How to Choose Your Child’s First School (When You Can’t Visit Due to Covid)

September to December usually brings lots of hustle and bustle with open days and evenings held at schools for potential new students. Applications for new places are due within the next few weeks and months (depending on where you live in the world and whether you are using state or private education). Regardless of where you are however, one thing is the same: The likelihood that these important visits to potential schools have been curtailed because of Covid 19. How do you choose the right setting then, if you haven’t ever set foot in it? This article gives some tips on how to know what school is right for your child despite the current circumstances and includes a list of suggested questions you may want to ask the staff, taken from my ‘The Starting School Book’.

How to choose a school without visiting:

1. Responses are Revealing
The school’s response to the current circumstances is incredibly revealing. In fact, I’d argue that it’s even more reflective of the school than visiting. School visits can often give a superficial feel of a school. You’re seeing them at their polished best, which is not always a good indicator of what they are really like. Check out the offerings from the school, are they embracing new technology? Are they innovating? Are they putting time into making the experience as user friendly as possible for you? Are they flexible with contact? A school’s willingness to adapt to the situation and to meet the needs of potential new school starter’s parents is a good indicator of the relationship they will have with you in the future. 

2. Videos and Lives
Without the ability to visit in person, a video tour of the school is definitely second best. I wouldn’t judge the quality of the video, a shaky one taken on a hand-held smart phone is fine, schools aren’t better if they’ve hired a professional videographer! (I’d rather see that money spent on the children!). What you’re looking for is passion and enthusiasm for sharing the school. I would give brownie points for a live tour over a recorded video too, especially a live that enabled parents to ask questions. Video is a must in my opinion, as in one where you can ask to be shown certain areas of the school that are usually missed out of video tours – for instance changing rooms and toilets (watch for how these are decorated and how child friendly they appear).

3. Email or Telephone Access to Staff and Governors
In a normal year, you can probably ask most of your questions during an open day or evening. This year that’s obviously not possible. Look for schools who encourage you to contact the school leadership team and ask questions, by telephone or email. Do bear in mind that this needs to be balanced with the school day and the workload that brings, so don’t judge on their response time, but rather their willingness to answer your questions (even if it takes two weeks).

4. Real Parent Feedback
If you’re not already a member of a local discussion group, join one now and ask if parents would be happy to share their experience of the schools with you (virtually). Do keep in mind that you will get a lot of extreme viewpoints here – those who rave about the school and those who rubbish it. I tend to ignore the extreme opinions and look for those in the middle. 

5. Look at Official Scores and Rankings (with a pinch of salt).
Yes, these inspections, ranks and scores quantify schools a little, but they are so limited in what they cover. They can’t tell you how passionate staff are, how happy children are, how well YOUR child will do there and what the sense of community is like. For school in the early years these things matter FAR FAR more than official inspection scores, rankings and so on. I personally ignored these when choosing school for my own children. Don’t let your choice be led by these alone. Points 1-4 are so much more important.

Questions to Ask Potential Schools:

*Do you enjoy working here?
*What are you most proud of about your school?
*What do you think the school could be better at?
*Do you have any plans to improve certain things in the future?
*What is the biggest challenge your school is facing at the moment?
*How do you cope with difficult, or unwanted, behaviour from children?
*What is your view on rewarding children for good behaviour, or for attendance?
*What is your view on starting age for summer born children?
*How do you help settle an anxious starter?
*What do you do if a child is very upset at school?
*How do you deal with friendship issues and bullying?
*Do you have a peer mentor, or buddy scheme? (pairing older children with new starters)
*What sport and physical activity do children do?
*What are your school lunches like? Can I see a typical week’s menu?
*How much time do children spend outside every day? How does this change as
they get older?
*How much time do children spend sitting still and learning? (e.g. at a table, or at a computer)
*What is the school library like?
*What does an average school day look like?
*What opportunities are there for children who like art, music and drama?
*What is your SEND and pastoral care provision like?
*What do you offer for ‘gifted’ children, or high achievers?
*What support do you provide for children who struggle academically?
*What is your view on standard assessments?
*What are the school values, or ethos?
*What is the school’s opinion of homework? When does it get set, how much and what sort of thing?
*What is your teacher retention rate like? How long have your current staff been here for?
*Do you have an ‘open door policy’ if parents have any concerns?
*Do you know how many siblings of current pupils will be applying this year?
*How many children are in an average class? If this is a larger number, how do
you make sure they each get the individual attention they need?
*What clubs and extra-curricular activities do you run?
*What do you think parents would say about the school?
*What do you think pupils would say about the school?
*Do you think your current official rating is a good reflection of the school? If not, why?
*Does your school have an active PTA?
*What opportunities do you have for parents to get involved with the school?
*Do you offer school trips and visits? If so, can you let me know what they have been in the past?

Questions Specific to Covid:
* How are you keeping children safe at the moment?
* How are you ensuring that children’s mental health is not damaged by the current restrictions?
* If Covid restrictions are still in place next Summer (or Winter if you’re in Australia/NZ), how do you plan to run settling in sessions and the transition for new starters?

Don’t feel embarrassed by asking too many questions, but do bear in mind that most are incredibly stretched and although they may want to spare you the time to answer all of your questions as thoroughly as possible, it may just not be possible and certainly not within a very quick time frame.

If your child is starting school soon and you would like to learn how to choose the best school, how to prepare them (and you), or know how to settle your child into their school, then my new ‘The Starting School’ book will be perfect for you! You can learn more and order HERE in the UK or HERE in the rest of the world.


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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