How many schools should you look at?
Even if you have your heart set on one school, try to visit at least three to compare and contrast. Throw in one wild-card, as well: this is particularly important if your preferred schools are over-subscribed.
Open evening or in-session visit?
While open evenings offer a good overview of a school, the best way to form an accurate impression is to visit on a normal school day. ‘A good school should have no objection to showing prospective parents around,’ says John Coe, chairman of the National Association for Primary Education.
Are the children well-presented and polite?
‘The school that stood out for us wasn’t the one with the best Ofsted report, but the one with confident, helpful pupils,’ says Emma, mum to twins Seth and Toby, 10. As well as checking out the standards on open day, drive past at the beginning or end of the day to check out the behaviour of children on their way into or out of school.
Are the facilities well maintained?
Look beyond the obvious teaching areas for real indications of how a school is maintained. ‘The toilets often provide a good clue as to how well the facilities are looked after,’ says John. The library and lunch hall are also worthy of your attention.
What are the exam results like?
This is probably the biggest deal-breaker for parents. ‘Look at whether schools get a good percentage of higher grades,’ suggests Angeline Tyler, co-author of Choosing a Secondary School and Getting In. ‘Whether you child gets those ultimately or not, it will tell you that the teaching quality overall is good.’
What progress do students make?
‘Make sure all students make progress at the school,’ advises Angeline. ‘If a pupil is just above average at the start of Year 7 and is still just above average when he leaves Year 11, what difference has the school made to him?’
How will the school cater for your child’s needs?
If your child shows an aptitude for certain subjects, look for a school with high standards in those areas. Bear in mind, too, that your child needs more than good grades to succeed. ‘My son has Asperger’s, so it was important for us to choose a school with good SEN provision,’ says Clare, mum to James, 13.
Will the size suit your child?
‘Parents often feel that smaller schools are better, and there’s evidence to suggest that their gut instinct is correct,’ says John. ‘However, some large schools are very good at fostering a community feeling, organising themselves into smaller and more friendly units such as houses.’
What is the learning environment like?
‘Go into the classrooms for a range of subjects and look at how the tables are arranged,’ says Angeline. ‘Rows suggest old-fashioned teaching where students interact only with the teacher and not with one another. Also, sit where a pupil might sit and look at the room from a student’s perspective. Can you see the whiteboard and displays? Are there lots of well-organised resources, or a mess of torn books and piles of unattended paperwork?’
What extra-curricular activities are offered?
‘Out-of-school activities are a good indicator of the breadth of experiences and enjoyment available to students,’ explains John.
How is discipline handled?
Some children respond to a softly-softly approach, while others need a firmer hand, so look at how teachers discipline the students. ‘My daughter is bright but lazy, so I wanted a very strict environment to keep her motivated,’ says Miriam, mum to 12-year-old Yasmine.
Do senior staff know the students’ names?
Are the teachers are interested in the children as individuals, rather than just in their results? It’s a good sign if the head knows the names of the students in the corridors and is visible during the school day, for example doing walkabouts and taking assemblies. ‘The pastoral care is more important to me than anything,’ says Suzanne, mum to Matthew, 14, and Daniel, 12. ‘Results mean nothing if the school doesn’t care for the children.’
What does your child think of the school?
While it’s not advisable to let your child have the casting vote in choosing a school (most, after all, just want to go where their friends are going), do give her a say in the decision. ‘I took Lauren to visit four possible schools,’ says Jill, whose daughter is 12. ‘We then discussed the choices, and fortunately, we agreed that one just felt right. She has settled in well, and I couldn’t be happier.’
A few other things to consider:
- Are the classrooms organised? Is work displayed on the walls in the classroom and corridors, and is it up-to-date? Children like to see their work displayed and take pride in it being selected, but look for a range of children's work, not just the top students’ everywhere.
- Is the outside space well organised and clean and tidy?
- At break times, are there staff present and interacting with the children? Are there children alone? Drive by a few times, and see if the staff are involved.
- How is the security at the school?
- Try to visit whilst the school is actually doing business and running. Is it silent and intimidating, or is there a 'hum' of workmanlike conversation from the students?
- Do students respond if you ask them a question? Are they attentive to the teacher, or paying more attention to you as a visitor? If 30 heads are looking at you it's always possible that there aren't many visitors or outside resources invited into the classroom.
- Does the school share information about how you can contribute as a parent and what opportunities there are for you to attend the school?
- Look into the governing body online. Has the school had trouble recruiting governors or do people finish their term and stay on again?
- During school visits do you only get to meet the headteacher or are you introduced to the relevant key stage teacher?
- Is the school open about their last Ofsted report and realistic about what they as a school are doing to address anything raised? Find out more about how to read an Ofsted report with our teacher’s tips for parents.
- How are the children dressed? Are they smart and put together in uniform generally? Are there pegs/lockers available for them to organise outdoor wear?
- What sports activities are available?
- What school trips are programmed and at what stages? Will your child be happy to participate in those, what will they cost and can you support it? Some schools have a very blasé attitude to parental finances, but equally you will want opportunities for your child to travel to new places and have different experiences.
- Does the school have a school council? How is it formed? How are children elected? Is there a house system? What is that used for and is it competitive? Some children respond well to competitiveness, others don’t, and schools have very divergent views on competition.
- Are the teachers newly qualified (NQTs) or experienced members of staff? Will teachers have new techniques and up-to-date knowledge? Does the school promote teacher training?
- How many lessons a week will your child’s class have non-teacher contact time and who takes this time? The balance is a challenge for all schools, how they manage this will tell you a lot about whether they use a 'holding pattern' during this time (or any teacher absence) or whether they use it more effectively.
The most important thing is to remember is that you have a choice, you are interviewing the school. Schools are financed on numbers, they need to attract children. So check them out, ask questions; they should be very happy to entertain you and be informative. If you feel they aren't, then they probably won't work with you if you have concerns later. Take your child and allow them to see the school and listen to their opinion, but make your choices based on a wider view – remember, they will make friends anywhere!