If your child has just started their free 15 hours of nursery, it won’t be long until that fateful application has to be in for school reception places.
In cities such as Bristol, this can be a bit of a bun fight, so playing the odds and getting that application in on time is essential.
But how do you choose the right school?
1. Visit the school and get a feel for it. All children are very different with different needs, personalities and abilities. All schools have different headteachers, bodies of governors and school visions.
If your child is a ‘free spirit’ loves running, being outdoors and crawling through mud, an old Victorian building with no grass space or foliage and a bland expanse of Tarmac or concrete is not going to suit them.
If you enter the building and find a career headteacher running their infant school like a business centre, with every item of furniture set squared to perfection, full of apparently academic four-year-olds, is this going to suit your rock and roll child?
2. Chat to other parents who are already at the school. Would they recommend it? Do they have any problems there?
3. What are the other parents like? You will be standing next to them for years to come. Will you be expected to spend £500 on birthday parties or will a church hall and a cheap entertainer suffice?
4. What is the receptionist like? They are the first representation of the school and a key member of staff. You will be dealing with this person when signing late books, getting (term time) holiday forms or making enquiries.
5. How accessible is the headteacher? Do they lock themselves away from parents, or are they the kind of headteacher you can speak to when there is a problem? They should be proud of their school and the children in it.
6. Is there a Children’s Centre attached? These are fantastically useful places for parents with children under the age of five. Not only will they run great sessions for you and your child, they will have a solid grip on the Early Years Foundation Stage.
7. Remember, Ofsted isn’t everything. It should be used as a guide.
8. How easy will it be to get to the school if the weather is bad? Imagine Monday morning, in the snow, heavily pregnant, with an ill toddler and you have a stomach bug.
9. School Uniform. This isn’t legally enforceable in state primary schools, but will you face pressure to buy an expensive school jumper with a badge? Some schools can be very pushy with their policies.
10. Will their SEN policies affect you? How do other parents whose children have additional needs at the school get on? Are they tearing their hair out in frustration? Or, are they well supported by the school?
11. Remember things can change. Headteachers can leave, governors can change. Those lovely playing fields can suddenly become home to extra buildings to meet the increasing need for more school places in the city.
12. What kind of enriching activities are available? Will the school find a suitable room for music lessons? Are you desperate for your daughter to attend after school French classes?
13. Wraparound care. If you need to work, will you be able to leave your child at a breakfast club? Do they have enough spaces and is it reasonably priced? Does the school have an after school club? Are there enough childminders in the area?
14. Most importantly play the odds.
There are three schools in your catchment area. Demand is very high for A, mildly in demand for B and C is under subscribed.
School A seems to have a very good reputation. It is close, there are more than double the number of applications to places available.
School B seems to be quite popular. Not as sought after as A, but still close and the mothers drink cappuccino.
School C is further away. Not such a great reputation but good enough.
The temptation will be to put school A as first choice. But, the odds are you will be highly unlikely to get a place. Those children with a sibling at the school will be a priority, meaning that all the school places could go to siblings.
Putting school B down as first choice will give you a better chance of getting a place. But, are you close enough? Families living only a road or so away from a school miss out on places because demand is so high.
Putting school C down as first choice could be wise. For whatever reason – usually snobbishness – school C is the one that is not good enough for some parents. Perhaps they only read the Ofsted report. Perhaps they saw somebody smoking at the school gates. But, because it is the least popular school, you are more likely to get a place. This means you will get a school in your catchment area . If you put this choice down last, you could miss out on the ‘best’ and ‘good’ school because demand is high but miss out on the ‘not good enough’ school because these places have been filled by the over spill of applications to school A and B. The worst case scenario is that you are then offered a school in an entirely different postcode. Miles away.
To play your odds correctly, do your research. Is school C really as bad as other parents think it is? Could you be missing out on a gem of a school? You will be able to see how many places are available at each school and how many applications were made the year before on your local authority website.