to be relaxed and having fun whilst being respectful of authority and in some sort of order? Does the head teacher seem keen to interact with parents, pupils, and teachers?
- Are the displays on the walls up together and age appropriate? Does it look like the children’s own work or all done and stuck up at the start of the school term with no pupil input?
- Do the teaching staff seem engaged, interest and enthusiastic. Ask how many staff are leaving and get a feel for the relationship with the head. Ask the teachers about the Head's latest policy - they will tow the party line but you'll see if they are on board or not from their reaction.
- Does your child's learning style match the school's way of teaching? For example, if you have a highly active child who'd rather run than read or who has to touch and feel an object to really understand its function, then a school that emphasizes discipline and structure might not be the best options whilst a child who needs that structure might not benefit from being at a more freewheeling school. If you’re not yet sure what your child’s style might be consider how your life is at home and how you’d prefer it to be.
- How do they reward good behaviour? What’s their policy on bullying? We all know we shouldn't trust a school who says they don’t have any bullying – it’s how they deal with it that is important.
- How do teachers handle difficult situations or disruptive children? Do they react with a positive change to find an alternative solution such as moving where children sit or do they use punishment, such as giving a child an extra assignment or making him leave the room? Critical to this whether their disciplinary style matches your own. There isn’t a right or wrong but just what suits your child.
- What are the facilities for communication between parents and children? Does the school value what parents have to say and respond to issues parents raise? Is there an active parent-teacher organization? What role is expected of you as a parent in terms of homework etc?
- Be honest and ask the head teacher why the school is best suited to your child and how it compares to other schools in their area. Do the values and ideals of the school echo those of your family? Does the school celebrate and respect the values you hold dear? Is the school diverse enough that it has other children like your child so he doesn't feel left out?
- It's worth asking about the Board of Governors. Are there vacancies, if so, how many? Access to the Minutes of Governing Body Meetings should be available on the school website. It is worth reading them to see if agendas are actioned and the school is constantly evolving. If you're looking at a State School then question the Head about his or her views of Academy Status. If suggestions have been made by OFSTED then cross reference the Governing Body minutes and see if OFSTED’s advice has been adhered to.
Curriculum Bits and Bobs
- For primary age children particularly ask what reading scheme they use. If they've changed to a commercial phonics scheme (such as Jolly Phonics) check they have the right reading books to support these schemes. Lots of schools buy the reading scheme, but don't replace their stock of reading books so they learn phonics at school but have the wrong books for take-home reading. Also how often do they swap reading books – twice a week is about right but it’s worth asking the head teacher and class teacher to see what really happens.
- How often does the teacher listen to them reading – classroom assistants and volunteer readers are useful but shouldn’t mean the teacher doesn’t hear your child read. Also who makes decisions about which child moves up a level for reading and can they skip a level if they are doing well and advancing quickly.
- How much time for sport is allocated each week – what do they play? Do they play competitive sport? What’s important is that this matches with your own views on your child’s education.
- What extra curricula activities are there? Are they free or paying clubs? Is French or Spanish taught from Reception as part of the curriculum? If not, is there a club that child can join to learn.
- Ask them to tell you about the art and music – do they do class assemblies each term? Do they get to try different instruments and get involved in choirs, orchestras, bands etc. More and more research is pointing towards the importance of these subjects that shouldn't be considered secondary to the school day but should form an important part of the curriculum.
- In the playground, what do the children do? Who supervises playtime? How do they prevent football-playing boys from taking over the whole playground? This really does happen unless they take steps to prevent it by only allowing football on certain days or zoning the playground. Are playground incidents reported back to class teachers?
- What arrangements are made for Gifted and Talented Children? Some schools talk about it but in reality, little time is given for those children as in the State system they don’t show in statistics.
- Ask about school food. Seeing a menu for the week is one step but also find out whether the children are involved in food preparation and understanding where food comes from. Some schools make a real focus of this and seeing the local farms where food is sourced and getting involved in the kitchen is a really big part of the day.
- Academic results are a useful starting point but critical is the added value measure which shows how the children have done based on where they started. It’s a test of progress and whilst a bit complicated it can be helpful when looking at a schools results (for more information visit the Education website
- Ofsted publish their results but within that, they also have a Parent View section. It features 12 questions that cover a range of issues important to parents and schools, including how the school deals with behaviour and bullying, the quality of teaching and leadership, the level of homework set and a final question on whether or not a parent would recommend the school. Once a small number of surveys are completed, the results for the school are visible in Parent View. This is a new initiative and therefore not all schools have got views but it's worth keeping an eye as personal responses are so worthwhile.
For information on Ofsted and why you should ignore an outstanding school click here.