A guide to choosing your child’s primary school

Posted on 25th Apr 2022 in School News, Choosing a school, Prep Schools Guide, Independent Education

Samantha Scott, Headteacher of Heathcote Preparatory School, considers the most important factors.

It seems unbelievable to me, that over a decade ago my husband and I were starting to consider which primary school would be best for our daughter. As an experienced educator, I felt certain I would know the perfect school just by looking at its website and reading through their most recent inspection report. However, this did not prove to be the case and as we delved more deeply into the plethora of choices in our local area I started to become increasingly anxious. I wanted a school that would challenge my child academically of course but I also wanted it to be nurturing, kind and caring and provide creative and sporting opportunities to ensure my little girl grew to be an all-rounder. Of course, I did scrutinise the inspection reports and when looking at independent schools I considered if they had elements of the school that had won awards, such as our recent ISA ‘Junior School of the Year’ national award and our Science teacher being a finalist for Pearson ‘Outstanding New Teacher of the Year’. Not the only things to consider, however they show the recognition of school achievements, provision and talent alongside the fact that the school clearly strives exceptionally hard to be the best. No mean feat I can assure you!

Primary school choices basically split into two categories: independent schools (fee paying) and state schools (maintained e.g. faith schools, free schools (non-government), academies and special educational needs schools). With independent schools, the parents are able to choose from a wider catchment usually as there isn’t a geographical restriction placed upon the school, the family chooses the school based upon the opportunities it offers their child, usually the child has taster sessions and settling periods and then hopefully a place will be offered for the child by the Headteacher. Often these schools have nurseries as part of the school and this allows for early, accelerated opportunities of learning and an ease of transition. Often, as with Heathcote, they accept nursery vouchers for this part of the child’s start at school. With regard to state schools, the parents look at local schools, considering their likelihood of being offered a place with regard to the numbers in that cohort, the number of places per year group and their locality to their desired ‘first place’ school.

Primary/Preparatory schools often follow a similar curriculum (the National Curriculum) and offer similar subjects for lessons, although independent schools may follow this curriculum at an accelerated rate due to lower pupil numbers in class and offer specialist subject provision (e.g. specialist language, PE, IT, Music teachers etc with additional rooms/science labs etc). Independent school classes are usually straight cohorts e.g. year 2 not year 1/2 and much smaller in pupil numbers per class. I believe this allows for more teacher/pupil time and for the staff to get to know your child more fully and therefore provision for the pupils is more individualised. Sadly, at this time we need to consider the school’s response to the pandemic – did they go straight to live, online lessons as Heathcote did, training all staff to be Microsoft Innovative Educators (MIEs) and an IT lead who is an MIEE, an expert able to support staff at other schools. We were fortunate as our class sizes were smaller than large, state schools that we could safely return to the school site before many others, ensuring our learning provision could continue, intervention programs could be updated and accelerated and our pupil wellbeing was supported through staff MHFAs.

Therefore, with these issues in mind it is important to spend time considering the schools on your short list and think through the following questions, deciding which are your own priorities for your child’s educational provision:

  • What do I think of their website/recent inspection report?
  • What is the transition like to school from Nursery/Preschool?
  • What is the provision for learning in the classes? Does it seem a rich, varied curriculum?
  • Is there wrap around care? What form does this take and will my child have to travel off site for this? Does this include before and after school and during the holidays? Who supervises the children and are they qualified/first aid trained/will know my child?
  • What are the opportunities for my child alongside the curriculum e.g. clubs, co-curricular provision, trips?
  • What homework provision is there? Is this part of a pre-planned program that progresses year on year?
  • Will my child be supported/extended for their learning to meet their needs?
  • Is there a program for individualised learning to promote their understanding/attainment?
  • What is the opportunity for assessment and how will this information be shared with parents? Reports? Parents’ evenings and are these regularly held?
  • Does the school have an active parents’ association?
  • How is school information shared with parents? Is there a termly/weekly newsletter?
  • Will this school meet my child’s needs beyond their EYFS experience e.g. sporting opportunities in year 6, 11+ provision for grammar entrances in year 5, academic success in KS2, secondary scholarship support…

Following a call and visit to the school; question if you had access to meet leadership team members – did the Headteacher make time to meet with you if possible? Are the staff welcoming and friendly? Most importantly, can I envisage my child here? Will this school enable them to engage, achieve, flourish and thrive?

Finally, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to look at the school’s website as this will give you so much information and showcase how they value their school community. Is there a warmth beyond the information? Is there recent, relevant information? Is it accessible to the school’s family that use it? Does it show pupils learning and engaged? Sometimes your personal instincts are more valuable than any written information and you know your child best. Good luck!

Samantha Scott is Headteacher of Heathcote Preparatory School and Nursery, Danbury, Essex currently the ISA’s ‘Junior School of the Year’.

This article appears in the 2022 edition of John Catt's Preparatory Schools, which you can view here: