Disclosure: I'm only talking about State-Funded primary schools in London because this is my experience, although I do believe that the system works the same way all over England (and the UK), London is where I lived.
Schools in London
London is a competitive place. Not only at work, but also to find a flat, or a good school for your kids. Like everywhere there are good and bad schools, you might live in an affluent area and have a not so good school just around the corner, that won't help you when you need to enroll your kids. My advise is, if you are planning on having kids (or have kids) and you care about your children's education, but can't afford private schools, do your research on schools, and try to find a flat very near it, it's your best chance to get into the school you dream of.
Because London is a city where mostly both parents work, if you don't have a childminder, your kids will probably go to the early years (nursery), my daughter was in an awesome little school. They were amazing and she learned so much! I loved it and she loved it. Unfortunately since we left England, I've heard that they've brought it down to build flats in its place. Such a shame. Children go to early years school until they're about 4-5, then they start primary school :-(
Some schools offer nursery or preschool, from age 3, but even if your child is lucky enough to get into it, it doesn't mean that once they start reception (kindergarten) they will have a secured place. And most preschools do not offer after-school care, so you still need to pay for that afterwards and find a way to drop your child off wherever she/he goes to after. A huge pain, I tell you. I didn't have this problem because like I said, she was on full day care at the other school, in which she went full time.
After you've decided where you are going to live (or if you have an idea), you should use a few tools to help you compare schools:
- Read their Ofsted inspection reports. Every few years the govt will send inspectors who will check everything in the school, speak to parents, students, watch classes, eat the food, etc. They then will prepare a very comprehensive report and not only provide information about the school, but will make suggestions on what the school can do better and even make little notes to the children. I found this report to be the most useful tool.
- Visit the schools. All schools have (should have) open houses where you will walk around, visit classrooms, speak to teachers and find out about the selection process. Some schools are more strict then others.
- Check the performance tables provided by the UK government. In these reports they compare year on year test results, give you data about the pupils, school denomination, etc. This site is good because once you input the postcode, they give you a map with the schools you can apply for, it narrows things down for you and make your life a tad easier.
- School websites: Once you have narrowed down your favorites, stop by the website, read newsletters (if available), see what after school activities they offer, school lunches menus, check out their open to the public events. For example, my daughter's school always did a yearly summer fair, so when I was doing my research, we went to it, you can speak to parents, ask questions, see what kind of atmosphere it is and if it matches with what you are looking for in a school.
- Speak to your neighbors!
- Ask at the nursery staff that your child goes to (or will go to), the teachers probably have kids going to the same schools, or hear things from parents, so they are a wealth of information.
- Ask any parent that live around you. When I got my child in the school, I mentioned to a parent about the letter that I wrote to the school during the application process, the thing is, they required that my daughter had to be baptized, and although we are Catholics, she hasn't been and I couldn't prove that she was. I wrote a letter explaining the situation. This mum, whose son was 1yr behind Victoria, was panicking, she really wanted him to go to that school, but she lived right behind another school that she didn't like, she did the same thing I did and apparently it helped her as well, she later told my father-in-law.
- Oh, before I forget, another helpful site is the dept for education in the UK, they offer publications, news and links to the major education websites.
Since this is such a huge post, I've split it. Part 2 of how to find and apply for a primary school in London is here.