For some families, choosing a primary school is straightforward. They have a good local school and all the kids in the neighbourhood go there. Simples. But for many, especially those who live in cities, things are not so straightforward.
If they’re lucky it’s because they have more than one school to choose from. But sometimes it’s because of nearby primary schools being heavily oversubscribed, having faith criteria or applying priority areas. Here are the things to consider before applying for a primary school place:
1/ Does your child have a chance of getting in?
Applications for primary school places are rising. According to The Guardian, demand is particularly high in London, Manchester and Birmingham. In 2019, 85% of London families were offered their first preference. In Birmingham the figure was 89% and in Manchester it was 91%. So the odds are in your favour – but you need to be realistic.
It’s no good falling in love with a school if you haven’t got a hope of your child getting a place there. Many schools get more applications than places available which means that they use admissions criteria to determine who gets a place. They work their way down the criteria and in the end, it usually comes down to distance.
Enter your postcode into the gov.uk website here to find out what your nearest schools are.
School catchment areas
Most schools don’t have a fixed catchment area – it depends on how many applications the school gets that year and how many siblings applied (as they get priority). This is why a child may get a place one year and then the following year their next-door neighbour lives too far away to get in.
Some schools have cut off distances of only 0.2 miles. This means that even if it’s your nearest school and you live five minutes’ walk away, you won’t get in.
If you live in London, our free school catchment map search can help you explore catchment data for your local schools. But if we don’t cover your area (sorry!) you can also get this info from your local council’s website, in the school admissions section.
Got your heart set on a church school with faith criteria? Haven’t set foot in a church since you went to aunty Sue’s son’s wedding in 1987? If so, then be realistic that if it’s a popular school, you probably won’t get in. For these schools, how often you attend church can be more important than where you live.
Distances are usually measured as the crow flies – ie a straight-line distance from your home to the school – although some councils use shortest walking distance instead. Don’t rely on Google Maps to get this info. This distance website can give you a rough as the crow flies estimate. If you want to know exactly how far you are from the schools you like, email your local council’s schools admissions department to ask. The benefit of this is that they use a particular programme to calculate the distances and will give you the exact figure.
2/ How is the school performing?
Visit the Gov.uk website for key information about a school. This includes overall performance, progress and the percentage of children achieving the required and higher standards. It also has data on things like rate of absence, as well as Ofsted grades.
While this data can be helpful in discovering whether a school is over or underperforming, try not to get too hung up on it. Many schools that look like they are underperforming on paper are warm, nurturing places with amazing teachers where your child will thrive. Results are not the be all and end all. They’re not applying for Oxbridge just yet.
3/ What’s the Ofsted report like?
You can search for and read the Ofsted reports for your local schools on the Ofsted website. This can be useful in giving you an overview of the school and any concerns raised by Ofsted.
Opinion on Ofsted reports and how valuable they are can be mixed. Some parents view them as gospel, whereas others think they’re less useful than air conditioning to an Eskimo. So again, while they’re worth a read, they shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-breaker. A 2018 YouGov Parents Annual Survey found that 65% felt Ofsted provided a reliable measure of a school’s quality.
4/ How will you get there?
Can you walk to school? If not, is there a bus you can use and how long will it take? If you need to drive, what’s the parking like? If you have to go to work after drop off, is there public transport nearby? Remember that you’ll be doing this journey for at least seven years. If you have two or more children it’ll be a decade or more. The novelty will soon wear off so be realistic about whether the journey is practical long term.
If you’re a working parent, also consider whether the school provides a breakfast or after school club. Find out what time these start and finish and if there’s a waiting list. Ask around locally to see if any childminders or off-site after school clubs do pick up from the school.
5/ Do you and your child actually like the school?
Doing your research on all of the above is helpful. But more crucially, go to see the school and get a feel for it. Make sure you attend a prospective parents tour and ask lots of questions.
Ask other parents in your local area whose kids go there what they think of it. If you have a local parents Facebook group, ask for some feedback. They’re often a useful hive of information. But bear in mind that what works for one family doesn’t for another so don’t get too hung up on gossip or one negative experience if you like a school.
How much you involve your child is a personal decision for you and your family. You might like to ask them what they think and involve them in the process as much as possible. After all, they’re the ones who will be going every day for the next seven years, not you. This is something that us parents can forget in the heat of the moment.
If they really don’t like a school you have to ask yourself if it’s the right place for them, even if you think it’s the bee’s knees. But on the other hand, at this age some children can change their mind from one week to the next. Or they might prefer one school as it has a nice slide. So perhaps allow conversations to take place over a period of time.