Pip finally started school yesterday; it drew to an end what seemed like a long year of decisions and planning, and of course commenced the next chapter in her (and our) life. We really were clueless when we began the process this time last year, so I thought I’d both reflect on my experience and share some tips, in the hope that something might assist any parents starting the process of applying for primary schools in England & Wales for September 2017.
Consider your options
The first decision of course is to decide how you want to educate your child. The government requires that:
You must make sure your child gets a full-time education that meets their needs (eg if they have special educational needs). You can send your child to school or educate them yourself.
Children must get an education between the school term after their 5th birthday and the last Friday in June in the school year they turn 16.
I attended a hugely helpful seminar hosted by Educating Matters as part of my CityParents membership which considered the options which essentially narrow down to 3 choices – home education, state school education or private school education.
As we chose the state school option the rest of my tips relate to that but can no doubt be adapted to private school too.
1. Start early & identify your area’s admission policy and dates
If your child was born between 1 September 2012 and 31 August 2013 you will need to apply for a reception place at infant or primary school for September 2017. In our borough, Haringey, applications are easiest through the online form on their website and the closing date for applications is 15 January 2017. This means on decision day in April you can log on to the website and view the result online, and easily accept online.
This basically means you have 3 months to identify possible local schools, attend their open days, do your research and then compile your list of options (which in our case was technically 6, but in reality 1 or maybe 2).
Our choice was in effect narrowed by a combination of factors:
- Number of places/allocation of places/catchment area – the admissions booklet with the list of schools lists the number of places available and how these were decided for the previous year (places at Pip’s school were allocated in the following order: Children in Care/ Looked After Children, Social Medical, Siblings, and Distance). Out of the 60 places available (2 classes of 30) slightly more than 1/3 of the places were allocated to siblings and the rest on distance, which was around 1/2 mile.
- Admissions criteria – we decided we did not want Pip to attend a school which had spaces allocated based on religious requirement, which meant that some of our local options were not available
Whilst we were able to give 6 options (and did) we knew that in effect we only had a chance of getting into 2 schools based on siblings/distance, so those were the only 2 schools we visited.
2. Check open evening/tour dates and book time off – get used to the idea that schools & working parents don’t really mix
It didn’t really occur to me that the school open sessions/tours would be during the school day, and I guess on the one hand it is nice to see the school in action. On the other, this will be your first (of many) realisations that schools by and large seem stuck in some kind of parallel universe comprised solely of families with one parent at home and that the parent in question is some kind of mind reader with amazing instant access to documents, resources and fancy dress making skills. I jest, kind of. Probably better to make peace with this now though…
For some reason, in our borough at least, the dates are not advertised. Each parent has to individually call or email the school for options. Despite the fact that the options are the same for everyone. I think we had 2 options for each school, one in Oct/Nov, the other in January. We wanted to make our final decision over the Christmas holidays when we both had some time off, so we went for the earlier dates.
If you work in the private sector and haven’t encountered school since you left school, you will likely despair at the apparent incompetence and disorganisation of the school admin. I just keep reminding myself that I’ve been told this has no reflection on the teaching or the care given to the children. It drives me mad though, so if you are like me, probably worth recognising and having a strategy in mind to deal with this from the outset rather than spending time after each and every interaction seething with irritation.
3. Write down your questions to ask at the open day
A very kind colleague at work gave me a lunchtime crash course in things to consider when comparing schools and when considering their Ofsted reports. During the school tours it is easy to either forget your questions or have so many you forget one – my experience is that the headteachers don’t take kindly to questions they perceive as interrogation (my husband said this, not the teacher) so I would recommend highlighting two or three key ones in a notebook and taking that with you! Considerations my colleague suggested included:
- How do they deal with
- children who don’t drag the data down
- 4 and 11 year olds in the same building
- infant/junior divide or relationship between the two
- How do year 2 SAT results compare against other schools locally/nationally
- How often does someone read with your child & how often does the teacher?
- Where does that reading take place?
- Is there a library/quiet area
- When child has finished a piece of work, what happens next?
- Can parents attend an assembly?
- In the Ofsted report, look at the “raise” data (how kids are doing and split by various segments) and question what the school is doing to improve the bits they do badly at.
Other things to look out for which can give you a feel for the school:
- How do the adults speak to each other?
- What is the headteacher doing?
- How do the children react when they see the headteacher?
- What is the school security like?
- Do the children seem happy and chatty?
- Are they wearing a uniform or dress code?
- Where do they eat lunch?
- Is water available?
- Are there IT facilities
4. Make sure you’ve completed the form on time
I’m told that some boroughs ask for things like Child Benefit details in addition to proof of address, so worth registering for the online account in good time and checking you have all the required documents.
5. Don’t forget to accept the offer if you are happy with it
We found out Pip’s school just 2 days after her little brother was born and whilst I was still in hospital. Thankfully, we were reminded by a kind friend from Pip’s pre-school that I needed to actually accept the offer, as by the time I’d recovered from the birth, I’d forgotten I needed to do it.
6. Don’t despair if you don’t get your first choice – you might end up with it, or even something better
I believe if you qualify for a place on admissions criteria but are too far down the list to be allocated one, you still remain on the list. I have it on good authority that there is a lot of movement up the list, particularly as some parents who will eventually choose a private school also apply for a state school back up. I am not the person to advise if you haven’t been allocated a place at all, but please don’t despair. Steph from Don’t Buy Her Flowers wrote a great piece after her son didn’t receive a place at any of their choices but is now happily attending a school.
7. If your school has uniform, buy it in July
If you want the pick of the sizes and options, buy it early. It didn’t occur to me that places would have nothing in stock by September, but I’m glad I listened to the experts in the years above me! I am going to do a separate round up post with my favourite options. Also bear in mind that some of the girls might start the year in checked dresses, so if you have an early start date, might be worth getting one just in case.
Cost wise – I found George at Asda and Sainsbury’s to both have reasonable quality skirts and pinafores and polos at a fraction of the cost of some of the other options…
8. Communication can be slow/non-existent so don’t be afraid to ask the school office & WRITE DOWN YOUR START DATE!
We heard nothing from the school once we’d accepted our offer in May until a letter arrived for the parents evening in June for new parents – less than 2 weeks before the intended date and around 6 weeks of no correspondence whatsoever. They do know the dates earlier than that though which I discovered by emailing the office.
At that meeting I was verbally told the start date, which thankfully I wrote down on the folder of forms I was handed, as we then heard nothing whatsoever from the school. No home visit, no reminder of start date – nothing. We turned up for the first morning on trust.
I also feel very much none-the-wiser to things like the PTA and any kind of procedure or indeed what Pip will be doing from now til Christmas, but I am trusting that eventually someone will give me some information at some point. In fact, I just got a random text message about Jeans for Genes day, so presumably some information will start to be forthcoming!
9. Breakfast / after school clubs – book in the morning that bookings open
Our school somewhat coyly refused to reveal any details of this until the June parents evening, and even then it was just a bit of paper in a pack. Parents in the know however tell me that there are nowhere near enough spaces for everyone, so early booking is ESSENTIAL. As I’m on maternity leave, we haven’t booked anything for January when I intend to go back to full time work, which is making me a bit anxious, but equally I can’t commit to it, so I can’t book anything.
Also, you get the form on the evening but I am told by those in the know, that this means booking opens on the day of the parents evening, so they went to the school office first thing on that day, requested the forms and booked. Easy if you know how, isn’t it (nothing in the paperwork or the evening suggested that this was even a possibility by the way).
10. Save all your annual leave!
Prepare for a long summer holiday due to a staggered start – and then be prepared for weeks of half days. Just when you think you’re into a pattern there’s a week off for half term, so make sure you’ve got all the dates sorted in advance…
At the open evening in June, we were told Pip’s start date. Our school and others in the area do start the reception class at the beginning of September when everyone else goes back, but they only have a couple of new kids every few days until they’re all in. Our school started with those who’d been at the attached nursery and then I think in date order, by oldest birth date. But, you can’t just start and get on with it, you have to do a tedious process of only doing mornings for a bit. Pip, who has attended full time nursery all day every day for more than 3 years has found it quite trying watching everyone else get to go to big school without her, and then when she was finally let in, had to leave after only a couple of hours! We then have to do a whole week of half days (which runs over the weekend into 2 weeks because we started on a Tuesday, much to my surprise).
11. Bring snacks to the school gate
I’m not sure whether it is because Pip ate very regularly at nursery but she has emerged starving each day so far. So hungry she can’t make it down the road home for lunch but has to have something THERE AND THEN!
12. The first morning is pretty weird and anti-climatic
Don’t worry if the only emotions you feel are slightly bewildered and a bit frustrated. And that you didn’t cry. Just as Pip seemed to think this whole going to school thing was a bit of a let down (only for 3 hours, “all I did was write my name and draw a picture and I didn’t even get any books for my book bag”) but seemed very excited again this morning, the first day is not so much an event as a gentle beginning. We were not welcomed with the singing shining optimism of my imagination – it was shambolic and chaotic and the teachers and office staff seem to pass the buck to each other as often as possible with the vague threat of the headteacher if needed – but we survived. She enjoyed it and was delighted to go again today. Whilst now slightly terrified that for the next 20 years I cannot take so much as a long weekend in term time, I have also tried to remember to be both kind to me and M as well as Pip. And, if all else fails, think back to whether you can remember your own first day of school? Thought not, so stop worrying! (I’ll try and take my own advice too).
Any other tips for the process up to the first day?
Linking up with #SchoolDays linky