The Little Pip Top Tips: 12 tips for applying for and starting primary school

The Little Pip Top Tips: 12 tips for applying for and starting primary school

Pip finally started school yesterday; it drew to an end what seemed like a long year of decisions and planning, and of course commenced the next chapter in her (and our) life. We really were clueless when we began the process this time last year, so I thought I’d both reflect on my experience and share some tips, in the hope that something might assist any parents starting the process of applying for primary schools in England & Wales for September 2017.

The Little Pip school

Consider your options

The first decision of course is to decide how you want to educate your child. The government requires that:

You must make sure your child gets a full-time education that meets their needs (eg if they have special educational needs). You can send your child to school or educate them yourself.

Children must get an education between the school term after their 5th birthday and the last Friday in June in the school year they turn 16.

I attended a hugely helpful seminar hosted by Educating Matters as part of my CityParents membership which considered the options which essentially narrow down to 3 choices – home education, state school education or private school education.

As we chose the state school option the rest of my tips relate to that but can no doubt be adapted to private school too.

1. Start early & identify your area’s admission policy and dates

If your child was born between 1 September 2012 and 31 August 2013 you will need to apply for a reception place at infant or primary school for September 2017. In our borough, Haringey, applications are easiest through the online form on their website and the closing date for applications is 15 January 2017. This means on decision day in April you can log on to the website and view the result online, and easily accept online.

This basically means you have 3 months to identify possible local schools, attend their open days, do your research and then compile your list of options (which in our case was technically 6, but in reality 1 or maybe 2).

Our choice was in effect narrowed by a combination of factors:

  • Number of places/allocation of places/catchment area – the admissions booklet with the list of schools lists the number of places available and how these were decided for the previous year (places at Pip’s school were allocated in the following order: Children in Care/ Looked After Children, Social Medical, Siblings, and Distance). Out of the 60 places available (2 classes of 30) slightly more than 1/3 of the places were allocated to siblings and the rest on distance, which was around 1/2 mile.
  • Admissions criteria – we decided we did not want Pip to attend a school which had spaces allocated based on religious requirement, which meant that some of our local options were not available

Whilst we were able to give 6 options (and did) we knew that in effect we only had a chance of getting into 2 schools based on siblings/distance, so those were the only 2 schools we visited.

2. Check open evening/tour dates and book time off – get used to the idea that schools & working parents don’t really mix

It didn’t really occur to me that the school open sessions/tours would be during the school day, and I guess on the one hand it is nice to see the school in action. On the other, this will be your first (of many) realisations that schools by and large seem stuck in some kind of parallel universe comprised solely of families with one parent at home and that the parent in question is some kind of mind reader with amazing instant access to documents, resources and fancy dress making skills. I jest, kind of. Probably better to make peace with this now though…

For some reason, in our borough at least, the dates are not advertised. Each parent has to individually call or email the school for options. Despite the fact that the options are the same for everyone. I think we had 2 options for each school, one in Oct/Nov, the other in January. We wanted to make our final decision over the Christmas holidays when we both had some time off, so we went for the earlier dates.

If you work in the private sector and haven’t encountered school since you left school, you will likely despair at the apparent incompetence and disorganisation of the school admin. I just keep reminding myself that I’ve been told this has no reflection on the teaching or the care given to the children. It drives me mad though, so if you are like me, probably worth recognising and having a strategy in mind to deal with this from the outset rather than spending time after each and every interaction seething with irritation.

3. Write down your questions to ask at the open day

A very kind colleague at work gave me a lunchtime crash course in things to consider when comparing schools and when considering their Ofsted reports. During the school tours it is easy to either forget your questions or have so many you forget one – my experience is that the headteachers don’t take kindly to questions they perceive as interrogation (my husband said this, not the teacher) so I would recommend highlighting two or three key ones in a notebook and taking that with you! Considerations my colleague suggested included:

  • How do they deal with
    • children who don’t drag the data down
    • 4 and 11 year olds in the same building
    • infant/junior divide or relationship between the two
  • How do year 2 SAT results compare against other schools locally/nationally
  • How often does someone read with your child & how often does the teacher?
  • Where does that reading take place?
  • Is there a library/quiet area
  • When child has finished a piece of work, what happens next?
  • Can parents attend an assembly?
  • In the Ofsted report, look at the “raise” data (how kids are doing and split by various segments) and question what the school is doing to improve the bits they do badly at.

Other things to look out for which can give you a feel for the school:

  • How do the adults speak to each other?
  • What is the headteacher doing?
  • How do the children react when they see the headteacher?
  • What is the school security like?
  • Do the children seem happy and chatty?
  • Are they wearing a uniform or dress code?
  • Where do they eat lunch?
  • Is water available?
  • Are there IT facilities

4. Make sure you’ve completed the form on time

I’m told that some boroughs ask for things like Child Benefit details in addition to proof of address, so worth registering for the online account in good time and checking you have all the required documents.

5. Don’t forget to accept the offer if you are happy with it

We found out Pip’s school just 2 days after her little brother was born and whilst I was still in hospital. Thankfully, we were reminded by a kind friend from Pip’s pre-school that I needed to actually accept the offer, as by the time I’d recovered from the birth, I’d forgotten I needed to do it.

6. Don’t despair if you don’t get your first choice – you might end up with it, or even something better

I believe if you qualify for a place on admissions criteria but are too far down the list to be allocated one, you still remain on the list. I have it on good authority that there is a lot of movement up the list, particularly as some parents who will eventually choose a private school also apply for a state school back up. I am not the person to advise if you haven’t been allocated a place at all, but please don’t despair. Steph from Don’t Buy Her Flowers wrote a great piece after her son didn’t receive a place at any of their choices but is now happily attending a school.

7. If your school has uniform, buy it in July

If you want the pick of the sizes and options, buy it early. It didn’t occur to me that places would have nothing in stock by September, but I’m glad I listened to the experts in the years above me! I am going to do a separate round up post with my favourite options. Also bear in mind that some of the girls might start the year in checked dresses, so if you have an early start date, might be worth getting one just in case.

Cost wise – I found George at Asda and Sainsbury’s to both have reasonable quality skirts and pinafores and polos at a fraction of the cost of some of the other options…

8. Communication can be slow/non-existent so don’t be afraid to ask the school office & WRITE DOWN YOUR START DATE!

We heard nothing from the school once we’d accepted our offer in May until a letter arrived for the parents evening in June for new parents – less than 2 weeks before the intended date and around 6 weeks of no correspondence whatsoever. They do know the dates earlier than that though which I discovered by emailing the office.

At that meeting I was verbally told the start date, which thankfully I wrote down on the folder of forms I was handed, as we then heard nothing whatsoever from the school. No home visit, no reminder of start date – nothing. We turned up for the first morning on trust.

I also feel very much none-the-wiser to things like the PTA and any kind of procedure or indeed what Pip will be doing from now til Christmas, but I am trusting that eventually someone will give me some information at some point. In fact, I just got a random text message about Jeans for Genes day, so presumably some information will start to be forthcoming!

9. Breakfast / after school clubs – book in the morning that bookings open

Our school somewhat coyly refused to reveal any details of this until the June parents evening, and even then it was just a bit of paper in a pack. Parents in the know however tell me that there are nowhere near enough spaces for everyone, so early booking is ESSENTIAL. As I’m on maternity leave, we haven’t booked anything for January when I intend to go back to full time work, which is making me a bit anxious, but equally I can’t commit to it, so I can’t book anything.

Also, you get the form on the evening but I am told by those in the know, that this means booking opens on the day of the parents evening, so they went to the school office first thing on that day, requested the forms and booked. Easy if you know how, isn’t it (nothing in the paperwork or the evening suggested that this was even a possibility by the way).

10. Save all your annual leave!

Prepare for a long summer holiday due to a staggered start – and then be prepared for weeks of half days. Just when you think you’re into a pattern there’s a week off for half term, so make sure you’ve got all the dates sorted in advance…

At the open evening in June, we were told Pip’s start date. Our school and others in the area do start the reception class at the beginning of September when everyone else goes back, but they only have a couple of new kids every few days until they’re all in. Our school started with those who’d been at the attached nursery and then I think in date order, by oldest birth date. But, you can’t just start and get on with it, you have to do a tedious process of only doing mornings for a bit. Pip, who has attended full time nursery all day every day for more than 3 years has found it quite trying watching everyone else get to go to big school without her, and then when she was finally let in, had to leave after only a couple of hours! We then have to do a whole week of half days (which runs over the weekend into 2 weeks because we started on a Tuesday, much to my surprise).

11. Bring snacks to the school gate

I’m not sure whether it is because Pip ate very regularly at nursery but she has emerged starving each day so far. So hungry she can’t make it down the road home for lunch but has to have something THERE AND THEN!

12. The first morning is pretty weird and anti-climatic

Don’t worry if the only emotions you feel are slightly bewildered and a bit frustrated. And that you didn’t cry. Just as Pip seemed to think this whole going to school thing was a bit of a let down (only for 3 hours, “all I did was write my name and draw a picture and I didn’t even get any books for my book bag”) but seemed very excited again this morning, the first day is not so much an event as a gentle beginning. We were not welcomed with the singing shining optimism of my imagination – it was shambolic and chaotic and the teachers and office staff seem to pass the buck to each other as often as possible with the vague threat of the headteacher if needed – but we survived. She enjoyed it and was delighted to go again today. Whilst now slightly terrified that for the next 20 years I cannot take so much as a long weekend in term time, I have also tried to remember to be both kind to me and M as well as Pip. And, if all else fails, think back to whether you can remember your own first day of school? Thought not, so stop worrying! (I’ll try and take my own advice too).

Any other tips for the process up to the first day?

Linking up with #SchoolDays linky

Bubbablue and me school days linky


  1. Alice September 21, 2016 / 6:22 pm

    These are such brilliant tips! Three years on and I continue to be baffled by the apparent lack of organization at my children’s school (this term already: 2 days notice for an all-day school trip 70 miles away) but I’m trying to come to terms with it 😉
    Also SO agree that school life is completely incompatible with working parent life. It’s crazy!

    • Rachel September 21, 2016 / 8:02 pm

      Thanks Alice. I’m glad it’s not just me who finds it so disorganised and I look forward to the short notice trips!

  2. Slummy single mummy September 21, 2016 / 6:54 pm

    What a great post! This would be totally invaluable for anyone with children starting school in 2017. I feel bad now that I just picked a school based on how far away it was to walk to!

    • Rachel September 21, 2016 / 8:03 pm

      Haha, in the end that was what swung it for us too. Maybe I should add an edit to the post for reassurance 😉

  3. Cardiff Mummy Says - Cathryn September 21, 2016 / 10:38 pm

    Definitely agree with giving them snacks the minute they get out of the school door! My eldest two are always starving! In Wales, we have an added choice of whether to go for Welsh or English medium education. I also struggle with all the last minute notices of dress up days and homework projects etc. Not always easy for working parents x

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:47 pm

      Gosh, that sounds like an added layer of stress. My sister has just moved from Wales and is thankful she doesn’t have to make that choice any more!

  4. Vikki September 22, 2016 / 9:44 am

    AMAZING tips here lovely! As someone who’s just gone through the exact same experience with my first born, i would have found this post invaluable at the time because it can be such a confusing and nerve-wracking experience xx

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:45 pm

      Thanks Vikki. That is really kind. I try and write the posts I think I would like to read, so hopefully it will help someone too as well as being cathartic for me!

      • thelittlepip
        September 28, 2016 / 1:46 pm

        Ps/ Hope your little one settles in well x

  5. Emma | The Mini Mes and Me September 22, 2016 / 9:49 am

    Some fab tips here. It feels like forever since I applied for a primary school place… I’ve just applied for my son’s secondary school! x

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:44 pm

      Wow! Secondary school. That’s another whole level of stress! Hope he gets the place that works for you x

  6. Rebecca | AAUBlog September 22, 2016 / 10:29 am

    such great tips here! We have just been through it all, with my eldest just starting primary school x

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:44 pm

      Thanks Rebecca. Hope your first term is going well and your eldest is settling nicely.

  7. Zoe September 22, 2016 / 10:33 am

    Such a great post, I’ve found my eldest is always hungry after school and he still cannot get his head around that he has lunch at school .

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:43 pm

      Thanks Zoe, and aren’t kids funny! From not interested in food to starving in 10 paces!

  8. Molly September 22, 2016 / 1:51 pm

    Brilliant tips. My biggest piece of advice would be to try not to worry. I stressed lots before F started school, worrying if I’d remember things, if she’d like it, if I should have checked out more schools in the area (and not just the one within 2 minutes walk of our house!), but in the end all that worry was for nothing. Of course there are some days that F doesn’t want to go – just like there are some days when I just want to stay in bed! – but on the whole she’s happy and I’m happy and school just kind of slotted into daily life without too much bother.

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:42 pm

      Thanks Molly, that is really reassuring. Thankfully she seems delighted by it all – but the second hand heartbreak of hearing her feeling lonely at play time is hard… I think once we’re all used to it, it will be just fine. Glad F is doing well x

  9. Polly September 23, 2016 / 5:12 pm

    great tips! hope she enjoys her first year 🙂

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:41 pm

      Thanks Polly. So far, so good.

      We’ve started gymnastics too!

  10. Kerry Norris September 23, 2016 / 8:57 pm

    This is a great post. Bringing snacks to the school gate is a brilliant idea. My daughter is only in school everyday for 2.5 hours at the mo but she always comes out starving x

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:41 pm

      Thanks Kerry. I think they fed them a lot at nursery, and cut up everything, so the whole fruit came as a shock to my daughter. Hope your daughter is settling in well.

  11. Emma T September 25, 2016 / 9:00 pm

    Some great tips here. I feel for the half days and staggered starts. Thankfully our school doesn’t believe in that,and is straight in full time from the start. I’d have kicked up and sent him in full time if they’d not done that – similarly to Pip, he’d been in pretty much full time childcare/nursery since the age of 1 – and someone told me that if schools are accepting a child that’s on the basis of educating them for the full school year, so they can’t refuse to take them. I’m not sure how true that is.

    Our school was the same after the offer letter – I heard nothing while all my friends at different schools had letters/forms and settling in sessions booked in. I had to phone and mail, got a date which was in the last week of term. Luckily their other communication since starting is great – texts, emails on Mondays and Friday, and interim where needed. Plus notes in book bags for class specific reminders.

    Thanks for linking up with #schooldays

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:39 pm

      You know, I did think about just insisting on a full start but decided I’d try not to be ‘that’ parent, especially as I am on mat leave and could make time for it. I just tried to enjoy the extra time with Pip and not worry too much about it.

      Some of Pip’s friends from nursery at other schools sorted their class reps before the summer hols. I can’t even get our HSA to reply!

      Pleasure to link up with #schooldays – will be looking at the other posts when I get a moment!

  12. Wave to Mummy September 26, 2016 / 9:14 am

    These are some excellent questions to ask the school. We are looking for schools now for my daughter for next year so I’ll have to make a note of those and start querying the teachers at open days!

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:37 pm

      Good luck! Hope this helps if it’s the first time you’ve done the school application process x

  13. Donna September 26, 2016 / 9:28 pm

    great tips! My son’s in year one now, but i was on maternity leave through most of reception, so it’s only now i’m realizing just how much childcare cover there is to sort.


    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:36 pm

      I am so glad I’m on mat leave for the first term at least, I really don’t know how we would have managed all the half days and then half term so soon! How’s he finding year one?

  14. Life as Mum September 27, 2016 / 11:47 am

    Brilliant tips! Wish I had something like this to read before I started my eldest

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:32 pm

      I try and write the kind of posts I’d like to read, so thanks for this 🙂

  15. Kim September 27, 2016 / 10:16 pm

    This is fantastic advice….Good luck to your girl at school. I hope it is going well x

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:31 pm

      Thanks Kim. She is settling in well and seems generally delighted by it, so crossed fingers that continues 🙂

  16. Steph Oakes September 28, 2016 / 10:58 am

    This is a brilliant post and so informative! I hope she’s settled in ok. Jack started this year too and my only tip would be to relax as it will all sort itself out in the end. We didn’t get our first choice, but thankfully had the option of sending him privately and he (and I) couldn’t be happier. x

    • thelittlepip
      September 28, 2016 / 1:30 pm

      Thanks Steph. Hope Jack is settling in well too – glad you managed to sort an option which works for you both.

      Pip is doing well thanks, and I’m doing my best to relax!

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