Choosing a School

See also: Supporting Children's Formal Learning

Choosing a school for your child, whether primary or secondary, is always going to be a difficult decision, not least because it may be fraught with emotional baggage.

Your feelings about the process are going to be affected by how you felt about your school, and about schools in general, as well as your child’s needs.

The choice is made more complicated by the fact that you also have to consider issues such as access and supply and demand, which may constrain your choices. For example, in the UK, some areas operate ‘catchment areas’, and others give children living closer to the school a higher priority than those living further away.

This page provides some ideas about what issues you might want to weigh up in making your choice.

Involving Your Child

Should you make the decision yourself, or should your child be involved?

In deciding whether your child is involved, and how much their preference will weigh with you, you may want to ask yourself:

  • Is my child old enough to make a mature and sensible decision based on their current and future needs?
  • If not, what is an age-appropriate level of involvement in the decision?
  • How much does my child want to be involved in the decision?
  • What are the likely effects of involvement or not involving them?
  • What will I do if my child’s choice is very different from mine? How will we decide whose views take priority, and how will we handle the situation?

How much, or whether, your child is involved in the choice of school is, of course, up to you. Only you will know your family well enough to decide what is right for you.

Perhaps the most important issue, however, is that you all, including the child, understand how the decision will be made and, particularly, who has the ‘casting vote’ in the event of a disagreement.

Practical Issues

Once you have decided how the decision will be made, and who will be involved, perhaps the next step is to consider practicalities. These may include, in particular:

Likelihood of getting a place

In the UK schools are limited in the number of pupils that they can take, either by their size, or by government policies on class sizes. Many good schools are over-subscribed, which means they have far more applicants than places. Schools and education authorities have systems in place to manage demand, and ensure that every child gets a place somewhere local. These systems and policies vary from location to location.

It is well worth familiarising yourself with these systems and policies before you look at any schools, whether primary or secondary.

There is, after all, no point in looking at a school if your child has no chance of getting a place there because of the access policies.

Top Tip!

If the access policies are not clear from published information, then it is a good idea to phone the authority or school and ask for more information. They will probably be happy to help, or at least point you to more useful information.

Travel arrangements

The second issue that is worth considering is how your child will get to the school.

Primary schools tend to be within walking distance of home, but secondary schools can be one or more bus rides away. It is worth checking out the transport arrangements ahead of time as this may be an important consideration. A choice between a school that is a ten-minute walk away from home, and one that is a sixty-minute, three-bus journey away is unlikely to rest entirely on the quality of the school, at least in your child’s mind.

Quality of provision

Probably the most important question for any parent is the quality of the school.

This falls into two main areas: teaching and facilities, although extra-curricular provision may also be an important part of the consideration.

Facilities and equipment

Assessing the quality of the facilities is fairly easy: go and visit, and have a look for yourself. Yes, of course the guided tour will focus on the good bits, but you will be able to make a judgement about what you are not being shown, as well as what you are seeing, and decide whether the facilities are good or not. You will also, by careful questioning, be able to find out about plans to invest in the facilities over the next few years.

Questions to ask include:

  • How much do you invest each year routinely in classroom equipment?
  • What plans do you have for spending on facilities over the next few years?
  • How often is equipment replaced on a routine basis?
  • How often do you update IT equipment? Bearing in mind that IT equipment is generally considered out-of-date after two years, this is an important indicator of how regularly investment is made.

It is also worth asking about the school’s Parent/Teacher Association (PTA), or Friends’ Association, as this organisation tends to raise funds for the school. An active PTA means more money to spend on extras.

Quality of Teaching

Quality of teaching is hard to assess, but there are ways and means.

These include:

  • Inspection reports, for example from OFSTED or the Independent Schools Inspectorate in the UK, can provide vital information about schools as a whole. The difficulty comes when inspection reports are several years old, and the school has clearly changed, because of a new head, or because it is trying very hard to improve;
  • Parents’ forums and other online resources like social media can be useful for making sure that parents are not complaining about the school, or to canvass views on particular schools;
  • Local parenting groups, or informal contacts made in the playground can often be very useful. Parents with older children can provide more information about the reputation of the school, and about their experiences. Be aware, though, that people with children at the school have a vested interest in believing that it is a good school;
  • Results from SATS (primary school public tests), public examinations, or senior school or university entrance can tell you a lot about the values of the school. For example, junior schools which pride themselves on preparing children for secondary schools will know exactly which schools their pupils went on to attend, particularly in areas with selective secondary schools. Schools which focus on their own SATS results are much less likely to be interested in that;
  • Going to visit the school is vital. If possible, go to a formal open day or open morning, but also arrange to visit informally at another time, and ask to visit classrooms to see them operating on a routine basis. This will give you the best idea of whether the atmosphere will suit your child.

The Bottom Line

The most important question of all is:

Will this school suit my child?

This question can be broken down into whether it will meet their educational needs and their social needs.

Educational needs are of course very important, but social needs can be even more so. A school where your child is happy and thriving, with plenty of friends, is likely to be a lot better for their education and general well-being than a school which gets excellent academic results, but where your child has no friends and is generally unhappy.

It is, however, possible to find both, even if it takes a bit of hunting down.

It is also useful to think about your child’s interests, and check that they will be met by the school. For example, if they like sports, does the school provide plenty of different sports to try in lessons and in extra-curricular clubs? If they love drama, does the school put on plays regularly?

A useful rule of thumb is that if you walk around the school and find yourself thinking “Oh, he/she will love that” quite often, the school is likely to suit them. On the other hand, if you find yourself thinking “That’s great, but I don’t suppose he/she will get much use out of that”, then it may not be quite so ideal.

It is NOT about whether you feel comfortable in the school. It may well be just like your school, where you were so happy, but you are not your child.