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Choosing schools: what should be the basic expectations from a primary school?

(52 Posts)
fairyglo Wed 11-Jan-06 20:05:35

We are on the edge of two school catchment areas so are looking around both plus other schools in case we need to move to make certain of a place, any place, in 18 months time. I would be grateful for advice on what to look for when visiting primary schools since I am a good 30 years out of date. I would ideally like my child to go to a state primary (mixed-sex) so at least for the moment my question is aimed at what are the realistic expectations from a reasonable primary state school.

I've looked at two schools so far. One has excellent results and a very high performing, motivated in-take. However, I was a bit surprised that it didn't seem to provide any non-academic services eg have an orchestra, choir, (not clear about class music lessons), no art classes, little sport - no grounds but maybe this is standard? There also seems to be an expectation that children will routinely have extra coaching. This surely shouldn't be necessary if the school is providing nothing but academic teaching?

Maybe this is the reality of education in 2006 but ideally I would not wish my child to spend all day at school then go off to a coaching class while family weekends are spent ferrying between sport or creative stuff. I would like a well-rounded education where academic prowess isn't the be all and end all.

The other school I visited has terrible results and a very mixed catchment. I've been warned that the teachers need to spend so much time on the pupils from the poorest backgrounds that any children from educated backgrounds are left to be taught reading and writing (and everything else) at home. But it seemed friendly, has a specialist music teacher to come in twice a week in reception, art classes, room for a small gym.

I know which of the two I prefer (although trying to keep an open mind since a) we may not get into either if there are loads of siblings and b) still want to see other schools) but the terrible results do worry me.

What do you expect from your primary school? How much outside academic and non-academic "filling-in" is the norm. these days?

tissy Wed 11-Jan-06 20:08:06

Orchestra in a state primary?

fairyglo Wed 11-Jan-06 20:12:58

The reason I mentioned an orchestra is that I know another (distant) state primary school has one at the moment and my school 30 years ago had one but happy to be told that that's over-ambitious for most schools. My expectations are fading fast and frankly I'm beginning to wonder whether most schools even have class music lessons.

tissy Wed 11-Jan-06 20:16:21

actually, my dd doesn't go to school yet, so I don't really know what to expect, but I wouldn't put an orchestra at the top of the list. I'd like to see some kind of music lesson (singing/ percussion/ recorder maybe)but it wouldn't be a disaster if there were none, as she'll be getting piano lessons soonish.

fairyglo Wed 11-Jan-06 20:18:58

Tissy, no. These aren't necessarily things I attach huge importance too, certainly I didn't list them in order but I did find it surprising that this so-called good school didn't do any of either sport or art or music. I don't mind doing some extra stuff outside school but don't want to spend all our family time on stuff which I think you should be able to get from a primary school.

It would be good to hear what other Mums have found provided at their primary schools.

nooka Wed 11-Jan-06 21:23:43

Only one of our local schools mentioned music at all, but specialist stuff is often provided by the LEA - so all of our schools in fact have visiting music teachers. I did have a choir at junior school, but this sort of thing seems to mostly depend on having an enthusiastic teacher, as it's mostly an extra on top of other committments. I wouldn't particularly expect separate art classes either, but one of the things that attracted me to my children's school was the art work displayed everywhere. In the end for us (I visited and applied to 8 schools!) it was the atmosphere that mattered, and the feeling that the children enjoyed being there. I do believe that for reception at least, what matters most is that the teacher has time to get to know them, make them welcome, and make them feel like school is a good place to be.

mandieb Wed 11-Jan-06 21:29:23

ok here goes
its a mixed state primary and junior school in Weybridge surrey .
choir -infant and junior
art club -infant and junior
recorder - infant and junior
sports ,loads -all ages , football,rugby,gymnastics,tennis,dancing ,
and more that I cant remember,a music guy comes in to school and they do guitar,keyboard,
chess club .
There is just so much that I dont know about it all as my little one is in year 2 so he hasnt even hit the juniors yet . The education side of it is really good too any extra help needed is provided by the teachers so I dont think any one needs extra tuition but if parents felt that their child neede a helping hand in certain subjects I sure they would reccomend a tutor to help them .

Clary Wed 11-Jan-06 21:30:54

yes with tissy I am surprised at the idea of an orchestra in a state primary.
Our school is an infant school and has neither orchestra nor choir. They do music lessons - singing and rhythm instruments etc. Also in yr 2 a half-hour recorder session after school once a week. Sport is PE 3x a week. Art classes - they do art as part of their curriculum.
The thing is there is so much for children to master and so much curriculum to be go through that there just isn't time in the day for some of these activities.
We had a coffee morning with DS1's teacher (he's in yr 2) and I was very impressed with the schedule of the day but also amazed at how much they have to get through - what with literacy hour, numeracy hour, history, geography, PSHE etc etc.
I would always go for a school I felt happy about. Personally I would rate how happy pupils seem and response from head and other teachers above results which are not an indicator of how clever your child is IYSWIM. (Nooka puts it well)
I might be concerned however that you would be expected to teach reading and writing at home. Who warned you of this? (a teacher? another parent? parent from another school?)

grammaticus Wed 11-Jan-06 22:03:35

Our state infants school has recorder lessons weekly in year 2 and offers french and football after school. My ds1 (yr2) does Beavers and swimming out of school. A music teacher comes into each class weekly from reception.

Orchestra and choir are in the juniors together with drama, art, recorder group, italian, french, football, swimming, cricket, netball and computer club. And drama I think (still in infants atm!) Most of these but not all are after school or at lunchtime.

Littlefish Wed 11-Jan-06 22:06:18

I've worked in 3 primary schools as a teacher, and each had a different emphasis on music, art, sport etc. The second school I worked in was incredibly musical - it had a large orchestra, infant, junior and year 6 choirs, 5 different recorder groups and just less than 100 children learning instruments (out of 400 pupils). The school greatly subsidised many areas of musical development and encouarged as many children as possible to take part in music clubs at lunchtime and after school.

Some schools have a great focus on sport, others on art etc. There are also various awards you can get for focussing on particular areas, I think there's one called Artsmark or something like that for creative work.

Sorry, none of this helps with your decision! I just know that I enjoy working in schools were there is an appropriate balance of academic and creative subjects, where all talents are recognised and children are encouraged to expand their interests beyond simply the academic. It creates a far richer school environment and caters more effectively for all children's skills and interests.

fairyglo Wed 11-Jan-06 23:06:54

Littlefish, that is helpful. I was beginning to wonder whether I was being really naive to expect any of these things so it is quite helpful to know that some schools do and some don't and you just have to shop around.

Mandieb - your school sounds amazing. Does its catchment stretch as far as London by any chance ?

The point about teaching reading and writing at home was told to me by a Mum whose children attend the school . Just one voice though so maybe she's had a bad experience?

snailspace Wed 11-Jan-06 23:09:23

Message withdrawn

frogs Wed 11-Jan-06 23:12:37

wrt to academic standards in the second school, a good benchmark is to ask to look at the english/literacy books of a Year 3 class. By that age the vast majority of the class should be able to produce a reasonable length piece of writing, with sensible spelling, legible handwriting and acceptable punctuation. Joined-up writing gets extra brownie points, but is not essential. If large numbers can't do this, then standards are likely to be low. There might be a legitimate reason for this, but it bears consideration. And watch out for the sleight of hand with which teachers will manage to pass you the exercise books of the class genius -- ask to see the whole pile and have a good riffle. The standard of marking will also tell you something about the school -- it should be reasonably regular (ie. not pages of unmarked, half-completed work) and should include constructive suggestions for improvement as well as cheery little stickers saying 'Brilliant!'.

Clary Wed 11-Jan-06 23:29:57

That's a very interesting post Frogs. Are you a teacher (or have I confused you with someone else?)
Fairyglo, the fact that that warning comes from another parent could just mean that she had had a bad experience. If that was really so, though, why would you send your child to that school? (although maybe practical factors mean she doesn't have much choice...)

mazzystar Wed 11-Jan-06 23:38:56

ds is still a toddler, and i'm probably being naive, but for a primary school, i'm not overly pre-occupied about high academic results, and am more concerned with the school creating a positive, friendly and nurturing environment. i would also see a mixed catchment as a positive. i also want my child to be able to run around outside at breaktimes and to be able walk to school.

Hallgerda Thu 12-Jan-06 08:04:28

fairyglo, how terrible exactly are the terrible results at the second primary school you mention? It's worth remembering that the published league tables tell you how many pupils managed Level 4 or above, not how many reached their true potential. My children's primary school doesn't have particularly stunning published results but they're all doing fine. It can sometimes be the case that the "better" schools are putting their effort into what counts for the league tables, and those that know they'll never be top actually consider what each child is capable of.

My children's primary school has an after-school art club (and art lessons as part of the timetable), class music lessons including a choice between recorders and drumming in Year 2, a choir, a chess club, a football club and a football team, a netball team (mixed, believe it or not!). Outside school, all my children do swimming, one goes to piano lessons and two do cricket, so I do spend some of my spare time ferrying them around.

batters Thu 12-Jan-06 09:04:55

In the state school my dd left they had the following after school clubs:

gym for years 1 and 2 I think
arty type club for year 1 and 2
football for years 3 upwards
French for years 4 upwards
Drama for years 4 upwards
Violin lessons for years 3 upwards. There was a fee for this. AFAIK though violin lessons have stopped.

fairyglo it might help if you posted whereabouts you are situated in London - it may be that other Mumsnetters have experience of that area. Quite understand if you don't want to though. In general London state primary schools will have a very mixed catchment. There are advantages and disadvantages to this IMO. It is how this is dealt with by the school that matters.

acnebride Thu 12-Jan-06 09:31:44

the local primary that i hope ds will go to has brilliant football and some swimming, and what look to me like very active and varied art classes. Choir, ballet, French and chess are after-school activities. I'm on the governing body (as Clerk) and they are aiming to be a Healthy School this year so planning to expand range of sports on offer.

I'm with you fairyglo on the type of school and range of activities you want - I'd really recommend going on the governing body to clarify your feelings about the school, and potentially to improve it.

dexter Thu 12-Jan-06 09:42:40

lots of people have said it all but I feel as my ds gets nearer to going to infants, that the main thing I want is a nurturing culture where the children are known and valued for who they are - not slotted in to the system.

don't know if this is possible! I also loved what snailspace said about music and sport being important things for a school to offer and definitely feel this primary age group schooling should be about finding out about the richness of life and experiencing lots and lots of different activities and experiences - not about 'results' in english, maths, etc.

So I might want the impossible but I would want the school to be interested in finding out who my son is and nurturing what they find - whatever it may be.

dexter Thu 12-Jan-06 09:44:49

what I meant to add fairyglo, was that you MAY find the school with terrible results are actually too busy providing the kids with what they need, to focus on the tests that provide the results! I always remember that the results of schools are based on the government's judgement, not my own judgement of what is good.

Twiglett Thu 12-Jan-06 09:52:54

I don't think either of them sound particularly great to be fair .. but much may change

when we moved here DS was 4 months old and there was no way he would have gone to our closest school

Now 4.5 years later, the school has had a new head for almost 3 years, replaced 70% of staff and is fab and DS v. happy there (reception class)

In the last 3 years there has started an art club (classroom dedicated and refitted to art), a drama club (external link with Shakespeare's Globe and refitted theatre in school), football club (local football team come in to coach), french club, revamped playground (ongoing with wildlife garden) etc .. but no music yet

There is a great social life, sense of social responsibility and the kids are learning well

Very mixed intake .. active PTA .. wildly improving SAT results but no overly undue emphasis .. total change in demographics of early years to later years .. is now representative of area

I think really it depends on the head's plans

HTH

frogs Thu 12-Jan-06 10:44:59

Can I just sound a cautionary note for those people with infant and pre-infant aged children who think that high academic standards are not important?

Make a point of talking to parents with kids at both ends of the school -- it's not uncommon for parents to feel all warm and fluffy about the cheery, inclusive and nurturing feel at the lower end of the school, but they may find themselves feeling slightly less warm and fluffy when their Y5 child is repeating the exact same worksheets she did the previous year, their Y3 child is being sent home with one reading book a fortnight, or their Y4 child is learning the 5 times table for the umpteenth time because most of the class haven't got it yet. I'm not being patronising -- this was me, as well.

Don't confuse high academic standards with hot-housing. Pushing a child beyond their natural ability is obviously not a good thing, but probably not a concern that should be top of your worry list when considering a primary school. But it is worth making sure that your child is going to be provided with sufficient stimulation and challenge to prevent him or her becoming bored and resentful. This kind of input is relatively easy to provide at the lower end of a school -- most four and five-year olds' needs are pretty straightforward -- but harder at the upper end of the school, when the gap between the highest and lowest-achieving children may be as much as 6 or 7 years. And bear in mind that schools are measured on the number of children they get to Level 4 in Y6 -- this is not a demanding target for a reasonably bright child with a supportive family. There is little incentive for schools to go much beyond this.

It would be a rare state primary school that had the resources or the inclination to look in any depths at each child's needs and nurture it to achieve its full potential, particularly where that potential is significantly above the standard class targets. I know this isn't what people want to hear, but the plethora of threads on here complaining about children being bored at school suggests our experiences are not unusual.

sandyballs Thu 12-Jan-06 10:56:35

Fairyglo - I don't think you're expecting too much - a rounded education including sport and music is very important, just as important as the academic side, which is why we chose the school we did for our DDs. My mother was extremely keen for my DDs to go to the local catholic primary which has a great reputation and great results but hardly any emphasis on sport, music, art etc.

Whereas the other school (where they are now in reception) has reasonable results academically but also do lots of other things - PE, Dance, Art, Music, Swimming (has it's own pool), the other school just didn't compare IMO. There is so much more to school than maths and english.

It also has its own orchestra .

mazzystar Thu 12-Jan-06 11:06:00

actually frogs, i think you may have reinforced the point that some of us were making by highlighting the level 4 in year 6 measure and the lack of incentive for schools to reach for higher targets.

its the organisational culture of the school that will be key in my decision-making (such as it is - i understand that the way school places are allocated is going to change shortly- is anyone in the know about this?). i'll be hoping for a positive learning environment, creative and motivated teachers.

batters Thu 12-Jan-06 11:09:01

frogs - unfortunately your post echoes my dd's experiences .

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