Guide to Getting into the Right School


We at Abacus Ark have access to a breadth of knowledge and experience to assist you in finding the right school for your child, so we thought we’d pull together all this knowledge into one place for all parents to use.

In order to provide the best information for you, we interviewed a variety of people who have experienced school searches, including our Pre-School teachers, parents of children with older siblings and our Operations Director, Miss Laura, who has over 40 years experience in this area.

When to start searching for a school?

There is no hard and fast rule on this, but typically you’ll need to have answers to the following questions first:

  • Are you searching for a private fee paying school or a state school? – here is a very useful link explaining the difference.
  • Are you looking for your child to join the pre-school or the reception class? 

We’ll start by explaining why you need to know whether you’re looking at a private fee paying school or state school.

State school application timelines are determined as standard on a borough by borough basis. First thing to do is visit the following government site and type in your postcode. It will then direct you to the correct borough. In our experience, deadlines typically close in January of the previous academic year. Try not to miss this deadline as spaces may be allocated without your child being on the list. Don’t worry though if you’ve missed it as you’ll be entered into a late application process. Please note that in the UK an academic year runs from September through to August. 

A caveat to the above is, if you intend to apply for a religious-affiliated school, parents and children will almost always be expected to prove religious practice e.g. attend regular mass, for at least 2 years prior to application. A lot of parents are too late to realise this and end up missing out on a space because they are unable to provide sufficient proof of religious affiliation. Some schools are extremely strict on this point. 

Private school applications are a little trickier to navigate as their selection criteria and process by which you apply can vary significantly. Some of the most prestigious private schools in the country have an extremely exclusive entry criterion that will require you to register your child at birth. These are few and far between, so unless you specifically know this is where you want your child to attend, there is no need to register so early.

We would recommend that you firstly spend time determining which schools you are interested in. Try to get the list down to between 3 – 5. Once determined, then begin your research into the application processes for each of the schools. This will range from quick website research, contacting the schools and speaking with other parents you know in the school. You must also be aware that many private schools will charge a fee to register your interest with no guarantee of getting a space. The fee is often no more than a guarantee of an interview.

As a rule of thumb, we would recommend that if you want to keep your options open, try to be ready to apply no later than your child’s 2nd birthday. This is just a guide as we can’t speak for every school, so if you know you would like to send your child to a specific school earlier, make sure you find out when your application should be made.

So, when to join? There will be some schools which indicate that you will have a better chance of getting in if you attend their early years program, which will typically begin at age 3 years or pre-school. If that’s the case, then make sure you apply at least a year in advance of them starting. But, you must realize that many of the early years classes will be smaller than the older classes which means that more spaces will open up at age 4+ years, so it’s not a necessity unless the school specifically requires it.

How to find a school near me?

We recommend three core resources for finding schools near you:

  1. https://www.gov.uk/school-performance-tables this is a government site which allows you to compare schools across England based upon exam results and Ofsted reports.
  2. https://www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk/school-search this site is an unbiased schools review platform.
  3. Recommendations from friends, family and your childcare provider. Whilst possibly a little biased (as they may only have experience with a limited number of schools), this resource can be the most relevant as the recommender will know both the school and your child.

Your first steps should be to use a combination of these resources to create an initial list of all the schools to consider.

What to look for when searching for a school?

Once you have your initial list of schools, it’s time to begin to decide on the type of school you believe will best suit your child. We can’t stress enough how important it is to make this decision with your child in mind. Even if you’re looking for siblings, different personalities and learning styles may lead you to conclude that your children should attend different schools.

Like many decisions in life, it’s best to begin with the end in mind. If you can come up with what you would like to achieve in advance, it will help direct your shortlist, for example, if you believe that your child needs to be in a more challenging academic environment because you’ve noticed that this is where they will thrive, then this may drive your search. Alternatively, if you’ve noticed that your child has a particular interest in music and performs well with an audience, you may want to search for a school that will nurture this trait.

As a rough guide to help decide which influences you believe your child would benefit from, we’ve come up with the following non-exhaustive list:

  • Academic
  • Music
  • Sport
  • Social Interaction

We’ve found that a typically good set of criteria to use is as follows:

  • Co-education or Boys/Girls only – you may get the sense that your child will thrive in a certain environment. Education is just as much about social interaction as it is academic advancement. You’re trying to build life skills not just a list of academic achievements.
  • Educational focus or Ethos – It’s extremely important to understand how your child’s learning style and interests will fit into the ethos of the school. You want them to enter the school on day one and want to be there. If they enter an uncomfortable environment, they’ll be starting on the back foot, spending their initial period just trying to figure out how they fit in.

You may also want to specify private or state. There are many great private and state schools, so make sure you consider each school on its own merits and how you feel your child will fit in.

What to do once you have shortlisted your schools? 

Once you’ve come up with your shortlist of 3 – 5 schools, gather more information. 

If you’re applying for a state school place, a visit is not always an option. The government therefore provides other resources to enable you to be able to compare schools in your borough. One of the main things to remember when applying for a state school place is to ensure you apply for schools in which you have the best chance of getting in. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s often the case that the better known schools will be oversubscribed, therefore the entry criterion becomes extremely tight.

If you’re applying for private fee paying schools, this is the point where you arrange all the visits you can. Whilst referrals and prospectuses help, it’s imperative that you visit each school you’re considering. This will give you an opportunity to get a feel for the school, to get a sense of the type of children who attend and to ask questions. 

Questions to ask when visiting a school

At this stage you’ve put in the time and effort to determine the type of environment and experience you want for your child and then short listed those schools. You now have the opportunity to confirm which of the schools matches up to your initial research. 

Firstly, we advise you to revisit your initial thoughts. Don’t be distracted away from what you knew you wanted for your child. Try to come up with questions that will help satisfy any uncertainty and confirm that the approach and structure within the school fits your personal ethos and will benefit your child e.g. if you’re looking for a particularly academic environment, then this is the time to confirm that the school and just as importantly, the teachers, share this focus.

When in the school, do your best to speak to as many different categories of people as possible. Teachers and pupils will give you significant insight, so don’t forget to have questions prepared in case you have the opportunity to speak to them.

Only after you’re completely satisfied with your final choices should you submit your registration requests. This can end up being very expensive as many private schools will charge you to register, so unless you want to spend unnecessarily, only apply for schools that you know you’re happy with. 

How do I get my child ready for their school admissions interview?

You’ve now applied for schools and are starting to receive either offers or admissions interview times. If you’re lucky enough to receive offers without interviews, then you can relax in the knowledge that you have a space at a school you like.

In terms of preparing for the admissions interview, there is no standard process undertaken by the schools. Each school is different and the process will typically reflect their own ethos and approach. In our experience, many of the schools frown upon any child who has been tutored for the interview and may even ask your child if they know anyone in particular who they know may have tutored them. In the opinion of the school, if your child has been tutored this will indicate that they will need to continue to be tutored when at the school, which may in turn impact their results if your child is unable to keep up.

Another tip from one of our parents was, “setting up playdates with trusted friends and neighbours where you leave your child with them for a short while. This helped hugely in getting our child used to walking into unknown environments and feeling comfortable and secure when left there. We saw too many children distressed when separating from parents at the assessments. This was not fun for their child as well as detrimental for the teachers perception”.

In our opinion, the best way to prepare your child is to make sure that they are as close to themselves on the day as possible. Things we suggest that you do are as follows:

  • Talk positively in advance about the fun day out they will have and who they will meet. Your child will perform best if they’re excited about it.
  • Visit the area a few times before hand so that your child feels comfortable in the surroundings.
  • Turn up a little early on the day to do something fun, making the whole experience fun.
  • DO NOT under any circumstance indicate to your child that they will be tested and DO NOT apply any expectations or pressure. 

What to do after the school interview?

Now it’s time to wait. The school should give you an indication of when you’ll hear.