Going to see the school is arguably the most important part of the process. Most schools show groups of parents around on Open Days in the months before the application deadline. For state schools, this is usually in the middle of January for primary and the end of October for secondary, for the child to start school the following September. For independent schools the application dates vary, so it’s worth checking with the school when it’s best to visit.
See our list of Open Days here. At the school, first impressions and intuition are important – keep your antennae on full alert. Who is taking the tour? It should be a senior member of staff and preferably the headteacher. Is he or she happy to take questions? What is going on around you as you walk around the school?
Look out for lots of classroom displays, celebrations of children’s work and achievements. How do pupils behave? Do they walk quietly or is there horseplay in the corridors? Can you see and hear them being taught or is the tour keeping you away from the classrooms?
Ask about the school’s behaviour and bullying policies. Don’t be scared to ask direct questions and gauge the head’s response. Also, don’t focus just on the age your children are now. Try to imagine how they will develop and see how the school caters for them as they get older. For example, what secondary schools do leavers go to from primaries?
Are these schools selective and if so, does the school help children prepare for the 11+? At secondary schools, check the university destinations of last year’s leavers.
If it is a prep school, does it feed into the senior school or boarding school you would like your child to attend? How does it help children prepare for entrance exams and what is its success rate for good senior schools?
Once you’ve identified your preferred school, consider its admissions policy and your realistic chances of getting a place for your child.
Some independent schools expect you to register several years in advance, and some of the best state schools are faith schools that require proof of several years of regular worship.
People pay a premium to live close to the best schools and their catchment areas shrink year on year, meaning many parents are set for disappointment. Honeywell Infant School, a highly popular school in Wandsworth, had a catchment area of just 182 metres last year.
So be practical. Make sure you apply to several schools – some parents mistakenly think that focusing only on one proves their dedication to the establishment, but instead it leaves them at risk of being allocated a really poor state school if they miss out on their first and only choice.
If your preferred independent school is highly selective, then it makes sense to have back-ups that make fewer demands at admission.
The most important thing is not to lose your enthusiasm: the system isn’t impossible to navigate and the array of choice means there’s bound to be something to suit your child. Good luck!