Do your research
It may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed how many parents rely on rumours and opinions of a certain school rather than using their own judgement, and their own eyes.
Start by going online to get all the inside knowledge on schools in your area. Go to ofsted.gov.uk/reports and type in the name of the school. Or try schoolsfinder.direct.gov.uk. You should be able to instantly access the school’s most recent Ofsted inspection report which is a detailed ‘warts and all’ description of everything from the school’s attendance records to the quality of teaching in every lesson.
These reports are invaluable and make fascinating reading. But do take note of the date the inspection was carried out (they only happen every three years). Don’t write a school off on the basis of a three year-old report. A lot may have changed since then.
Nothing beats a personal visit. Make an appointment with the school secretary to have a look around, with or without your child.
First impressions can be very accurate. Does it seem a happy school? Are the children absorbed in their work? Are the staff friendly? Is the classroom bright and cheerful? Is the artwork recent? Is equipment worn or well cared for?
Make sure you understand the school’s discipline procedure and attitude towards bullying. Does it have a Parent Teacher Association? Are parents encouraged to help out in the classroom? By the time your visit is over you should have a really clear idea about the school’s priorities and whether your child would be happy there.
You may never find a school that’s completely perfect, and if you do, it’s very likely to be oversubscribed. So be realistic. Your four-year-old child doesn’t need a state of the art gym or ten acres of playing field to do well at school. A good teacher and a calm, happy atmosphere is all that’s really required. If you can find that, without having to move house or drag your kids half way across town to the school ‘everyone else’ raves about, you’ll be doing well and so will they.