What to look for when visiting schools – top tips from an Ofsted inspector

If your little one is starting school next year then you’ve either been visiting or have visits lined up to find somewhere for your child to learn. 

You may have found “the one” immediately and be well within the catchment with nothing to worry about. That’s fab news if so.

But if you’re like me and have a bit of a dilemma when it comes to which schools to put down on your list, then I have some top tips for how you can make your decision a little easier.

My mum is a former deputy headteacher and an Ofsted inspector with many years of experience in education at a senior level. She’s inspected dozens of primary schools and knows what makes the difference between a good one and an outstanding one, not just in terms of the Ofsted rating but in terms of whether this is a place you would be happy to send your child to. 

So with a little help from her I’ve put together a list of top tips for what to look out for when visiting prospective schools.

How well are the pupils learning

Look at whether the children in classrooms are engaged and focused. Listen in to what the teacher is saying, is it engaging and exciting for the kids? 

How does the school discipline children, or keep their focus? When pupils have done well, how are they rewarded?

Every child will have different abilities, how does the school encourage children in areas of talent and interest. Does the school think about the individual and their learning needs, how does it help each child to succeed in their own way?

What are the attitudes like

Is there any sign of disruption? Of course children are not perfect and there will no doubt be some shouts, running and silliness. But as a whole, do the adults have the respect of the children? Are the children focused on the tasks?

What’s the attitude towards routine like? Are the children happy to follow it or do they meander off?

The speed of the pupils’ response to their teacher is a good indicator as to what the school is “normally” like when not on its best behaviour for visitors. 

What are the results

It’s not all about numbers, and some kids will be naturally academic while others excel at more physical activities. But do look at the results in reading, writing, and maths for the last academic year. 

You could always ask the headteacher about the results and how they compare to previous years, and their views on this. 

Staffing

How many new teachers started in September? Teacher retention shows a school is a nice place to work, and therefore a positive place to learn.

Ask about the pupil to staff ratio and ask if the teaching assistants are regular faces or if a lot of substitutes have to be brought in. Consistency is really good at making kids feel safe in their learning environment. 

What are the facilities like?

Look at the classrooms. Are they in complete disarray? If kids are doing art or playing of course there will be some mess, but look beyond that to how the room is generally organised. Are there trays with each pupils’ name on?

How are the toys and books organised? A chaotic classroom means that learning may be haphazard too.

Tour the playground and see what the space is like. For reception class, are there appropriate climbing frames and seating areas for them to enjoy? What kind of imaginative play areas are there?

How has the school divided the outdoor play areas between older children and younger children? Do the different ages have different play spaces, and where do they come together? 

When looking at how the facilities are laid out, look at how the school is making the transition from year to year easier on your child. For example will reception children play with Year One kids so that they are used to the idea of moving up to the next class in a year’s time.

Look at the displays

What kind of displays is the school using to showcase what kids have been doing in the classroom. Look closely at the displays and see if they are new. If they are very old, for example talking about spring in the middle of autumn, then this is a bit of a red flag. 

Displays should be celebrating what the kids have been learning and helping to advance their learning further. See if the displays have meaning for the school, for example do they emphasise the school’s key messages such as kindness, equality etc. 

Are the displays neat and nicely arranged?

Homework

Ask about what kind of homework your child may be expected to do. Most places will send children home with simple tasks, such as reading a book with their parents or doing some kind of craft activity over the weekend.

How does the school work with parents

Try to gauge how approachable the school will be. A good headteacher and class teacher will be happy for parents to make appointments or send them emails. 

What kind of information does the school send home regularly. We all know that kids can sum up their day with the words “I didn’t do anything”, so how does the school let you know what your child has been doing?

What extracurricular activities are there

If you are working then you will probably be interested in taking advantage of a breakfast and after school club. Find out if these are oversubscribed, where they operate from (as some don’t take place at the actual school and involve the kids being walked to a different building) and what kind of activities they offer. 

Most schools will also offer sports clubs and other activities after school. Find out what these are and ask if they are regularly changed to reflect what the kids are interested in.

Ask if the school organises annual school trips and activities. It shows a strong school community if there are regular fundraisers, parties and other activities. Although five-year-olds won’t be going on residential trips, does the school take them anywhere else?

Learning and Ofsted

Look at the Ofsted report and grading. Does it concern you and if anything jumps out at you in particular, ask the headteacher about it. The Ofsted grade does not mean the school is a total write-off, or that it’s definitely right for your child. 

Look beyond the report. If the school had a bad judgement, ask what has been done to address the issues as an improved report may be just around the corner. 

All in all, looking at a school is not scientific. There is a major element of gut feeling, so have a good look around and think whether you can see your child doing well there. 

Good luck and I hope you find the school that’s right for your child!

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