Choosing the Right School for Your Child

So, your child is fast approaching compulsory school age and you need to find a suitable school. Naturally, you want the very best start educationally for them but how should you go about choosing somewhere in which they will develop both academically and socially?

You`ll recognise that the most effective learning takes place when a child feels happy and secure and so selecting the right school becomes a critical decision.

Many parents will opt for the closest school on the basis that their child will be with their friends and that it`s easier in terms of travelling. However, this may not always be the best option in meeting your child`s needs. Schools may look the same but often have very different characters underneath. Usually parents have been out of the educational arena for some time and it can be quite daunting to have to make an informed choice. Things have probably changed a lot and education is not necessarily the same as it was in your day.

The key principle in deciding on a school is that the chosen school should suit your child rather than your child having to suit the school. All schools have their own sets of values and these may or may not be the same as your own. It`s very important then that you uncover these in order to make the best possible choice.

Sit down with your partner and make a list of as many of your child`s characteristics as possible. Try to sum up their individual personality. Ask yourself:

  • Are they confident or shy?

    Do they make friends easily?

    Can they listen well and learn?

    Are they practical or more studious?

    Can they show independence?

    What are their special interests and preferences?

All these considerations and many more will build up a clear picture of your child as an individual and will help to match them with the most appropriate school.

Select 3, 4 or 5 schools in your area that you think may suit your child – Local Authority websites will have a complete list. All schools have their own websites which describe the features that they are most proud of. Study each of them carefully and note down aspects that you value most. Similarly, ask around so that you get a sense of the school`s reputation locally. Finally, in the U.K., OFSTED (the government inspection organisation that measures standards in education) reports on a school will give more insights into the performance of the school compared to others.

However, be careful with reading too much into these as they don`t always give a picture of the unique character of a school and can also be difficult to interpret. Be aware that things can change rapidly too with changes in key staff. A `good` school may just mean that there is a high level of motivated parents rather than anything special about the school! Keep these reports in perspective and don`t make too many knee jerk reactions.

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The only way to really understand a school is to make a visit, so arrange appointments at each school on your list. Judge each on their individual merits. Schools are usually very happy to show prospective parents around and to answer questions and if they are not, then it should ring alarm bells immediately. Try and arrange a visit so that you not only see the children in class but that part of it runs into break time. In this way you can judge whether pupils are independent enough to move around school in an orderly and considerate way without the controls that are in the classroom.

Whilst in the classrooms, note the interaction between pupils and teacher and while we are about it, notice whether the Head knows each child`s name also and the ease of their relationship. Ask yourself whether the children are enthusiastic learners and whether they are well supported (perhaps with additional adult helpers) across the ability range. Remember that a school is not just a place of academic learning but also a place where your child will develop the skills of communication and mixing with others. Be aware of the following impressions:

Is the overall atmosphere happy and relaxed but still purposeful?

Do the children feel secure and their contributions valued?

Is the classroom bright and cheerful with up to date, colourful, well explained displays of their work?

Is the teacher understanding, caring and friendly towards individuals?

If you`re there at the end of the school day notice particularly how sensibly the children leave the site – speak to parents at the gate also to get some valuable feedback about the school.

More importantly, use your carefully prepared list of your child`s characteristics from which to ask questions that remain unanswered and to judge whether the school is sympathetic to these and whether they will develop your child`s potential.

Having decided on a school the next hurdle is getting your child in. In the UK state education system you need to check the school`s admissions policy and whether they are usually over subscribed. There is normally a catchment area, a policy of admitting brothers and sisters of existing pupils and children in care or those with special needs. So, where the local authority asks for 3 choices of school on their preference form, if your child doesn`t meet the criteria then they will allocate the nearest school regardless of whether you chose it or not. So make absolutely certain you are clear about admissions, when to apply and how to appeal if you don`t get your preferred choice.

No school is perfect so be realistic and rely on your instincts. Your 4 year old doesn`t need a state of the art gym or ten acres of grounds to do well at school. A good teacher, a calm and happy atmosphere is all that is usually required. If you can find that without having to trek across the town then you`ll have done well and so will they. Make the right choice using your checklist and then you`ll find your child will be happy, content and flourish in the pursuit of knowledge, which is one of the greatest gifts that you as a parent will ever receive.

Cliff Cook teacher, author and educational consultant.

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