Finding somewhere that can accommodate their needs and provide them with a positive learning experience can prove difficult. If you are unsure where to start, this guide will help you to navigate your way through the decision process so that you can adopt a clear, organised and realistic approach, leaving you feeling confident that you will make the right choice.
Understanding the different types of schools
There are many different types of schools in the UK, and it is necessary to understand the key differences between them to decide what would be the best choice for your child.
You’ll need to take into account a range of factors, including the learning environment, academic attainment, social development, financial impact, the adequate provision of any additional support requirements your child may have, and any other important issues that would make one type of school more suitable for your child than another.
- State schools – Government-funded and open to all levels of academic ability
- Private/independent schools – Charge annual fees for each pupil and do not have to follow the National Curriculum
- Special schools - Either state-funded or private fee-charging institutions which are equipped to provide specialised educational support for children with mental, physical or emotional needs
- Grammar schools – State-funded but not open to all children as pupils must pass an entrance exam
- Academies – State-funded and open to all levels of academic ability but have more autonomy over their curriculum and term dates
- Faith schools - Required to follow the National Curriculum but are free to choose what and how religious studies are taught, and may have different admission criteria to regular state schools
What to consider before choosing your child's school
Your child's needs
As a parent, you know what is best for your child, and finding the right fit for their needs and personality will give them the greatest chance of thriving at school. You need to decide what the best type of learning environment would be for them, as well as consider what sort of setting would nurture their social development. Do they enjoy being in large groups, or would they be better suited to smaller classes with more individual focus from teachers?
If your child has any specific passions or talents, you’ll want to find a school that will encourage them to pursue these. For children with special educational needs, physical restrictions or behavioural issues, does the school have adequate facilities and training to support them?
If you are considering a private, fee-paying school, it’s important that you think about whether the costs are feasible and calculate how much it would cost for the entirety of your child’s time there. Whilst some believe independent schools provide a higher-quality education, it all depends on the quality of the individual school; both independent and state schools have the potential to provide your child with an incredible education if they are suited to your child's needs.
Bear in mind, if you do choose a state-funded school, you still need to look at any expenses that may be involved such as school uniforms, lunches, school trips, and whether you would be expected to pay for things like costumes and props for your child’s participation in themed school events such as World Book Day.
Location and travel
Where the school is located, the surrounding area and how easy it is to get your child there on a daily basis are major factors when choosing a school. If you are intending to drive your child to school every day yourself, you need to factor in the length of the commute and the level of traffic at that time of day. Remember that when you are driving your child to school at a set time every day, lots of other parents will be too, which may cause congestion and delays on the school run.
If you require support with transport to get your child to school, does the school or local authority provide this? If your child is older and you would be comfortable with them travelling independently to school, is there a safe and reliable school bus service?
You also need to think about the location of the school itself - is it in a safe environment with adequate security measures in place to prevent unauthorised access for example?
How can you decide on the right school for your child?
What are your priorities?
Firstly, you need to decide what is most important to you when choosing a school for your child. Is it academic attainment, the right learning environment, socialisation, class sizes, the appropriate level of support if they have additional educational or behavioural needs, or a safe and convenient location?
You also need to remember that it isn’t just your opinion that matters – it is, after all, your child, not you, who will be attending the school. They need to be happy and comfortable with the decision.
Do your research
There are many factors that can influence whether a school is right or wrong for your child. The more you know about a school, the better informed your decision will be, so it is important to do your research on the following aspects of a school’s performance and approach:
- Quality of teaching - Is the style, level and consistency of teaching in line with your expectations and the needs of your child?
- Academic success rates - Do pupils get good grades across all subjects or just particular ones? Are there any subjects that have less successful outcomes?
- Extracurricular activities – Is there a rich and varied programme of extracurricular activities with opportunities for your child to do something they really enjoy, make new friends and further develop their social skills?
- Approach to learning - Does the school share your priorities when it comes to learning and does it cater for the preferred learning style of your child?
- Facilities and resources - Does the school have well-maintained classrooms and communal areas and is it adequately equipped with a good standard of resources including IT facilities, PE equipment and outdoor space?
- Behaviour and safety policies - Are there robust frameworks in place for safeguarding procedures and for tackling behavioural issues?
- Feedback - If you know anyone whose child is already attending the school, what is their opinion of it?
- Ofsted report - Does the school’s latest report have favourable findings?
An important element to consider when conducting your research is the school’s ethos. Do they showcase their values online? It’s essential to consider how much these align with your own, and how they will benefit your child.
Visiting potential schools
In addition to doing your own research, the best way to get a real feel for a school is to visit it yourself. When you are there, you will have the opportunity to see which facilities they offer, talk to staff, ask a lot of questions and be able to make a more informed decision on whether it is the right environment for your child.
What to look out for
- When you get there, what is your first impression of the place? Is it a safe and welcoming environment?
- Would your child feel comfortable in the environment or intimated by it, both in the communal spaces and in the classrooms?
When you do look around the classrooms or see lessons taking place, it is also important to observe whether the pupils seem like they are engaged and enjoying themselves, and just as importantly, whether the teachers look happy too.
- Are the teachers making the children feel involved and do they have lots of their work displayed on the walls?
- Do the teachers seem to have a good rapport with the children?
- Can you imagine your own child being happy and productive in that environment and responding positively to the style of teaching?
Questions to ask
You will no doubt want to ask lots of questions during your school visit, and it is a good idea to write them down beforehand, so you don’t forget anything important on the day.
Whilst the specific questions you will want to ask will depend on your child’s unique circumstances and your own priorities, here are some key issues that you may want to discuss with the staff at the school:
- What support facilities are in place if my child has special educational needs?
- How do you help new pupils settle in and integrate?
- What support is in place for struggling learners so they don’t fall behind?
- How are high achievers challenged so they don’t become bored?
- How does the school cater for different learning styles?
- What is the school’s approach to safeguarding, bullying and behavioural issues?
- Are there before or after-school clubs?
- Does the school provide nutritious lunches and cater for special dietary needs?
- How much time do the children spend in the school’s outdoor spaces?
- How will the school keep me updated about general news and particular information about my child?
- How often are parents’ evenings and how long will I be able to spend talking to my child’s teachers?
- How easy will it be for me to contact teachers to discuss my child’s progress on other occasions?
- Does the school offer a variety of extracurricular activities and enrichment programmes?
Choosing the right school for your child is a big responsibility, but there are several steps you can take to make the process smoother, clearer and less stressful.
Establishing your priorities from the outset, determining your child’s needs, doing your research, attending school visits, asking the right questions, being realistic about financial and logistical factors, and keeping your child involved in the decision-making process will help you to make a well-informed and confident choice that both you and your child will be happy with.