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This Autumn, many of us will be visiting a primary/elementary school open day or three, trying to fathom where to send our little person next September. We may be wanting to know some good questions to ask while we’re there.
Perhaps you’ve already been. Maybe it’s an easy choice or maybe there are several options. Or maybe there are factors which make it an incredibly hard decision.
I’m struggling to believe that it was six years ago when my husband and I did the school trail. For us, it was an easy decision, but the school we chose for our son was a school which others were rejecting.
I’ve rattled on enough times about why we chose a failing school to educate our children, but today I thought it’d be helpful to share what to ask when visiting a primary school.
What’s at the core of this school? Hopefully these questions will help you scratch beneath the shiny veneer being presented to you. (And yes, schools can be pretty good at masking the cracks).
These are not the only questions you should ask on your school visit, and I wouldn’t suggest asking all of them – unless you want to have the poor Headteacher reaching for her hip-flask once you’ve left – but picking a couple of them to raise during your visit will help you to see past the surface of how the school is presenting itself, and start to give you a feel for its actual identity.
Good question #1: What’s your pastoral support like?
You want to know whether there’s one or more members of staff whose job it is to support pupils and families with non-academic issues. Does the school have a well-thought-out system for dealing with pupils who are undergoing stress?
You may think your family life is pretty stable, but unemployment, bereavement or ill health could hit at any time. You need to be as sure as you can that this school will support your child through any difficulties they might be facing out of school, thus reducing the negative impact on your child’s education.
Contrary to what some people think, it’s just not possible to separate academic learning from pastoral well-being.
Good question #2: What’s your behaviour management strategy?
Don’t be fooled by the suggestion that behaviour isn’t a problem in some schools: that’s simply not true! The question is: how are they dealing with it?
Many schools will have a clear-cut strategy for the classroom, and will often speak to the children in terms of making ‘choices’, rather than behaving well or badly. (Are you making good choices? Are you thinking about your choices? Have you made a bad choice?)
But you want to know that there is a system like this which is consistent throughout the school. If every teacher has a different way of doing things, this will unsettle most children for the first few weeks of every academic year, disrupting learning as well as their own sense of security.
You also need to know what happens beyond the classroom – what are the sanctions for bad choices? What will happen when your child excels in behaviour or effort?
Is the school doing anything to pre-empt negative behaviour and respond to the stimuli before a child makes those bad choices? Is the school educating children on behaviour, or simply dealing with it when it happens? Prevention or cure? There should be both in evidence.
These are good questions to ask because they’ll give you a sense of how thoroughly a school has recognised their need for high standards and the challenges children face in meeting them.
Good question #3: Where will the school be in five years’ time?
Remember, you’re not signing up for this year alone (unless you have a planned relocation next summer, of course!). You want to know that this school will still be the right choice for your child in Year 2, Year 4, Year 6.
Good questions to ask include: Is there a clear vision for the future? Where is the school hoping to develop/improve?
There’s no shame in having weaknesses (whether that be a behaviour strategy, pastoral support, academic achievement, staff deployment, or outdoor facilities), as long as there’s a plan to improve them. Listen hard – is the head committed to the ongoing development of the school?
Good question #4: How has the school changed in the last five years?
Similar to the last question, but for those who like evidence. If the school hasn’t really developed that much in the last few years, it’s unlikely to develop in the next few – unless the school leadership has changed recently.
Good questions to ask would be things like: Where has the school developed? What’s happening now which wasn’t five years ago?
I’ll never forget the very perceptive question my husband asked when we looked round the school our kids now go to. The school had recently changed leadership, and he asked “What changes have you noticed in the last half term, since the new head arrived?”
The school secretary who was showing us round was enthusiastic in her response: “I’ve been working here for 20 years and, within half a term, already it’s a much nicer place to work than it ever was before.”
It made such an impact on us that I can’t remember much else from the visit! This was the sort of school we wanted for our children.
Good questions #5: How do you protect children from the changing expectations coming from the Department of Education?
OK, so maybe don’t phrase it quite like that! But with this question we’re getting at whether the school are able to shield their children from unnecessary stress. Or do they see this as a priority at all?
The DofE loves to impose stress on Headteachers, and – if they’re not careful – this stress passes on through staff to children. Childhood depression and anxiety are on the increase, and one factor is increased academic pressure. Is the school actively trying to reduce stress for pupils?
SATs results may seem important, but in the grand scheme of things our children’s mental health is far more of a concern. SATs last only to predict GCSE grades – whereas poor mental health in childhood could continue into adulthood. Make sure your child’s future school has their priorities the right way round.
All the best as you look round schools this year!