Choosing a Primary School – A Warning

As October arrives, parents of children who are turning 4 between September 2013 and July 2014 will start thinking about researching, visiting and choosing a school for their child to start in September 2014.

I really wanted to get this post sent out during this critical time, because I need new parents to understand exactly what they need to look out for in a potential primary school and not have a knee jerk reaction to “markers” just because we are led to believe that these are what makes a school good.  Don’t be dazzled by numbers, especially at Primary School and PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don’t discredit a school entirely based on an Ofsted.  This story may explain why.

Much like many of you when we moved house, we considered the schools.  We knew we had a couple of good primary schools very close to us, but when you’ve got a 2-year-old, the thought of doing in-depth research doesn’t cross your mind and you read a report on Ofsted, feel happy that it’s not a demon school, move and then do all the in-depth research when your child is 4. When it really matters.

We had a choice of 2 schools.  Both were given a “good”.  The one closest to us (walking distance) was “good” with “outstanding features”.  The other one looked bigger, but was also in higher demand because it was a feeder school to a much coveted secondary school in the area.  Most people chose that one, just for that reason. I think last year, the “feeder” system was removed, but you’d need to check that yourself.  Anyway, as we thought it was unlikely we would stay in the area long enough to use the secondary, it didn’t sway us.  We saw both schools as potential candidates and went to their open visits to walk around and meet the head and other teachers.

Bollocks, does it.

Bollocks, does it.

Both schools were lovely.  The one further away felt a little impersonal to us (but we visited on a strike day) and we didn’t much like the head.  They didn’t show us any outdoor areas other than that in Reception.  The one closest to us, had a very warm feel about it.  Maybe we were biased because we really wanted to be able to walk to school, who knows, but I did fall in love with the school. It reminded me of my school growing up. The reception classrooms were just lovely, the outdoor space was huge and the head teacher was a great, down to earth kind of guy.  I would have been happy in a school like that.  So, decision made.  We put that down as our first choice and Pickle got in.

Pickle LOVED her school. We loved the school.  On any one day the mix of students was perfect. Every nationality, religion, social demographic was there.  This was what we were looking for and Pickle made great friends with children who’s parent’s I also liked.

Then in April we had a bomb shell.  The school had an Ofsted inspection and went from being “good” with “outstanding features” to “Inadequate”.  That was the old “Special Measures”.  You know, the one where you imagined 12 year olds smoking around the back of the class room and teachers drunk in the staff room.  Where disorder reigns and results fail.  Except that WASN’T our school.  That couldn’t have been further from what our school was like!  The report was patchy about where it failed.  It mumbled on about not allowing students real application of their skills (physical learning).  It talked about children not being asked to come up and participate in learning, about not splitting by ability often enough.  A lack of maths focus.  That was it!  Reception was marked as Good with outstanding features.  Year 1-2 as “needing improvement” and the rest as “Inadequate”.  To us though, it didn’t feel inadequate at all!!

We obviously all got very very upset.  This was around the time new parents had received their notification of which school their 4 year olds would get into and I imagine there was a mass panic by parents at our Local Authority to reject the offer and go to the other school.  We all demanded answers, but we got a new Head in place (our old one, bless  him, had wanted to retire at Christmas but the governors had asked him to stay on. So he left in the wake of this!) and a promise that they’d turn it around.

Then we got the news the school was becoming an Academy.  More worry. More upset. More parents demanding what was going on.  Academies are bad, right?  They are run by owner’s of Carpet shops for money.  They don’t care about the kids?  So we researched into the cows came home. Decided we’d all rebel if the right academy owner wasn’t found.  Recent news, at the end of the summer term, was a well-respected local secondary school which had recently, voluntarily, become an academy was going to be our Sponsor.  We all heaved a sigh of relief.  Fingers crossed it all gets sorted by January as promised and we can get on with the job at hand, teaching our children.

I then stumbled upon this article this week.  Which was EXACTLY what we thought happened with our school but couldn’t prove. I don’t think there is any doubt that the pushing down of our Ofsted was because of the boroughs need to get its first primary school to become an Academy.  There are no outstanding primary school’s in our borough so I imagine they picked on one they thought they could manipulate, one that was due an Ofsted.  Read the article. It’s a real eye opener.

The point is.  Ofsted has changed A LOT in the last 5 years.  Whilst we all look for a way to be able to grade our primary schools and help us make decisions, I think they do us all a disservice by setting a criteria (a moveable criteria) that immediately segregates our local schools based on what the government thinks is flavour of the month.  Yes, we want to make sure the curriculum is stuck to. Yes, we want good marks, but the criteria has become so narrow, our schools have no choice but to teach to the dot….oh no hang on. As long as they appear to teach to the dot on the day of the inspection.  Yes, no guarantee it actually happens every day.  An inspection can be 1-3 days long.  Wonder how many schools have a special “Ofsted Teaching Plan”.  How the hell can that be a sign of a good school?

I guess the big advantage for us, about to become an Academy, is that strict structure gets done away with, but it was still a really rubbish time. A time of uncertainty that made your realise one very important fact when you are choosing a school.  Your school cannot be EXACTLY like the last Ofsted (especially as they are done every 3 years). Things change.  Head teachers move on.  Teachers leave, new ones come.  Standards rise or fall.  It’s a moving organism.  You can NEVER guarantee that the school that is “good” will stay good whilst you are there.  You have to LOVE that school for all of it’s parts and be prepared to stick with it.  If you’re local school doesn’t have a good Ofsted, find out why.  Meet the head. Ask what is being done. That will be the biggest mark of how good your school is.  Drill down.  It probably isn’t a bad school at all.  Things may change. That school may become “good” even “outstanding” at a time your child is in Year 5 or 6 and the school you chose over it, could drop down, right when you need it to be there for you.

All I’m saying, is please don’t judge a school by its Ofsted.  Ofsted can be a load of baloney!



11 thoughts on “Choosing a Primary School – A Warning

  1. Eliza_Do_Lots

    Eeeesh! That’s awful. But believable.

    I had NO idea what to look for but from having teachers in the family I knew that Ofsted wasn’t the be all and end all so we visited schools locally and went by what we saw, heard and understood when we were there. We fell in love with a school further away but were lucky enough to get in (and are now moving closer so we can walk) and it’s so hard to decide when you’re bombarded with info, websites, scores and reports.

    The reports, though, can be years out of date, can be manipulated as you’ve proven, and don’t show the feel or environment of the place, or how it suits YOUR child.

    1. Bella Post author

      You are so right. You’re method sounds perfect. Meeting teachers and head and a “feel” for the school is so important. Scores do matter, but a good head will know that.

  2. sweettoothnim aka mrstuteyblog

    well said! we chose our catchment school. historically it’s had problems and has below average results. ofsted inspections weren’t amazing. however the staff are fantastic, the school super warm and inviting. i love it there. my oldest loves it and i am about to apply for ny second to go there. :-)

    i get quite protective of our school. other parents i have met have commented that their child would never go to my school because it’s a bad school with a bad catchment area. i always ask if they have visited the school. if no i quickly ask them to keep their opinions to theirselves. ;-)

  3. Kate

    Bob on. This happened to our school tho it wasn’t rated Inadequate but Satisfactory which is now Requires improvement. What they have been doing in Lancashire is rating schools as Inadequate then the DofE have been sending in people to talk about converting to an academy. Then, Ofsted actually came in to do a progress inspection and said that all the meetings were distracting the head from progress at turning it around so the leader of the council banned them. Gove keeps slagging off Lancashire about how its primaries are “failing” children, yet only 2% primaries in Lancs fell into this category, whereas in his own constituency, the rate is 4%! And the council leader was a Tory too…. (tho not since May after local elections).

    What pisses me off even further is that they don’t routinely reinspect schools rated as Outstanding unless serious concerns are raised with Ofsted. Things could easily be going very very wrong and Ofsted would not pick it up. Which probably explains why our school has recently gained a number of children from the only school rated outstanding in the district….

    I have been telling people since Monkey went to school to go see schools for themselves and make their own judgements, not Ofsted’s (or even SATs results, given they are for children 8 years older than yours). That was how we chose the school they go to. We eschewed the local popular schools (although we probably wouldn’t have got into the one nearest our house as we refuse to go to church just to get our children into a school) for this one, as we liked the atmosphere and felt they cared for the children. There is a real mix of backgrounds at school and I know that some people would hate that as they only want “their sort” at a school (hence why they all go to church to get in). But just because there are children from some very poor families doesn’t mean they are all awful, they are not. There are children with behavioural issues but they have them everywhere. There are kids who struggle but they give them as much help as they can. They expect a lot from the children – and usually get it.

    Of course, it’s not really surprising that Ofsted have started doing this since the current government was elected… and Gove became Education Secretary. My final point is that education will be in crisis until he is removed from office. I hate his attitude that he knows best when he is a bloody journalist and not a trained teacher.

    1. Bella Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Kate. You sound very similar to me. I really wanted my daughter to know every kind of child out there, because that’s what happens in life. Sounds like a terrible situation in Lancs. Hope things improve.

  4. Denise

    Yes to everything you said! I’ve been a school governor for a while and this is something we have been aware of for a while. It is an insidious agenda that has been pressed on our schools without there being any high profile public discussion or debate at all.

    I am glad you managed to find a good sponsor.

    As you can see from the article, it doesn’t work out for everyone :-(

    I’m so pleased to read your blog and that you have shared your experience. Also your very good advice about how to choose a school. It’s all very wise!

  5. Mummy Glitzer

    When we were awarded our council flat after nine months of homelessness, I was really upset to discover that the school attached to the nursery my son will be attending is actually an academy, having been forced into academy status last year due to poor OFSTED.

    Then Kate (and a few other people) explained that in any case you really need to view the school, meet the teachers and the head to get a real idea of what the school and it’s ethos are like.

    I for one, am incredibly anxious about choosing the right school for my son (which in any case may not be the one that is seen as “best” by OFSTED!) but was also relieved when I discovered that the sponsor school voluntarily went to academy status as an Outstanding school with the aim to help improve other primary schools.

    This post and the article you have linked to have put my mind at ease even more, so thank you.

  6. Pingback: Our Search Area and Secondary Schools | Our Escape to the Country

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>