Choosing a School

Choosing your child’s school is an important parental task. Check the various schools’ admission criteria and take into account the following guidance.

The basics

As a parent, you’ll want your child to go to the finest school. But your neighbours want that for their children, too – and the finest schools have a limited number of places!

To find the best school for your child, do some research on the school and its quality, carefully check the school’s admission criteria and take care with your formal application.

The first decision is: private or state schooling?

Private schooling

  • Private Schools are also called Independent Schools
  • Old, traditional, well-established Independent Schools (like Harrow) are often referred to as Public Schools
  • There are about 2,500 Independent Schools in the UK
  • About 7% of the 8 million school children in the UK go to Independent Schools
  • Can you afford private education? And is it worth it?
  • For a day-pupil’s education at an Independent School the average cost in 2015 was £13,194 per year
  • Boarding fees are an average of £30,369 per year (see BBC News Education)
  • Going to Harrow costs at least £40,000 per year
  • Day-pupil education over your child’s whole school-life costs around £200,000 – about the price of an average house – so evaluate its worth

In a recent poll of parents, the top 3 reasons for choosing private education were:

  1. Smaller class sizes
  2. Children will make good connections
  3. Family member/s went to the school

Many fee-paying schools offer scholarships and bursaries to cut costs. Contact the school to ask about eligibility.

School admission criteria

Schools have rules about who they will accept as pupils. Ask your local council; check schools’ websites; or contact them directly for information about their policies.

Every child is entitled to a free education in state schools, but most schools will prioritise your child if:

  • You live in the ‘catchment area’ for that particular school. Where you live determines which school your child ‘should’ go to. Councils draw boundary lines around residential areas, and expect children in that area to attend a particular school – usually the closest school, but not always! Check with the council or school
  • Your child’s previous school is their ‘feeder’ school. A secondary school usually accepts all pupils from two or more primary schools (called their feeder schools). A primary will usually prioritise their own nursery pupils
  • Your child has a sibling already attending the school. Many schools will prioritise your child if their elder brother or sister already attends
  • You want your child to go to a faith school and your family practises that religion. You might have to provide a letter from your minister, priest, imam or rabbi to support your application. Some faith schools consider applications from students not of the faith

In the case of selective secondary schools (grammar schools, and most independent schools) your child will usually need to pass an entrance exam or 11-Plus.

Distance from home

Local authorities generally steer you to the nearest school – which is why house prices near good schools are often inflated!

Visit for a link to your local council, and discover if your child qualifies for free transport. If not, how will your child travel, and what will it cost?

Remember – if the school is distant and your child doesn’t get home until late, they will still have homework to do – so there won’t be much time to read or spend time with friends or family.

Ofsted reports and performance tables

Ofsted reports are invaluable for comparing schools. Reports are freely available online at, so read them and make sure you understand how they work.

If a school didn’t do well in the last Ofsted inspection, don’t dismiss it. Find out if changes have been made to improve it. A new head teacher might make all the difference!

Take a look at the school performance tables, where you can compare exam and test results.

Social and emotional considerations

Involve your child, as far as possible, in choosing their school. They will have their own ideas about what they want. Listening to their opinions and discussing options helps them to feel included.

Does your child want to attend the same school as their friends? Most children move up from infants to the same junior school; or a ‘feeder’ primary school to their local secondary. If you choose a completely different school, your child will need to make new friends. Confident children will thrive, but if your child is less emotionally resilient, they may prefer familiar faces. A smaller school might suit a less confident child. A larger school will usually offer more facilities, clubs, activities and a greater choice of subjects.

Visits and asking questions

All good schools are pleased to answer your questions because they appreciate parental involvement.

Visit all the schools you are interested in. Most secondary and independent schools have open days, parents’ nights or ‘transition’ days for upcoming year groups. Look around, see the facilities, meet the teachers and ask questions. If you’re considering a primary school, or are moving school mid-year, arrange to meet the head teacher or one of the management team to discuss your child’s needs and find out more.

Some schools have certain specialisms and staff with particular expertise. If your child excels in Music or Maths, will their needs be met? Will they be challenged enough to progress further?

Some schools offer different subjects and opportunities. If your child loves to play a particular sport or instrument, or wants to learn Chinese, will they be able to do this? What clubs and other activities are offered? How big are the classes? Generally, the smaller the better.

Final thoughts

These decisions will affect your child’s life for a long time.

Engaging with the school about your child’s education will undeniably give a boost to their academic achievement.

Can YOU work well with the school? You will get to know them very well!

Now for the quiz…

  1. Which of the following is true when choosing a school for your child?
    Often there is strong competition for places at the best schools in an area
  2. What is another name for Private Schools?
    If you would like your child to go to an Independent School but the costs are unaffordable, then it is always worthwhile asking the school about scholarships and bursaries
  3. What is the name often given to old, traditional schools like Harrow?
    Probably Eton and Harrow are the most often-quoted public schools. The eight others that constitute the “Top Ten” are Winchester College, Charterhouse School, Rugby School, Westminster, Marlborough College, Dulwich College, St Paul's Boys' School and Wellington College
  4. There are approximately 25,000 state funded schools in the UK. About how many private schools are there?
    The average size of a state-funded primary school is less than 250 students whereas the average size of a secondary school is in the region of 900 students
  5. What would be the annual cost of sending your child to Harrow?
    A typical annual cost for an Independent School is about £13,000 but this escalates to over £30,000 when the fees include boarding
  6. In a recent poll of parents, which of the following were NOT in the top 3 reasons for sending a child to a private school?
    There seems little doubt that, in some professions, who you know is still more highly regarded that what you know
  7. When applying for a place at a state funded school, which of the following selection criteria will NOT be applied?
    Although schools have a set of guidelines to work to, they do have some discretionary powers and it is always worthwhile explaining your individual circumstances to the school of your choice
  8. School “league tables” are more correctly referred to as what?
    Remember to use the term “school performance tables” when talking to teachers because they usually prefer this nomenclature
  9. Faith schools will consider children not of the same faith…
    If you belong to a particular faith and you want your children to attend a school of that faith then a letter from your minister, priest, imam or rabbi is great ammunition to take to the school
  10. Ofsted reports are often a prime consideration when choosing a school. What does the acronym “Ofsted” stand for?
    Teachers often invent their own definitions but they are not appropriate for publication here!


Author: Linda Innes

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