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Wednesday 3 January 2024

10 Questions to ask when choosing a Primary School

Are you currently looking around Primary Schools for next September ready for your child to start in Reception class, or, Foundation stage 2? Are you wondering what questions you should ask when choosing a new school? What things you should be looking for when looking around a new school or classroom?

 I found it really hard to approach this task with my 'parent hat' on, rather than my 'Teacher hat'. As many of you will know, I am a Primary School Teacher who specialised in the Early Years (EYFS) and I am extremely passionate about active, free-flow, play based learning. 

10 questions to ask when choosing a primary school

I have compiled a list of questions to ask when trying to choose a primary school below, some of which I asked when looking around the schools...some that I wish I had asked! Anyway, here is the benefit of my hindsight, carefully set out for you to use when researching schools for yourself... and once you've chosen, you can pop back and read my post all about school readiness and how to help our children prepare for Reception class. 

10 Questions to ask when choosing a Primary School

1) In Reception, what proportion of the day is available for free-flow, independent learning?

This is a really important question when thinking about which school/setting will work best for our youngest learners. Children need long stretches of uninterrupted play in order to work on challenges, test theories and delve into deeper level learning. If children are regularly 'stopped' or moved on from an area where they are working (I used work and play in the same context here as EYFS classroom should be set up and planned for so that children think they are playing when what they are actually doing is learning based on something fun and engaging set up and left out by an adult) then play will never move on from superficial 'playing around' and children will often choose the resources that are quick and easy to get out and put away in the knowledge that they may be rushed for time.

Don't make the mistake of assuming that free flow 'playing time' in a Reception classroom is different to focused activity 'work time' and that unless they are sat doing an activity they will not be learning. This isn't the case. Young minds learn better when they are being active, and doing something fun and enjoyable, much more so than passive learning, sitting down and listening. Most young children use up so much concentration in their attempts to 'sit still' and look like they are listening to a teacher that they don't have the ability to concentrate on anything else.

If you are looking around a classroom in the morning and the children are still on the carpet, enquire how long they have been there and when does carpet time transition into free flow learning?

2) What phonics scheme do the school follow?

Again, a really important bit of knowledge to have. Your child may already have been introduced to phonics at pre-school or nursery. Does the school use the same teaching methods? Are you doing something similar at home? How can you best prepare your child if they are ready for additional learning before school starts?

Knowing which scheme your chosen school uses will help you if phonics is something that plays a part in your child's life before school.

Most schools use any of the following:

Jolly Phonics - uses rhymes/songs, actions and pictures/characters to help teach a child the different letter sounds (phonemes) and how they are written down (graphemes). My personal fave!

Ruth Miskin - Read, Write, Inc - a very structured way of teaching which is usually a whole school approach and feeds into the guided reading higher up the school too. Uses pictures to help teach how to form the letter. Often taught during a 'literacy hour'. Schools have to buy into this scheme and teachers receive special training to follow this exactly. Currently a 'favourite' of the Government - this may or may not be a good/bad thing.

Letters and Sounds - a guidance published by the Department of education in 2007 which most Teachers use loosely to inform their planning, often whilst using another scheme such as Jolly Phonics. Loads of info online if you want to look into this further.

3) What is their behaviour management policy?

Often this will (and should) be different lower down the school compared to higher up in the school. For example, younger children will need a more nurturing approach where feelings are validated and explained rather than jumping straight into negative consequences. Positive praise and reinforcement of good behaviours is key. 

Ask about reward systems in place - they may have whole school or class based systems, or even both. Do these systems reward only those who do something 'extra' or outstanding, rather than those children who may be making the right choices all of the time and not getting any recognition for that? Are they more punitive systems whereby the children are getting attention for things they have done wrong? Are they systems which require children to 'earn' something (like a housepoint) or do all children start with the recognition of their good behaviour (eg, everyone starts with a smiley face) and this changes based on the choices they make after that?

You can tell a lot about the ethos of a school from the types of systems they have in place.

NB: A very wise tutor at my teacher training university once explained that 'stickers' and reward systems really should not be needed in an Early Years classroom. A carefully planned, exciting and engaging learning area which is regularly 'changed' and 'enhanced' will be motivation enough for children to want to learn....and if not, then the Teacher should look at how they can plan to the child's interest to re-engage them with the learning opportunities, rather than look at the child's behaviour as the issue.

4) Do Reception have access to an outside learning area during free flow or only at set times?

If you would like to know more about why the outside area is SO important and why this should not be seen as 'separate' from the indoor learning area you can read my post here all about learning through play outside and why outdoor play is important. The outdoor classroom should be seen as an extension of the indoor classroom, not a separate place for 'playtime'. 

Aside from the above, there are certain types of children who come alive whilst working outside and who really do do their best learning in the fresh air and open spaces. Having 'freeflow' where the children choose whether to work inside or outside really is important.

Whilst you're at it, find out what outdoor learning opportunities their are for children higher up in the school. Do they have an outdoor classroom at all?

5) What is the usual daily routine? - start time, finish time, break times?

Most schools have this information on their website but it is worth double checking and making a note of this, especially if you have another child at a different nursery/preschool or need to dash off for a train to work. Some schools start at 8.30, some at 8.45, some at 9am. Similarly, some finish at 3.10pm, 3.15pm or even 3.30pm. 

A lot of schools only have a break time (for children in year 1 and above) in a morning. Some will have a break in the morning and in the afternoon.

Depending on the answer to this question, you may need wrap around care or help with drop off/pick up which leads me onto my next question...

6) Are there before and after school clubs available?

Many schools will have a before or after school club facility available. Some will be 'on site' but others may be elsewhere with staff available to drop off and pick up the children. 

Those schools which don't have this option may run a 'breakfast club', although don't assume that this will be open for everyone. Some schools have certain criteria and run on an 'invite only' basis. 

Information on costs are often available on school website or from their office.  If these options are not available in your chosen school, ask for advice and recommendations on local childminders who may drop off and pick up for your school. You will need to pop yourself on their waiting list early if this is a service that you will definitely require.

7) Staff ratios - how many staff to how many children?

The staff ratios for children in Primary schools are different to preschools and nurseries. In preschools working with children aged 3+ there must be one member of staff for every 13 children ( 1 for every 4 children for 2 year olds), but in Primary school the LEGAL requirement is actually 1 adult for every 30 children.

Obviously, if a Reception classroom were to run  effectively and make use of the indoor and outdoor classroom then this would require a minimum of 2 members of staff.

More than 2 is a real bonus as this means that staff can observe and involve themselves in the children's play more effectively, allowing for sustained shared thinking and scaffolding of the children whilst they learn.

Some schools have a shared nursery/reception which makes use of the staff across both for all children.

Check whether there are Teaching assistants / support staff in classrooms higher up in the school too.

It’s also important that the school has effective security technology in place to make sure that pupils are protected even if staff members are otherwise engaged. Check for school door security systems to keep intruders out and automated lockdown systems designed to immediately secure classrooms in the event of an emergency.

8) How do you support under/over achievers?

Knowing how a school plans for and supports their 'gifted and talented' children is just as important as planning for and supporting children with additional needs or those who may just be struggling.

Some schools will send children to partake in certain classes higher up in the school (eg phonics), some will undertake separate activities and interventions outside of the classroom with a member of staff, some will have a more inclusive approach where the children stay with their peers but activities, questions and challenges are changed and differentiated for the child.

If your child falls into this bracket then this is a really important bit of information when deciding which setting will best cater for your child's needs.

9) Lunchtimes - Are all year groups together and do packed lunches and school dinners sit together?

If you have a child who is daunted by the prospect of 'big' school and may feel lost around the older children then this may be an important consideration for you.

Some primary schools have a separate eating area for Reception and also a separate outdoor play area.

Some schools have all ages in the same dining hall, but separate playing areas after lunch.

Some schools have packed lunches and school dinners in separate areas - this can sometimes lead to friends being sat apart based on whether they have chosen to have school dinners or packed lunches.

NB: At the moment, all Reception children are entitled to free school meals when starting primary school.

10) Year 1 transition - do the children in Year 1 still have access to provision?

This is a topic very, very close to my heart and something I am HUGELY passionate about. I wrote my dissertation during my teacher training on whether year 1 children should still have play provision (spoiler: YES they SHOULD, you can read my post 'should year 1 still have continuous provision' here). I will probably write a blog post on this soon, but at the moment I think I'd struggle to keep this to a manageable size as I could literally go on and on and on about this.

Basically, what do we think happens to children once they turn into Year 1 children and take a few short steps down the corridor to their new classroom??!? Do they suddenly change their needs, their learning styles, their desire to play and learn in a fun way just because they are now in Key Stage 1 instead of EYFS? Of course not. ESPECIALLY our summer born children who may be almost a year younger than some of their peers.

Yes, there is a lot of pressure on Year 1 Teachers to cover the National Curriculum and get through certain lessons, but lets not forget what school is really here for? It is to teach our children and help them prepare for the outside world. It is there to give them the skills they will need later on in life, not to tick boxes to fulfill certain criteria of data for external bodies. 

If we miss out crucial skills and important play needs of the children lower down the school, there will be gaps as they get older - and some children don't get much opportunity outside of school either. 

We recently had a playroom extension built at home, which I have set up to allow for lots of child-led learning through play, so that my little ones still have access to free-slow learning no matter how school policy may change. 

I hope this list is helpful to you in choosing a primary school for your child - Once you have found your perfect place, pop back and read my post on how to prepare your child for Reception class, and my First Day of School Poem. 

Love Sarah xx


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