Choosing a primary school is an exciting time for you and your child. And one of the most important parts of the decision-making is going on school tours. This will give you a far better feel for a school than any Ofsted report or performance data.
Most schools post details about school tours or open days on their website and if they don’t, call or email the school office for details. You usually need to book in advance rather than just turning up on the day. Schools generally hold their tours in the autumn term (September to December) and you should be booking on the year before your child is due to start.
But how do you get the most out of your school tour? What should you be looking out for and what questions should you ask? Here are some of the key things to consider.
What to look for on school tours
The most important thing is just to get a feel for the atmosphere of the school and whether you get a good vibe. Think about the ethos of the school and whether it’s in sync with your family’s. Each school has its own unique personality.
That being said, there are some things that you would expect from any good primary school. Does the school look tidy and well cared for? Does it seem a warm, friendly place to be? Are there lots of colourful examples of children’s work on the walls?
Do the children seem happy and engaged in their work or play? Do they interact well with each other? Are they content to chat to you about what they’re working on? Do the teachers look relaxed and in control?
Who is showing you around? Ideally it should be the headteacher. Are they knowledgeable about their school? Do they answer your questions confidently and reassuringly? Do they interact with pupils while showing you around and do they know their names?
When we were looking around schools, we had our child with us and it was interesting to see who spoke to and interacted with her and who only addressed the parents. For me, the headteacher who made an effort to talk to her definitely made a better impression.
If you happen to be there at playtime it can be useful to observe the children in the playground. Do pupils from different year groups play together? This can be a sign of a friendly, supportive school where the older children look out for the younger ones.
10 question to ask when you visit a primary school
There are literally hundreds of questions you could ask on your school tour but here is a good starter for 10:
1/ What’s the pupil to teacher / teaching assistant ratio?
2/ What’s the pastoral care like?
3/ What’s your approach to dealing with behavioural issues?
4/ How do you deal with bullying?
5/ What’s your homework policy?
6/ How does the school monitor children’s progress?
7/ What breakfast / after school clubs are available? Is there usually a waiting list?
8/ Is there an open-door policy for parents?
9/ How engaged are your parents?
10/ What resources are available for children with special needs?
And here are a few more which you might not think of at the time and then wished that you’d asked about later:
- What support do you give to summer-born children?
- What is the settling in process for children in Reception?
- Do the children have the opportunity to learn any languages?
- How do you integrate technology into their learning?
- How does the school feed back on children’s progress?
- What extracurricular activities does your school offer?
What not to ask on school tours
It’s important to understand the school’s admissions policy but asking them if you’re likely to get in if you live on a certain street can put them (and you) in a tricky position. School catchment areas can change each year so there’s no guarantee, wherever you live.
If you want to know more about the school’s catchment area, look for the previous year’s data on your council’s website (in the school admissions section). If you live in London, Buckinghamshire or Hertfordshire, our school catchment area map can help.
Remember that it’s the local authority that manages the admissions procedure for most schools so you should contact them if you have questions about this. Read our guide to applying to primary school for more info about this.
There are some exceptions, such as voluntary aided (faith schools), where they manage the process themselves. In this case they should be able to give you more information about their admissions criteria and how oversubscribed the school tends to be.
Making your decision
Choosing a primary school is a personal decision and what feels right for one family might not for another. It’s important to do your research so that you’re making an informed decision but sometimes it’s just as important to trust your instincts.