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!

 

 

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