Places deadline: Top tips on choosing a school

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Image caption The race is on – parents have until midnight to apply for primary school places

Parents of rising-fives in England have until midnight tonight to apply for primary school places for their children.

It can be a tense time, with the most popular schools often massively oversubscribed.

In some areas, high-performing schools can be thin on the ground, with warnings of a postcode lottery when it comes to access.

On top of this, a sharp increase in pupil numbers in recent years has made the primary school admissions process increasingly tense.

Once the application is in, there is an anxious wait before parents are told in mid-April if their applications have been successful, and where their children will go to school.

Data: ‘Treat with caution’

Official performance data is published once a year for every school in England, giving details of how pupils perform in national tests.

The latest league tables on England’s 16,000 primaries were published last month, offering parents the chance to compare the performances of local schools with those of others locally and nationally.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has warned parents against setting too much store by league table data.

“At face value, all the numbers tell you are how a relatively small group of pupils in a school performed in a set of narrow tests, focused on a small segment of the curriculum.

“Tests and exams are only part of the picture.”

Look behind the Ofsted banner

Inspection reports from schools watchdog Ofsted are a useful source for parents hoping to make informed choices.

But education experts stress that it is crucial to look beyond the paperwork.

Some schools are so proud of their good or outstanding Ofsted ratings that they get banners printed up to hang outside.

But this week, a head teachers’ union suggested they should be taken down.

“Inspections are obviously important but they don’t tell the full story,” said Stephen Rollett, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

“Let’s replace those banners with something more inspiring.

“We could instead put up quotes from parents and pupils about the things they love about our schools, the things which really make schools tick.”

Talk to the head

It is crucial to visit a few schools to get a feel of which ones best suit your individual child, advises Anne Lyons, NAHT president and head of St John Fisher Catholic Primary in Harrow, near London.

There are often open days for prospective parents – or sometimes it is possible to organise separate visits.

“Get a feel for the school to see if it offers the environment for your child in terms of the quality of education and the relationships between children and staff.

“Think about your child’s personality and the sort of school you want for them.

“Try and find out whether the school is creating the sort of learning environment that would suit your child,” she says.

“Does your child face any particular health, learning or family issues? Will your child thrive in this school?”

What do other parents think?

There is no substitute for talking to parents who already have children at the school, says Ms Lyons.

“Sending their first child off to school for the first time can be a leap of faith for parents.

“Existing parents are the ones who can tell you how the school communicates with families and how effectively they settle in new pupils.

“Do they feel welcome at the school?

“They can also tell you how well their children are doing in terms of learning and getting on with their classmates, whether they have had any problems and how well they feel the school dealt with those problems.”

Check the school website

Schools are obliged to carry details of their latest Ofsted report on their websites.

But you can also find out a wealth of other information there – from admissions criteria, to behaviour policies, whether there is a uniform and what happened at the latest school play, sports event or jumble sale.

“It can also be a good way of checking out the parent-teacher association and finding out about other ways of getting involved in the school community,” Ms Lyons suggests.

Know the rules

Above all, the NAHT advises parents to get across the admissions process and deadlines.

A simple mistake like missing the deadline can mean your child missing out on a place at the school you would most like them to attend.

The basic details are set out on the Department for Education website – but also check your local authority website for important details on catchment areas and any additional requirements for admission to faith schools.

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