What Makes A Good School?

This morning, I was talking to a dad about some of our local school options, and he was a bit unsure of when to apply for places for his children. He was also confused on the six options you should pick and what to even look for in a school.

So What Makes A Good School?

In my experience, it’s not all about those converted OFSTED ratings. In recent years, it’s felt to me, at least, as if OFTED is about schools hitting their targets around Literacy and Math subjects. So if a school doesn’t reach its required total in these areas, Then everything else that’s fantastic about that setting is disregarded and overlooked. Could it be that I’ve always wondered if an “outstanding” rating is really only given if that particular school has hit these targets rather than because they genuinely offer a broad and balanced curriculum and excellent pastoral care?

Now that’s controversial thinking.

I’m sure there are many outstanding Greenwich schools out there that do hit targets and offer an excellent curriculum and care. Just maybe not as many as we initially thought!

So, if, like us, Ofsted and league tables are not going to be your primary yardsticks, excuse the pun; what should you look for when considering your school options at both primary and secondary level, State and Independent?

We’ve narrowed it down to three main areas.

1 – The School Tour
Don’t book your tour on the phone or by email. Try to get to know the school office staff – if you feel unwanted or are being a nuisance and have to deal with an absolute dragon on the reception. Imagine how your child will feel if they ever have to visit the office. Just like any other business, the reception staff are the faces and voices of your prospective school. Having a bad day in this type of role is not an option.

Be cheeky, ask for a tour immediately, and watch for the reaction. On the ball, staff will bend over backwards to find someone to show you around if they can. However, if you do have to do an on-mass tour with other parents, expect everyone to be on their best behaviour and busy with the day-to-day running of the school. It looks efficient, but sometimes it’s a tad staged and a little fake. Mostly, you will be subjected to rehearsed speeches. So, if you can, try an off-schedule visit.

You should also have the opportunity to view your child’s intended classrooms to give you an idea of the setting. If you’re not, ask why not. There should be nothing to hide with this one, and honestly, the school should be tripping over themselves to show you their classes. Being able to view the class environments will also give you a good indication of the teacher that teaches there. Look for the personal touches – is it looked after in the classroom or woefully neglected? The dead pot plants don’t bode well!

When in the Communal spaces and reception areas, look for staff photos, safeguarding policies, and pictures of the school council or playground buddies. Up-to-date displays of children’s work and school-wide topics are also nice. It shows the school are proud of their students and happy to have their policies out in the open.

2 – Kids/Staff
Make a mental note on how the kids behave when they are going from place to place. Do they smile and open doors for adults and each other? Are they calm?

Our first encounter with our primary school was at the summer fair when our girls were eight months old. It was great, the kids were well behaved, polite and happy to chat about what they did and most importantly didn’t like about their school.

So, If you’re allowed to talk with pupils, ask them about their goals for reading or writing and listen to the replies. This will tell you an enormous amount about how effective the school’s policies are with kids who matter the most and how hard they push those who are more advanced than their peers. Kids are brutally honest creatures when it comes to this type of thing and are far better at providing a balanced overview of the day-to-day life at their school than any marketing pitch you will get.

Observing teaching staff on the job can be a bit tricky, but if they all seem new or newly qualified, there could be trouble ahead. Maybe unpopular decisions had to be made in the previous school year, and lots of people left! Don’t be afraid at all to ask about staff turnover and the ratios of NQTs to more experienced educators.

Our fantastic Nursery Nurse had been in her post for 13 years when the girls joined the nursery. She is still a big part of their day-to-day life, even now as they move into Year Four.

Also, how do teachers interact together and with the children? Do they smile and say hello to each other, and are they warm and friendly? Talk to as many teachers as you can, ask how long they have been teaching at the school and why they love what they do.

Do they have that twinkle in their eye that will capture your child’s imagination? It’s a terrible sign if the school keeps you from its staff.

3 – Headteacher.
The Headteacher should show you or at least instil in you that they are at the head of a well-oiled machine. Just like the office/reception staff, they are also the face of the school and should be enthusiastic and upbeat about the education there.

Do they know every child by name? (ours does) Are they on playground duty every morning and afternoon? (ours is) How confident are you in their responses when you ask about the anti-bullying and safeguarding policies? A good head will be able to explain these confidently and concisely, leaving you in no doubt of what happens when these situations arise. You should see inspiration and great leadership.

Most parents will know “the one” (school) almost as soon as they step into the playground, but don’t worry if you don’t. Just keep in mind some of our questions above as you tour your choices.

Every school wants to be welcoming and have that individual feel-good vibe. But if you don’t think your child is going to be happy, or you’re just not feeling it. Then chalk it up as a dud and move onto the next.

Further reading around dates, how to apply for places and help should you not get your first choice can be found here. And if you’re thinking about an Independent School for your child, Check out our local round-up here.