Ever wondered what are the most important questions to ask when choosing a primary school?
It occurred to me this morning that after this one, Flea only has one more year of primary school left.
Before I start the panicked visits to secondary schools, I thought it might be a good moment to look back on Flea’s primary years.
I agonised over which school Flea should attend. I went back and forth about a hundred times between three or four options.
But after seven years at school, it occurs to me I never asked the questions that have actually ended up being most relevant to Flea’s experience of primary school. Although things like faith-based education and formal testing and class sizes are obviously important, other things have determined how happy Flea is; how much fun she has each day; how secure and content she feels in her environment.
Here are some of the questions I wish I’d asked about primary school. What others would you add to the list?
Questions to ask when choosing a primary school
What’s the school’s view on participation in drama?
I think schools usually have one of two approaches to performances. Some schools believe every child should have a chance to participate in the class play, and will deliberately choose plays where every child has a single line, or at least gets involved in decorating sets or making costumes.
Other schools focus on the quality of the performance and will tend to pick the same, small group of kids for each performance, because they’re the ones who can sing/dance/act/learn lines.
I can absolutely see the merits of both approaches but if you believe that being part of a play is a quintessential part of a child’s school life and it really doesn’t matter to parents if the songs are out of tune and the lines get forgotten more often than remembered, you’re going to want to ensure your child’s school agrees with you.
Closely related to this: do you hold competitive sports days, and do all the kids take part? Personally I’m a big believer in letting kids learn about winning and losing with grace, but not all primary schools are.
If the school’s philosophy on extra-curricular activities doesn’t tally with yours, can you (and will you want to) pay for alternative out-of-school activities to fill the gap?
What are the lunch options at your primary school?
Until your child starts school, you won’t realise just how big a part of their day the lunch break can be. But this is definitely one of the most important questions to ask when choosing a primary school.
For the first two years, more often than not, it’s literally the ONLY thing they remember. When they’ve forgotten what lessons they did, who they played with, and what they played in gym, they’ll remember it was sausages and apple pie for lunch.
So I’d always recommend asking to see a menu, checking whether meals are prepared on site, and what the options are for children who are fussy eaters or have specific dietary needs. If the school insists on children eating school lunches, or if that’s your preference, do ask whether teachers are on hand to encourage good choices in the dining hall – will staff let your child eat white bread and ham sandwiches with crisps every single day for months on end without letting you know?
Flea’s school has compulsory school lunches which are freshly prepared, but I never thought to ask about them before she started – d’oh!
Can I ask about your policy on gender equality?
This question is tricky because I know for every parent you meet, you’ll probably hear a different point of view on these issues and schools can’t possibly please everyone – but I think it’s important to know that school is roughly backing up the values you are raising your family with at home. If you’re raising a daughter to believe that there’s no such thing as a girl’s toy and a boy’s toy then you want to make sure reception class won’t be making that distinction in the toy box.
Does the school allow girls to play football? Can boys join the after-school dance club? If you tell your children that men can marry men if they want to and that’s perfectly okay, or that it’s important to respect difference but not necessarily treat people differently, then that message really needs to be backed up at school (should it arise). If I was choosing a primary school now, I’d definitely be asking about equality and diversity policies.
How do you encourage school children to play nice?
If there’s one thing guaranteed to stab you in the heart, it’s your child coming home from school and telling you that nobody played with them that day. Or that week. It happens. Primary school is a (very) slightly tamer version of Lord of the Flies, and there will always be those kids that take charge in the playground, and those kids who quietly slink away because they don’t want the confrontation.
This is an important question to ask when choosing a primary school because how a school deals with this can be a big indicator of whether your child is going to thrive, or start dreading school. I know that some schools will have regular chats with kids about the importance of sharing and turn-taking, or teachers and older kids are involved in helping to organise games at lunchtime.
One of my friend’s kids goes to a school where they award merit badges and have a wall of honour for kids that play nicely together, with special notice paid to encouraging boys and girls to play together. I love that idea. Friendship is such a key part of the primary school experience, I’m surprised I didn’t ask more questions about it before we chose a school – we lucked out with a school that’s done a great job of supporting Flea in that regard.
What sort of homework do you set in primary?
I’m not a big fan of homework in primary schools, full stop. In Flea’s younger years, I basically refused to let Flea do homework. I think there are WAY more important things to do during the hours between finishing school and going to bed.
As your child gets older though, it’s harder to stick to this philosophy, and homework becomes more useful as a way of helping kids build independent study skills.
But different schools have vastly different approaches to homework – I know some schools set term-long projects inviting kids to build games or models or create reports, while other schools focus on worksheets and lists of spellings. If your kid absolutely has to do homework, personally I’d rather it was engaging. It’s hard enough to get children enthusiastic about homework but when it’s yet another list of spellings to memorise or yet another worksheet of maths puzzles, it’s got to be a thousand times harder.
How to Choose a Primary School
I hope you’re inspired to get talking to teachers based on my list of questions to ask when choosing a primary school.
It’s amazing to me, really, how fast primary school has passed by – and I’m happy with the school I chose because, by and large, Flea has been very happy there. She has great friendships, she’s been supported academically and is performing well, and perhaps most of all, I feel she’s at a place each day where the staff know and care about her.
But the things that have made that possible really weren’t the things I expected – when it comes to young kids, I think their happiness is really determined by simple things like food, and friends, and being able to feel a part of the fun things that go on at school. What questions do you wish you’d asked about schools before your kids started?
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