Frequently asked questions about primary school days

When your children start primary school there’s always questions going round. Some get answered, some never do. But it’s helpful to see what other people experience, in case it’s useful for you.  So here’s some of the questions about primary school I had, or others have asked, along with my experiences.

I will add to these as I remember more.

Key stage 1

My child hasn’t settled, has no friends, gets upset?

In the first instance speak to the teacher. They’ll have techniques to use, and will be able to work with you to improve things. It might be that speaking to them puts your mind and rest, and maybe they are better settled than you think. Often in younger years, children don’t have specific friends, they’ll just play with anyone and everyone.

But if they’re upset and don’t have people to play with at playtime, ask the teacher to step in and introduce them to join in with others. Or see if there are buddy programmes at school, e.g ours has a Buddy Bus stop so if children want someone to play with, that’s where they can go.

Alternatively, try and organise some playdates which might help with them making friends.

My child just seems to be playing and not learning?

Mine seemed to do this the whole of reception year. Play areas in schools are pretty much all educational even if it seems like they’re just playing. As long as they’re joining in key lessons and are progressing where they should, there’s not much to worry about.  Once they’re in year 1 things will get more lesson based than in Foundation stage.

What are the reading book bands?

School reading schemes are complicated because every school uses them differently. Some only use one scheme like Oxford Reading Tree, others use a mix.  Key stage 1 book bands are coloured from Red at stage 1 up through to level 9 (when many schools change people to free readers), or even further to level 14. I have a posts where you can find out more about primary school reading levels.

What’s the year 1 phonics screening test?

At the end of year 1, children are screened on their phonics which they should know in preparation for going up into year 2. It’s only a short check and enables teachers to know which children need extra support for phonics. Children have to understand the phonics in real and made up words.

When do they learn to do normal maths?

In key stage 1, most schools use techniques for maths which help children understand how numbers are broken down. Once they understand units and tens, they learn how to calculate sums (using what seems like long winded techniques), but will help give them options in future.  Vertical calculations (ie old school with one number above the other to add, subtract, and multiply), tend to come in from Year 2 to 3. They will then build on these as they get more complex maths. 

I was so happy to get these because these were the way we learnt at school, and it’s very hard learning other methods once you’ve been using one successfully for years.

My child is struggling compared to their friends

The important thing to remember (and it’s hard), that children learn at different speeds, and some do struggle more than others. You’ll always get one child who’s brilliant at everything, but remember yours might be better at the softer skills, or sport, or practical activities.  It’s not a competition (at primary school anyway) and you might think your child is struggling, when for their age they’re not. But they’re just being compared to some children who are just way above their age level.

If you’re worried, speak to the teacher. Ask about booster sessions (our school put in extra reading, handwriting, maths time for children who need it), or think about a tutor if they’re struggling and it’s putting them off.

What spellings should they be doing?

Schools teach spellings differently, but most seem to have weekly spellings to learn and then test on. Our school has different groups in the class, with groups ranging from having 8 to 10 spellings on a theme. The top group may have longer or more difficult words, or even a different theme. It could be words that have similar sounds, use the same phoneme, or are tricky words. 

Some schools also have a set of words the children should know how to spell by the end of the year. These can be found online, and are generic to the year groups.

What times tables should they know?

Each school teaches times tables differently but children are expected to have learnt set times tables in different years. 

Year 2 – 2, 5, 10s
Year 3 – 3, 4, 8s
Year 4 – all tables up to 12x.
Year 5 – building confidence in all times tables

From 2020 there is a multiplication tables check for all year 4 children.

Our school expected children to learn all times tables by the end of year 3; year 4 is for revision and getting faster. Other schools will leave some of the harder ones until year 4. We know of some children going into year 5 who haven’t been taught all their tables yet (how that works with the year 4 test I’ve no idea!) So it really varies by school.

Key stage 2

When do children start swimming with school? Do they have go swimming with primary school?

UK government says all children should leave primary school able to swim 25 metres.  Most schools start swimming in year 3, but there is a variety in length of time the children swim, whether it’s continuous or not, and which year groups.

N’s school is small, so they swim from year 2 to year 4. And all year round.  Year 4 attendance depends on how big the year groups are, so our year group is really big which means they have to split the year group. Instead of swimming for 3 years, they will swim for 2.5 years.

This compares with most schools in the area who start swimming year 3 and only give children a term of swimming for 3-4 years.  This doesn’t matter for most children as they have swimming lessons outside of school, but if your child can’t already swim and you’re relying on school to teach them, maybe check out the swimming provision.

What’s a pen licence?

Many schools now give out pen licences to children for being able to form their letters correctly, write legibly in cursive, and have the correct heights for letters.  Some will do it by year group, others will hand them out to children as they’re deemed ready.  Talking to friends and in our school, it seems most receive pen licences in year 4.  Some schools will take a licence away if the handwriting drops below the level required.

In N’s class, they were all given their pen licence when the teacher got round each of them in class, rather than by actual handwriting ability.  Having a pen licence means they write in pen all the time, except for maths which continues to be in pencil.


Once they get pen licences , you will end up washing shirts more often. So many pen marks on them

How much homework do they get? How much do they need to do?

Like everything else with school, it varies. I know people whose children across different school years, who don’t get any homework. While we get homework every week night, as well as now being in key stage 2, weekend homework. Talking to friends it seems we’re at the top end amounts of homework.

Generally homework starts as reading books – parents reading and talking about the pictures, progressing to spellings and the child reading. We had Maths or English worksheets added in Class 2 (year 1 and 2). In year 3 and 4 they get something every day:

Monday is English – usually writing their spellings into sentences
Tuesday – practising spellings
Wednesday – maths worksheet or challenge grid for multiplication
Thursday – time tables, usually writing out 2 times tables
Friday – usually reading comprehension sheet, or research – finding out x number of facts about their topic.

Homework is 20 minutes max (so for maths, they do as much as they can in this time), and reading is meant to be done for 10 minutes each day.

Some schools tend to only have reading, spelling, times tables, and then will set a project for a half term or term.  Thankfully our school don’t do projects like this, but many do.

Not all parents like homework, and I know people who don’t make their children do it. Schools will react differently to this. Ours let it go when children are in key stage 1, in key stage 2, there might be a discussion about doing homework, and if it’s not completed they may have to stay in at breaktime to finish it.

What’s the year 4 multiplication test?

Summer 2020 sees the start of the Year 4 multiplication tables check. All children will have to do a computerised test, although the results are only for the schools to understand which children might need more support.

You can find out more in my post about the multiplication tables check.

When do they start free reading?

Each school does it differently. Free reading is when children are fluent enough at reading to be able to choose the books they want to read, rather than continuing to read reading scheme level books.  It tends to be the move to chapter books.  Our school is largely Year 3 when children move to free reading, but obviously more able readers will move earlier. Some schools will have class suitable book shelves to choose from, while others will let children just choose from the library.

General school

How can I remember everything? There’s so much going on.

When children start school it is a lesson in logistics and organisation.  Especially if you’re also working and have childcare to juggle as well.  The solutions are:

  • reading the newsletter and school communications
  • a good, well used and accessible by the family, calendar
  • a good routine
  • setting expectations of children
  • writing and checking lots of lists (with reminders)
  • to accept that balls will be dropped at least once a year

It amazes me how many parents never seem to know what is going on at school, and don’t read school newsletters. There’s no hope in knowing if you don’t read them.  Although our school is good with reminders and newsletters so we are lucky.

Why is there so much fund raising?

School budgets are more stretched than ever. They need specialist teachers, nowadays they have TAs to pay for (we never had TAs at my school when we were kids, it was just the teacher and occasional parents who came in for reading and art), school upkeep is expensive, and classrooms now have technology to pay for, and schools are bursting at the seams. Some schools even struggle to pay for the basics like pens and books.

Fund raising in schools isn’t new. Fund-raising enables schools to provide the extras like subsidies for school trips, swimming lessons, providing more clubs and getting in external coaches. Fund-raising is done for the school but also for national events like Children in Need and MacMillan Cancer. It builds community and also is a lesson to the school children to support those who aren’t as fortunate as themselves.

Do I have to get involved with the PTA?

No. But bear in mind that PTAs cover a lot of the shortfall for school funding, especially when it comes to fun and extra-curricular activities. If no one gets involved, there’s less fund-raising, then the school and children suffer.  You don’t need to volunteer to be chair or on the committee. But baking cakes, turning up to events, selling raffle tickets etc. Every parent should really try and support the PTA in some way.

If you want to get to know people in the school, then joining the PTA is a no-brainer, as you’ll get to know some of the teachers, as well as parents from other year groups.

My child hates dressing up but there’s so much of it?

Most schools have optional dressing up days. If your child won’t dress up there are 2 options.

  1. Send them in school uniform, but explain they might be the only ones (mine won’t dress up for World Book Day and he doesn’t care that he’s usually only 1 of 2 or 3 children in uniform)
  2. Find easy costumes that are more like normal clothes – read my tips for World Book Day costumes for ideas.

Does my child have to sit the SATs exams?

All children in school have to sit the SATs exams. Some people might take a holiday or remove their children from school for that week, but this is unlikely to be approved by the school.  SATs are in Year 2 and Year 6.

Hopefully this has provided lots of answers to questions you might have. But do let me know if there’s any other questions you have?

When are the school holidays?

in the first instance I always check the school website as ours usually has the current and next year’s dates on there.  The alternative is to try either your local council for the county term dates, or a website like Public Holidays which has English school holidays on Public holidays website.   This won’t always have school specific inset days on so you’ll need to check with the school itself for those or the local authority the school is in..

When do you apply for primary school (or secondary school)?

Having children going to primary school for the first time is worrying because all local authorities are different in the way they deal with it.  In theory all parents of upcoming school age children get a letter from their local authority, however we never received them, and had to go searching for the information.  Start on the website, but your local authority (or that next door if you’re applying in a different county) will have specific guidelines to understand for both primary and secondary. Remember you will need to register ahead of applying so do that early in plenty of readiness for the autumn window.

When should you start looking at schools? 

Everyone is different with primary schools having open days through the application period. If you want to look round outside of an open morning, just call or email the school and ask when you can look round. It’s unusual to look ahead of the September before they start (so no more than a year ahead). Private schools will have set open days and will state which year intake it’s for, so just keep a watch out for those as they might have requirements to meet the children for assessment as well as the parents.

Do you take children to look round a school? 

It’s up to the parent, and will likely depend on the type of visit.  Personally I went on my own to see the one we wanted as it wasn’t an open day just an appointment to speak to the head and have a look round. Another school was an open day and I went on my own, the third school open day I took N with me because he wasn’t at nursery that day.  I think it can be quite confusing for children to look round lots of schools at that age and it might be overbearing for them if they’re not used to being in a large nursery or used to lots of older children.  It’s different at secondary age when children should have the option to visit – usually in the evenings.

How do school catchment areas work?

You can check your school catchment area online – the country is divided up into catchment areas. Some children in towns may have a few catchment schools (I know someone who had 5 choices!), while most only have one. It’s based on where you live.  If you live in school catchment area, you stand a better chance of getting into school than someone who lives outside of catchment, as you’ll be higher up the admissions criteria list.  Catchment is usually number 3 and 4 on the criteria list (with sibling at the school coming higher and no other siblings at the school coming after), behind children having come from care backgrounds or those with specific medical requirements. 

Don’t take school catchments for granted though.  Our experience was a joke and the school catchment was ignored for us.  The catchment area for our school literally goes around our farm putting us inside it. However, we got a place as a non-catchment child as our school admission must have been based on the church/parish council boundaries and not the school catchment. Although our postal address is the village and we are clearly within catchment, our parish is the next village along so we weren’t counted. This put us without a school catchment, because we aren’t in the next nearest school catchment. Luckily we got in (we reckon by 1 place), otherwise the appeal judges would have had a tirade from me about actually telling parents if catchments don’t count.  I would hope that ours was a random case, but there’s no telling if that happens elsewhere too.

Can I take them out for holiday?

Children are expected to be at school for 190 days a year. The standard for attendance is set at 94%, and any falling below that will face questions from the school, or worse, the local authority.  There are fines for taking children out of school for unauthorised reasons. However whether these fines are imposed depends on the local authority, and schools have the say in whether holidays can be taken.  If school don’t approve the holiday, then it will be noted as an unauthorised attendance. So whether you take them out or not depends on lots of things.

What’s with the 100% school attendance rewards?

In line with the attendance level standard being set at 94%, many schools provide awards, or at least a certificate for children who achieve 100% attendance across a year. This will vary by school, with some children just getting a certificate in assembly at the end of the year (our school, and I’m not sure the children are that fussed about it).  Other schools go all out and children get bigger rewards.

Some feel these awards are unfair due to the 100% attendance being about luck of whether your child is always the one who gets ill, or if they have hospital or doctor appointments for long term illness or regular check ups or treatment, or even if you’ve taken them out of school to a non-school event they’ve qualified for which is part of another type of education. All of these will likely count against your child’s attendance.  Some also say it encourages parents to send ill children to school.  Personally I think most parents know the awards are a load of rubbish because children do get ill so I’m not sure parents would actually send their ill child in for the sake of not losing a day of attendance.

How often are assessments in primary school?

Children are obviously informally assessed by teachers throughout the school year.  But the government have brought in official assessments throughout the school years.

Foundation baseline assessments (start of the school year, due to be in first time 2020, but postponed due to Covid19)
Year 1 phonics test (end of the school year)
Year 2 SATs (summer term, Maths and English)
Year 4 Multiplication tables check (summer term)
Year 6 SATs (summer term, Maths, SPAG, Science)

In our school, in key stage 2 at least, they have ‘assessment’ week at least January and summer term.  This is ahead of parents evenings and reports so teachers can assess where the children are performing to date. They’re pretty low key although they are called assessments so the children are aware that it’s not just normal lessons. As far as I’m aware (according to N) they include reading, comprehension and maths. But each school will vary how they assess children outside of the government required testing. 

How many parent evenings do we get?

Parent evenings will vary by school.  Ours have an informal stay after school and meet the teacher session shortly after the summer holidays which is just a general meet and greet or opportunity to ask general questions about that year.  Formal parents evenings are in January and July for us.  July we get given our children’s reports ahead of parents evening and we can ask questions about that at our sessions.

Our school also holds an open morning at the end of each half term so parents can go into class, look at our children’s work and speak to the teacher. Again an informal session but it’s great to have that option, especially if you’re a working parent and don’t see the teachers at drop off/pick up.

My child gets too much / no homework in primary schools. Do they have to do it?

Every school is different when it comes to homework.  Some don’t give any apart from a bit of reading and spellings. Others give homework each night.  Most are inbetween the two.  Some give project work that lasts all term.  Others do no project work and it’s all just learning times tables, spellings and worksheets.  There is no law over schools giving homework although the government do recommend children have some homework through their school life.

Whether children do homework or not will depend on what the implications are for children who don’t complete it. If they don’t do it, will they not reach their full potential and miss out on further learning to reinforce what they learnt in class.  Do you want them staying in at breaktimes to complete homework or are schools treating homework as a nice to do.

In our case, it’s been helpful. N gets quite a lot of homework compared to other children his age we know.  It was a lot less in key stage 1, but in key stage 2 they do tend to have English or spellings on Monday and Tuesday, maths on Wed, times tables Thursday, and reading comprehension or topic fact research on Fridays.  Reading is expected every day.  The expectation for year 4 is 20 mins homework and 10-15 mins reading.  N rarely reads out of school any more, I just can’t get him to do it after he’s already done homework. 

His homework will range from 5 minutes to do his times tables, to 20 minutes for reading comprehension. He doesn’t have project work (thankfully), and over holidays, it’s usually just reading (which he will do over holidays if they’re set a challenge).  Homework helps reinforce his learning, ask questions, lets me know where he might need a bit more guidance or explanation from the teacher, and potentially gets things rephrased a different way or we can chat about other contexts for that topic.

Let me know if you have any questions I’ve not already answered, let me know and I’ll add them to this post.

Like this post, try these other tips for nearby days out.

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talk about the day
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  1. Great post. Bring my memories back. I had lots of happy memories in school.That’s SUCH a gorgeous time. Now my son getting ready to starting school. Life just going on.

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