Why OFSTED Isn’t Everything
If you’re stressing about which primary school to send your little one to this September, and have been agonising over OFSTED reports, you’re not the only one. It’s been the hot topic of conversation every time I see any of my friends who have kids that are Lyra’s age (three to four year olds), and it’s also been much debated within the Slack thread here at Rock My Towers.
However, hopefully today’s super-useful post by Rachel from Staying Sane As a Mummy Of 3, (who also happens to be a teacher) will bring a bit of clarity and reassurance about the ‘which school’ dilemma before the 15 January deadline. And if you’re not thinking about school just yet, this page might be a good one to bookmark for the future. Over to Rachel…
I have been a Primary School Teacher for 15 years and am a mummy to 3 small children; George is 5 and in Y1, Esme is 4 and starts school in September and Ted is 1. I try hard to keep the two roles separate, but I have to admit there are times when the lines blur… the playroom boxes are labelled, there’s a number line on the wall and there is a phonics chart taped to the the easel (or as my friend likes to mock, ‘the writing corner!’)
So when it came to choosing a school for George to go to, it was a decision I did not take lightly. It felt like such a big deal! We were going to be handing our baby boy over to this institution for such a significant part of his day and despite having been on the other side of the gates for a number of years, it felt terrifying! I also wanted to get it right- we have no intention of moving house any time soon so this was going to be his (and his siblings) school for the next 7 years (11 if you include the baby one starting in a few years!)
Our catchment school had the OFSTED rating of ‘outstanding’ and our other local schools were all ‘good’ or better but the teacher in me knew that an OFSTED report was not the only thing to look for. Yes they are well regulated and there to hold schools to account (as they should be) but I know from experience that they are generally driven by results and can sometimes only be a snapshot of a school on that given day. Also the data that they use for inspection purposes and for league tables only really shows where children have ended up and doesn’t take into account where they started; their attainment rather than the progress they have made.
I also felt really strongly as a parent that my children are more than just outcomes- I wanted to pick a school that was going to nurture them as individuals and develop them as a whole, not just academically.
A guide to OFSTED Inspection Reports…
When looking at OFSTED reports, try not to get too hung up on the Grades given. Schools are given an overall effectiveness rating but are also looked at in detail for different categories where you will find more detail about achievement of pupils or leadership for example. Look more at the things that are relevant to your child. For example if you know your son or daughter lacks confidence or struggles emotionally, read the section on behaviour and safety of pupils- is there any mention made to how pupils are inducted or supported at more unstructured times like playtime? Do they mention specific interventions that may be used to effectively help pupils who find school difficult? Does it talk about how pupils interact with each other and with staff?
Try not to instantly dismiss schools that have a ‘requires improvement’ OFSTED grade or even those graded a 4 (either those deemed ‘serious weakness’ or ‘special measures’). Quite often these schools have been on a journey of school improvement and will have had lots of support, intervention and probably funding. It may well be that the improvements have just not been recognised yet due to where they are in the OFSTED inspection cycle. It’s also really important to read the report before you go to visit a school as you can use that as an opportunity to clarify any points made that concern you or that you’d like more information on.
Visiting the school…
For me, the visits were much more informative and important than the report. I wanted to get a feel for the schools and the staff and children there. Don’t get fobbed off with an appointment after school- you need to see the kids interacting with each other and with staff. Ring up with plenty of time to spare before the application deadline too- quite often the Head or Deputy will have set aside specific sessions that may get booked up quickly. I took George with me for the viewing- he had lots of questions and it was a great chance for him to start to acclimatise to the thought of school and all it had to offer.
Make sure you go into Foundation Stage (some schools will still call it Reception). This is going to be where your son or daughter will start their school life and it will have a huge influence on shaping their attitude to education as well as providing building blocks for the rest of their learning. George is a very ‘outdoorsy’ and I was really keen to look at the outdoor provision and to check that children had lots of access to it. I was also keen to see how formal the setting seemed- He was only going to be 4 and a few months when he started and I was worried about him having to do too much, too soon.
Look at the learning environment. Is it bright and warm and welcoming? Does the school appear well resourced? Are the staff friendly? Do they talk to you and your child as you look round? Do the kids look happy and engaged? Are there plenty of additional adults in school and are they working alongside children? Are you seeing lots of different types of learning happening in classrooms – group work and drama and art as well as the core subjects? And most importantly- do you think your child could be happy here??
Go armed with questions (my husband and I had a bet on to see if I gave away my profession with my questions – the Head asked me if I was ‘in education’ at the end of the look round! Busted!) Things to consider when making a list of questions…
Practicalities: Do they have a breakfast club or after school club that you can use if you need additional childcare? Ask about the timings of the school day- you may need to consider child care of younger children at home and how they fit together.
Is the school oversubscribed? How many children were admitted from out of catchment last year? If you are not in catchment it might help you to make a decision if you know you are unlikely to get in!
What does the curriculum look like? The objectives that are covered are dictated nationally but the way that they are delivered are specific to each school – do the themes and topics sound like things your child will be interested and engaged by?
How do they involve parents in school life? Do they offer workshops or support for parents on how to help your child at home with reading for instance? What are the homework expectations as your child moves through school?
What are the school’s improvement priorities? What would they like to be doing better? What are they developing across school at the moment?
What is the provision for extra curricular opportunities like? Do they cater for your child’s interests and skills? Do they offer extra clubs that your child can attend or lessons in music or languages or sports that will develop or nurture an interest or talent?
Does your child have any specific needs that would require provision or interventions? How would the school cater for these needs?
Talk to neighbours and other parents at play groups etc about their experiences of local schools. Use social media to gauge opinions (but obviously apply the ‘pinch of salt’ rule where necessary!) Consider practicalities such as distance- being able to walk to school was a key priority for me- even dragging along two pre-schoolers with us, I love the walk with our friends and their kids. Think about other children that you know will be attending and the friendships that your child already has- there is a strong chance that these will change once they start school but having friendly faces that they recognise when they start could help to ease them in. Consider your own support network- Ted was born 2 months after George started school; being able to call on a neighbour to drop George off when we’d been up all night or when Ted vomited everywhere just as we were about to set off was a godsend! Consider the size of the school- I love our little village school which is very personal and suits George to a tee; but some children are better in a larger setting with more resources and options… Consider what works best for your family. Also remember that you may be looking for a school place for one child but if you have more than one child the likelihood is that siblings may also be attending in the future- which is the ‘best fit’ for all your children?
And finally; go with your gut! If something bothers you, go back another time and check it out. You and your child are going to be part of this school and its community for a number of years- it’s a big choice and important to get it right!
Good luck with the applications, I hope your littles get the place you want.
What are your views on OFSTED?
Do you have any other tips?