Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Visiting potential schools – questions to ask

Chris and I will be going to visit one of the schools where Rosemary may go tomorrow. And the other one two weeks later. There are only two within walking distance, one very small (16 intake) and the other pretty big (37). Actually, there is a third, but that’s a Catholic school and we wouldn’t really consider it, being very unreligious. There’s also a school in a nearby village that has a bus that stops close by, which we might consider, but probably not. There are other schools around, but they would all involve about an hour’s walk, or driving. Most of them aren’t accessible by public transport at the right time, though some are.

So… what questions do we need to ask? Here are some that I’ve come up with off the top of my head:

  • What technology is used in teaching?
  • How are pupils’ individual needs assessed and catered to (e.g. special interests, extra help, extra challenges)?
  • What is the level and type of religious education? Can pupils be excused from religious assemblies and, if so, what would they do instead?
  • When are languages started and which one/s?
  • What are the meals like (e.g. healthy, veggie option, packed lunch option)?
  • How do teachers and parents communicate?
  • What is the policy on time off (e.g. OK to take a day off to visit an aquarium or museum, OK to go on holiday in term time, or neither)?
  • Is there much bullying and how is this addressed?
  • Does the school have an overall ethos?
  • How are different cultures explored?
  • How are stereotypes avoided?
  • What outdoor play facilities are there?
  • How many classroom assistants are there in each class?
  • What sort of teaching methods are used?

What would (or did) you ask? Is there anything you especially like about your children’s school? Is there anything you really hate about your children’s school and would advise avoiding? Do you think a smaller school is better than a bigger one, in general? Any other tips for the whole school choice palaver?


  1. 4year old and 3year old's school is small with only one class for every year. This is nice because it seems that the staff know every child. Our school spends time getting to know the children and it feels like a nice homely environment.

    Unfortunately a small group of kids have ruined the school's attendence figures so they are very strict with time off. I recently had a letter warning me about 4year old's attendence but she has been in hospital etc so that was a bit of a downer.

    I asked about what they will be learning, policies on injurys at school (phone call etc), structure of the day and toilet facilities and such.

    Our school is church of england which i like because i am a religious so i am glad they learn about the bible and say prayers etc It also means they have day trips to the local church for christmas, harvest and easter.

    I hope your visit goes well, i find if you feel at home at the school it will be a good choice. I felt that as soon as i stepped in their school and nursery.

  2. Thanks, Amy! It's a veritable mine-field. Kind of wish that they just automatically had to go to the closest one, and we didn't have to worry about it. But I know that didn't work out for me as a child (small village so just one school, ended up home-schooled as I had such a bad time there), so I shouldn't really wish that!

    We'd actually prefer no prayers or bible, just general religious education (e.g. 'Christians believe.... Muslims believe... Jewish people believe.... etc. etc.), but it looks like bible and prayers may be compulsory even in community schools.

    I like the school secretary already, as she was very nice on the phone when I made the appointment and then again when she called to change the time.

  3. I have a son in yr 5 and a daughter in yr 2 so hope I am qualified to add my comments, although I realise every parent has their own agenda and beliefs about what is important to them in education.

    I would suggest:

    - look on line for the ofsted reports of the schools you are interested in, a grade 1 is outstanding, 2 is good. If there any areas where the school scored 3 then these are the areas I would focus your questions on when you speak with the head.

    -find out if the school is currently or likely to be oversubscribed. If they are then I would definately recommend putting 3 preferences on your application form, otherwise if you dont get your first choice you will be offered a place at the nearest school with a place AFTER they have allocated all the preferences. This could mean you end up with a school that is underperforming and also not local to you.

    - ref religious education, under national ciriculum guidelines schools offer an overview of all the main religions and their customs/celebrations, it is very general, with no particular religion being taught as such.

    - most school start launguages in year 3 but at my dd's infant school we were able to sign the kids up for lessons after school which you could pay for.

    - all school have to have a written anti bullying policy and lay down how they will deal with any incidences.

    - at my dd's school they ran a free course (with free creche!) which was all about the teaching methods they use for both literacy and maths. most school will hold some sort of meeting to explain to parents how they teach reading etc so you can support it at home.

    - If you are able I would recommend to have a CRB check done so you can help out if you are ever able to as this is a good way to see what goes on.

    I could ramble on all day, but they are my main bits of advice for you for now. I'd say go with where you think your child will be happy.

  4. Juicytots: Thank you, that's really useful information. I was going to avoid the Ofsted reports, because I know how they don't show everything, but that's an interesting point to look at anything they score especially low on. Thanks. The small school only has 16 places and there are known to be 10 siblings, plus there are over 20 children attending the playgroup, so not everyone is going to get in. Which is why we're going to see the other one, but maybe we should check a couple of public transport distance schools too, just in case!

  5. That does seem like a lot of questions. I'd certainly look at the Ofstead report. I'd also go by the 'feel' you get from the school as well, whether there seems to be a happy atmosphere. My sister is a teacher, she says to look for 'value added' in an Ofsted report. My daughter is at a Catholic school because it just happens to be the best in the area. Don't be put of by the religious side, over half the kids there are not catholic so Rosemary would not be alone.

  6. Thanks, Rosie. I shall look at the value added. We probably won't end up asking most of those questions - I imagine a lot of them will be answered when he tells us about the school and shows us round anyway. I always plan loads of questions for something like this and manage to ask about three! That's interesting to know about the Catholic school.

  7. You have lots of great questions, I think you've covered nearly all the important stuff! But I think it's also important to remember that you're trying to make sure it's the right school for your child. You have to focus on what you need to know for your child's personality and needs - you're the only one who knows what they are. Other questions you might want to ask are: how much homework do they get (you don't want them being overloaded). How much supervision is there at playtime? What kind of school visits do they go on? And if possible try to meet the reception teacher - you want her to be someone you warm to.

    As far as exploring different cultures (and religions) because of the national curriculum you find this tends to be quite extensive.

    Finally - and I know this is going to seem as though you're planning far too far in advance... but it's a good idea to find out where their leavers go (if you can). And if a lot of kids leave at seven (to go to prep school for example - this happened at my son's state primary.)

  8. Thanks, Liz. Some good questions, there. The poor guy will feel completely bombarded if we ask all of these!

    Ooh, meet the reception teacher; that's really important. Hopefully will get to do that. Never even considered there might be children leaving to go to prep school or something. Don't think that should be the case here, as I'm fairly certain the big private school locally starts at nursery age.

  9. I think you have a fantastic list of things there. I very much had the same options as you, a very small school and a large one, both have their advantages.

    Other questions I asked:

    What sort of extra-curricular activities did they have, did they offer anything at lunchtimes.
    Discipline Policy
    Did they offer music lessons
    Ratio of children to staff and do they operate a key worker system.
    What pastoral care did they offer.
    What links did they have with local community and business'

    TBH a lot of my questions were answered on the visit and I loved the feel of both schools. In the end we opted for the closest!!

  10. TheMadHouse: Thank you. Some more good ones there! As you say, a lot of the questions will probably be answered by the head without us asking, anyway, but it's good to be prepared. Tomorrow's school is the closest one - where, until recently we assumed she'd just automatically go. Our feeling for it at the moment (from being at the playgroup and talking to other parents) is that it's a lovely school and she'd be very happy there. Am pretty sure she'll be fine at either of them, but just want to be sure I don't miss out something really important.

    And, of course, we know that all the questions and gut feelings can turn out to be wrong three or four years down the road, anyway!

  11. I'd go with your gut feeling and convenience - so if the closest one feels good definitely go for it. It will become a chore having to travel a long way each day if you chose one further away. If there are any problems later on you can easily change school provided the other school have a place. I'd also check class sizes and ask if they mix different years groups together.

  12. There is also Alpha Mummy's post here which may be of interest:

  13. I was terribly lazy and went with the closest one. It didn't even have the very best reputation (although it has a good one), but it was most important to me to have the kids integrated into the community and that's what this school does for us. They know the kids in the surrounding streets now.

  14. Don't worry so much about asking questions of the teachers when you are visiting the schools that you forget to look closely at the surroundings. You can always phone them or e-mail with anything you want to know later. The real value in a visit is to look closely at the environment.

    Look around and ask yourself some questions...

    How are the teachers engaging with the children? How are the children behaving with each other? Do the activities/classrooms look well organised? Are the wall displays colourful and current? Does the children's work on display look like the children have done it themselves or are they all uniform because they have been helped out too much? Do the children look happy and engaged in their activies? Do you feel like the overall atmosphere is one Rosemary will thrive in? Does the teacher/teachers assistant have a personality that Rosemary will react well to? Do the teachers look happy? Are the toilets clean?

    You'll know by the feel of the place and what you see, whether Roasemary will feel settled there or not.

  15. I'd have to agree with everyone who says about getting a 'feel' for the place and going with your gut feel.
    All those questions listed are easily answered and are probably prepared for but you can't hide a school's personality and as you walk around and see the pupils and how they interact and how the teachers interact with them I think is very telling.
    Sure you want a 'good' school but your daughter has to go there every day and if she's not happy in the environment she will never thrive.
    I don't mean to worry you, but I have never known stress like I did the day I had to start searching for schools for my son! (we couldn't get into any in our catchment).
    Sounds to me like you are totally switched on and ready though x

  16. I think the size of the school depends on the child. I sent my daughter to a school with 200+ pupils as opposed to the many 50-100 place village schools around because she was very shy and I wanted her to get confident in a big school before going onto Secondary where they are 500+ pupils. It has work for her, but it depends on the childs own personality.

    I wouldn't ask too many questions, I would ask to walk around and see how happy the child are and the activities they are doing. Trust your instinct - children give off clear vibes about how they feel. The schools ethos will show through the way pupils react to you. i.e. respect, polite, happy or ignore, push past, talk over you.

    Good luck - it is a difficult decision and a difficult time. xx

  17. Oooh, I went to look at a school today for my son and didn't ask many questions at all.
    I mainly went on the other children's appearances and behaviour. They all seemed happy, the results are good so I was pleased.
    I have another child at one of the top schools in the country and I don't necessarily think that results equal happiness. I also think that different children ( in the same family) often need different schools that suit them as individuals.
    Good luck with it all, it is a minefield.

  18. No advice, just wishing you luck!

  19. I have to agree with Rosie and Tara and say that the 'feel' of the school is the most important thing. And now that my girls are in Year Six, I can see how much the differing aptitudes and approaches of different teachers can have an effect. If it was me, I would be asking the staff what they love about the school and how they help each child reach its potential, I'd ask about after school activities, how they teach children to respect and care for each other and that would be about it! We went with our junior school as it is in walking distance (two are) but it had the better Oftsted. teh situation has now reversed and the headmaster has been replaced. Now as they head to secondary school, on the same site, it is my daughters' friendships and a feeling of security that have been the best things. Good luck with it. x