Arlo is four. Which means that this year, we have had the pleasure of going through the primary school application process for the first time. At times, learning how to choose a primary school has felt like one of those classic initiation moments of parenting. At times, it has felt like an immense decision.

I’ve been writing this post bit by bit since November last year when we first started looking round our local primary schools.  Arlo got the news of his primary school place today, so now that the application process is complete, I thought it would be a good time to finally write down everything I’ve learned about how to choose a primary school.

Choosing a primary school is one of those massively personal decisions. It also varies wildly depending on individual location and circumstances. You might have just two schools in your area, and a clear favourite. Or, you might be like me, with eight potential schools and no prior feelings towards any of them.

I live in London, in an area where there is a lot of change happening in the local primary schools right now, with nearly all of them turning into academies in the last year or two, and with an influx of free schools cropping up. It’s all change, all the time, which certainly made my decision harder. There’s no doubt that some of the points below will be individual to my specific circumstances, but I’m sure there are also some points that everyone applying for primary school places will be able relate to on their journey to choosing a primary school.

My top tips on how to choose a primary school

The pressure can get INTENSE. 

I was surprised at how quickly my initial cool, calm and collected thoughts of, ‘It’s only a school. If we don’t like it we can change schools. We don’t even know how long we will be living in this area so not worth getting too worked up about’ turned into ‘My GOD. This is SUCH a big decision. I don’t want to change schools. I want the children to have the same, stable experience that I had – ONE school from reception to year 6. THIS DECISION IS GOING TO DICTATE THE NEXT 10-12 YEARS OF OUR LIVES.”

So my first tip is to try and stay as calm as possible throughout the process of choosing a primary school. By and large, primary school is a fun time for children. And every school will have something great about it.

YOU are not your child

The spirited but rather chaotic primary school might have been my idea of the most fun primary school experience, the one most aligned with what I remember from my own primary school days, but I could tell for sure that it wouldn’t necessarily be Arlo’s. He thrives with order, and rules, and can actually get very stressed in a more ‘go with the flow’ environment. He would feel more comfortable in the primary school with more orderly classrooms and a more regimented routine for the day.

You’re not just choosing a primary school for your eldest child, but one that will be a good fit for your whole family

(Unless you are prepared to do separate school drop-offs, that is). It’s easy to think just of Arlo, but I also have to remember my younger children too when I’m choosing a primary school. The question isn’t just ‘How to choose a primary school?’, it’s ‘How to choose a primary school to best suit all of my children?’

There isn’t really a tactical method to the primary school application process

In the primary school application process, you get to put down six choices. The system works out all the schools you qualify for, and then out of those options, informs you of your highest ranking preference. The primary schools cannot see your preference and therefore cannot know that you REALLY WANT THAT SCHOOL. The primary schools themselves don’t have a hand in sorting the admissions, it’s all done by the council. The best policy is the simplest – just order your choices honestly, according to the schools you liked best. But…

When choosing a primary school, always include a ‘safe’ option within your six primary school choices

It’s a very good idea to include at least one of your closest schools in your six primary school choices. A school for which you know you fall safely within the catchment area. The reason for this being that if your child doesn’t get a place at any of the other schools on your application, they will get into your safe choice, and you won’t end up bottom of the primary school choice pile, potentially commuting to a primary school that is a lot further away than you planned.

Do not put just one school down on your primary school application

Please do not put just one school down on your primary school application. Even if it’s the only school that you like. Putting one school down DOES NOT mean that the system will say ‘Oh, they’ve only put this school down, so it’s the only one we can give them’. The more likely outcome is that your child will be allocated a place at the nearest primary school with places remaining AFTER primary school offer day. This is likely to be a school that is undersubscribed / not popular, and a long journey from where you live.

A LOT can change in a few years

When my neighbour applied for primary schools last year, one of our two local schools was in special measures, and the other one was rated a ‘good’ school. This year, when we applied, the special measures school had since become an academy with a brand new premises, the ‘good’ school is failing SATs and has an unfavourable Ofsted. It’s hard to keep up, changes are happening so quickly with primary schools. A school you like the look of one year, may not be the same school the next year when you come to apply. Or vice versa, the schools in your area could improve a lot within a very short space of time.

Be realistic with your primary school choices

When choosing a primary school, there is little point in only selecting schools that are statistically harder for your child to get into. Looking up the furthest distance from the primary school that a place was offered in previous years, plus intake size VS their planned intake size for this year will give you a good indication as to your chances of getting a primary school offer place at that particular school. (Most boroughs have a PDF you can access online with all of this info on their primary schools from the previous three years).

However, don’t be too hasty with ruling out primary schools due to distance or catchment area

 A primary school that is just out of reach might announce a bulge class AFTER the primary school application deadline (As was the case this year with a nearby school to us). And you can just never predict how many sibling places there will be in any given year, or any of the other factors that might determine how likely your child is to receive a primary school offer at your preferred school.

If you really love a particular primary school, it’s worth putting it first on your list of choices. It won’t affect your chances of qualifying for your nearer primary schools (as long as you put those down on your primary school application, too!), and it means you can opt in for a waiting list place if you don’t get your first choice primary school straight away on primary school offer day.

Don’t let Ofsted rule your decision when it comes to choosing a primary school

Ofsted ratings can be useful in some respect, and wholly unrepresentative in other ways. When it comes to choosing a primary school, the best way is to go by your instinct when visiting primary schools. I would even suggest avoiding looking at Ofsted until after you’ve seen the schools – the Ofsted reports are a lot easier to digest with context.

Oftsed isn’t everything when it comes to choosing a primary school

I think it is important to bear in mind that until a few years ago, the Ofsted rating ‘Requires improvement’ used to be called ‘Satisfactory’. There can sometimes be a political agenda attached to Ofsted reports – a ‘failing’ primary school doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad school.

Plus, Ofsted ‘outstanding’ schools might not be all they are cracked up to be. Once a primary school achieves an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ rating, they become exempt from routine inspections, meaning many schools having outdated Ofsted reports that do not reflect the school’s current performance. A recent audit found that many Ofsted ‘outstanding’ schools had not been inspected for over six years. With Ofsted inspections this few and far between, there is also greater risk of complacency in a primary school that has already achieved outstanding status, versus a primary school that is striving to get there.

Don’t judge a school on paper, go visit them on a primary school open day

I was surprised at my opinions once I had actually as SEEN our local primary schools. Ones that I had assumed I’d like, I was surprised to find I wasn’t that keen on, and some schools that I’d written off suddenly became favourites after seeing them. I honestly think that you will not form an opinion on a school until you have seen it for yourself.

Moving house to be near schools without knowing much more than that they have outstanding rating on paper seems a ludicrous idea to me. What if it comes to the open day and you don’t like what you see? Plus, as I said before, a lot can change in a year or two.

Even if you have a one or two year old and primary school is way off, go to the primary school open days now if you are curious. They are all in November and December time, and no one will know you that aren’t there for reception intake for that particular year. Just go and have a look before you think about basing your entire life around the school that you think is best for your family.

Don’t speculate about the primary schools in your area being crap before you’ve been to see them

I live in an area of London that is NOT known for its good primary schools. It’s a big part of the reason that we can afford to live here. Since Arlo was a baby, I’ve worried with other local mums about how crap the schools are, watched families with toddlers move away stating the school situation as their number one reason, listened with an attentive but concerned ear every time negative press about one of the local schools pops up. You can imagine what I would be expecting to see once I actually went to tour these schools. So it came as a bit of a surprise to see that they are JUST LIKE ANY OTHER SCHOOLS. Not one school sent me home wailing “over my dead body!!” I could see positives (and negatives) to all of the schools we saw.

The end result was me feeling a lot more hopeful than I ever have in my whole time living here when thinking about how to choose a primary school. (Because I am nosey, Sam and I also went to see a couple of highly regarded, heavily oversubscribed schools that we definitely live too far away from, to see how they compared, and neither of us rated them any higher than the schools we’d seen in our local area. There really are positives and negatives to ALL SCHOOLS. No one primary school is the be all and end all.)

Primary school application panic IS a thing

And even the most unflappable of us can succumb to the pressure that comes with working out how to choose a primary school. At some point, you will likely come across one or more of the following scenarios within your social circles: 1. Someone going private if they don’t get their first choice state school. 2. Someone moving to an area with ‘better’ schools. 3. Someone who has started to attend church every Sunday due to the good faith schools in the area. 4. Someone ‘swindling’ the post code system in some way – a short term rental or applying with a business address, etc.

Annoyingly, it can seem that the people with the most options available to them are the ones talking about primary schools the most. Whilst the ones who haven’t the option to move or go private, seem, to me, to be quieter – where there are less options, there is less to deliberate.

De-prioritise political biases in order to focus on choosing the school that is the best fit for your child/family

This was perhaps the most difficult point for me to follow. I am a firm believer in equal education for all, overseen by an independent education authority. But we are living in a faith school dominant area in a borough that has completely moved from an LEA school system to every primary school being fully academised.

I will admit, there was quite a lot of soul searching during the weeks we spent trying to choose a primary school. How can I be ‘against’ academisation when there are no LEA run primary schools available to us?

I HATE what has happened to schools over the last five years, but I can’t turn back the clock. I’ve resolved that just because I don’t agree with the Academies Act, it doesn’t mean that there can’t be GOOD academies who DO have their students best interests at the heart of their teaching.

Go to the primary school open days at the earliest opportunity to allow yourself time to revisit if needs be

If you are anything like me, you will want to see the schools more than once. I had question marks over certain areas and needed to see the schools at different times of day, etc, in order to work out my preferences. I found that most schools were very accommodating with my requests for numerous visits. One school conducted open days at the weekend, but happily showed me around during school hours so I could see the classrooms in action. If one visit isn’t enough, go back until you are satisfied that you have formed a fuller perspective of the school.

When choosing a primary school, sometimes choice is a myth

During our process of applying for primary schools, we were actually in a weird transitional period for our borough with wide catchment areas and many new primary schools opening. It ended up that we had a lot more primary school choices than first thought. This might be the case for your family, it all depends on the circumstances of that particular year. But for many people, when choosing a primary school, ‘choice’ is a bit of an illusion. If you add up the stats on distance, etc, it’s quite likely that your realistic choices will boil down to just a couple of your closest primary schools.

The primary school we chose in the end

We heard about Arlo’s school place this evening. I hadn’t been too anxious about it, because, to tell the truth, we were quietly confident that he would get a place at our top preference. The school we chose is one of our closest, and on top of that, it is currently undersubscribed and it was deemed to be in special measures in its last Ofsted report. Even though we figured it would be surprising if he DIDN’T get in, we still didn’t want to assume it was a done deal.

Why did we choose this primary school? Well, there were definitely some extensive pros and cons lists. It was a matter of weighing up the unknowns against factors that we knew we just weren’t prepared to compromise on.

Arlo got into our first choice primary school. It is a newly academised school. As of yet, there is no permanent head, and we have yet to see the school, as they are still building it. This may seem crazy to some, but to us, with all the change happening in local schools, it was still the most solid choice. The early years stage is particularly strong. And it’s a place where we could imagine Arlo being at ease, more so than the other primary schools we considered.

There are a lot of things to consider when choosing a primary school. But overall, Sam and I realised we are less concerned with reports and results on paper, and just want our children to go to a happy school.

As I’ve learnt from our preschool experience with Arlo thus far, the only test I’m interested in is whether he comes home happy and eager to return the next day. And that is something that only time will tell.

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3 comments

  1. 2 years ago we we’re given a school place without a building- we spent all summer holidays driving past so my daughter could see if it was up yet! This time we have a son going to the say school and they are now rebuilding the whole school……guess what we’ll be doing this summer! Good luck with it all- sounds an exciting school on an adventure. I bet it will turn out well xx

  2. So much good advice – particularly the bit about Ofsted. I’m quite lucky in that there’s two primary schools very close and then a third free school just a little bit further away. I looked at both of the two close ones and actually, I didn’t like the one with the better Ofsted reports – far too academic far too soon, and I knew it wouldn’t suit Izzy. We’re coming up to the end of her first year at the slightly “crappier” one 😉 and she loves it.

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