School Gate Knowledge: the 5 things you can find out spending 15 minutes at the gates

Rosa Silverman
On the school run: Liz (Diane Morgan, left) and Julia (Anna Maxwell-Martin) in BBC parenting sitcom Motherland - BBC

Next Tuesday is the deadline by which parents must apply for a place at a state primary school starting in September. This time last year I was one of them, sticking local school names into Google Maps to calculate their distance from our home, and thus how early I would need to raise myself in the mornings.

Probably there are better criteria on which to base a decision such as school choice. Making reconnaissance trips to the school gates and carrying out your own observations, for instance. At least, such was the suggestion this week by the Good Schools Guide, whose state education specialist said that one of the best ways to get a feel for a school was by chatting to current parents in the playground and watching to see whether pupils leave the building in an orderly fashion.

Do I wish I’d done this, instead of satisfying myself with a combination of Google Maps and the official school open day? Well no, because I’d still have made the same choice 10 times over. But there are a few things I could have easily found out after hanging around at the gates for 15 minutes.

1. The exact time school starts and finishes

Nope, one term in and I’m still not entirely sure if the children are supposed to be there at 8.50am, 9am or any time you like in between. Likewise, when I arrive for school pick-up at 3.10pm it’s always too early, but when I get there at 3.20pm, my son is often the last one left waiting in the classroom. Admittedly, there are official opening times that I can see from the web-site, but there are hidden 5 minutes early or later rules which I would have easily picked up if I had loitered around the gates before my child started. 

2. The location of the scooter park

This I have finally (just) found! A mere four months into my son’s school career. Impressed? You should have seen the acrobatics I performed before making this discovery, juggling his scooter above the handles of his little sister's buggy as I made my way cumbrously home after drop-off. Miraculously, both my wrists still just about function.

When your child starts school, it can be useful to know certain key details, such as the school hours Credit: Barry Batchelor/PA

3. The other mum who’s always late will become your friend

Not knowing the exact school hours can have its downsides. In my case, it means we often arrive just as they’re closing the gates. “Run!” is usually the last word I say to my son when I deposit him in the morning. It is therefore with great relief, and a feeling of the utmost solidarity, that I then turn around and see the only other mum who is always even later, still hurtling towards the gates with her four-year-old. She has now become my trusted friend. I don’t know what I’d do if she started being punctual - had I seen examples of this before my son started, I wouldn't have worried so much about not making gate friendshops. 

4. ‘School run style’ can’t be scoffed at

Oh how I sneered at the concept of ‘school run style’. The idea that anyone would care what they wore to the school gates seemed preposterous. As if it mattered! As if it was some kind of fashion parade! Then I became a school mum. I wanted to make some mum friends, didn’t I. Did I want to make them in my jogging bottoms and slippers? I did not. Did I want their first impression of me to be of someone who had just fallen out of bed, without having so much as run a comb through her hair (even if this was, occasionally, true)? Forgive me this vanity, but no I did not. And yes, you can be a feminist and care about school run style. We settled that one ages ago.

5. The younger sibling may suffer most

My son’s getting on just fine with his phonics, and I'm even starting to understand them myself. He's made new friends and so have I. It’s his two-year-old sister who is struggling to adapt. “I miss him,” she sobs, as we leave him each morning. “I want to go to school, too.” I’m confident both these feelings will pass.