Feature: Choosing a Secondary School

Friday, 25th November 2016

Feature: Choosing a Secondary School

Choosing the right secondary school is one of the biggest decisions parents have to make. With this next stage in their educational career culminating, hopefully, in qualifications on which their future life choices will be based, it's vital that parents and pupils consider all factors that might influence their choice.

Choosing the right secondary school is one of the biggest decisions parents have to make.

With this next stage in their educational career culminating, hopefully, in qualifications on which their future life choices will be based, it's vital that parents and pupils consider all factors that might influence their choice.

So where to start?

Before you begin investigating schools you need to research the admissions criteria of those you are interested in. These can generally be found on each school's website or by contacting the local education authority, some of which have independent advisors who offer free and impartial advice on admissions and support families through the admissions process.

As you move on to exploring individual schools, try to begin with an open mind.

Which ever factors ultimately influence your decision, there is no better way to find out about the schools you're interested in than attending their open days or evenings or arranging an individual visit on a school day which will give you a far better flavour of what daily life is like in the school.

You will see how teachers engage with pupils, both inside and outside the classroom, how the children behave and how smoothly things appear to operate.

You should be offered the chance to speak to the pupils who, generally can be relied upon to forthright in their views. Ask them questions like: Do you know how well you're doing at school? Do you know what to do if you feel you need extra help? What would happen if you reported an incidence of bullying? Do you get to try lots of different activities?

While you're walking around and viewing the facilities check the cleanliness of the toilets and general upkeep of the buildings. Is students' work exhibited on the walls, is the library tidy and organised and does it feel like a busy, creative place? Do the students look appropriately engaged, can you hear laughter and music, or shouting and doors slamming? On passing classrooms, are children facing forward with arms in the air, looking at the teacher or working, or are they chatting among themselves, lying across the desk and looking out the window?

Time with busy staff may be limited on a school day, so attending an open day should give you the chance to meet and speak with them. Ask them if they would send their child to the school, how they manage large classes and how good work is recognised.

Parents themselves are another valuable source of information - ask among friends and colleagues with older children about their experiences of particular schools, but base your decision on facts not rumour.

After that there is plenty of additional research you can do:

Read latest Ofsted reports - you can view these at www.ofsted.co.uk by keying in the name of the school. The reports won't answer all your questions - and in fact might leave you with more to ask - but they are a useful starting point. If the inspectors have recommended the school to take action on particular issues, ask the headteacher if this has been implemented when you meet them.

Academic results - if you choose to trawl through government league tables you may well miss the application deadline. Don’t be shy about asking the schools themselves for their results. Examine their performance especially in English and maths, and any other subjects that are particularly important to your child. The benchmark measure for GCSEs is the percentage of pupils gaining five or more including English and maths at grade A*-C. Compare it with the national average. Remember, however, that raw results data does not provide a full picture, for example on the intake of children. This is where the "value added" statistics come into play as they show the improvement the school has brought about for its particular children. This figure needs to be over 100.

School websites - you should be able to get a good flavour of the school from the tone of their website, what's included and what's omitted. If ethos is an important aspect for you, pastoral provision, information on their anti-bullying policy and so on should be accessible.

Leadership - do you have confidence in the headteacher? Would you feel comfortable knowing your child is in their care? How do they speak to their staff?

Staffing - is your preference for longer serving, experienced teachers or the fresh feel of younger, but less experienced staff? Motivation and enthusiasm is not dictated by age or length of service, so speak to as many as you can.

Extra-curricular - many schools talk about producing "well-rounded" young people or ensuring they have access to a range of opportunities in sport, music, drama, languages, leadership, volunteering and so on. If money is tight, does the school offer financial support to allow children from poorer backgrounds to get involved in activities?

Gifted and talented, and children with learning difficulties - if you believe your child has specific needs find out what provision is available in the school to support them.

Careers, further and higher education and links with business - when your child is just starting secondary school this may not be uppermost in your mind, but it won't be long before they're working towards a future career. You may want to consider a school with a sixth form, one with a strong record of pupils going on to good universities, links with overseas centres of learning or large employers.

Transport - your decision may be based in no small part on geography so if you live some distance from the school of your choice, check out transport arrangements. Does the school have flexi boarding provision and/or ‘wraparound’ care morning and evening?

After all your research, in which hopefully you have involved your child fully, you need to discuss the best option as a family. Your child may be influenced heavily by what their friends are doing and if you have a different point of view you need to be able to have a rational discussion about your final choice.

When you're ready to apply, make sure you understand how to fill in the application form and where it has to go, and any supplementary forms you have to submit. For example, for academies and faith schools you may have to send in an extra form to the school itself.

It’s best not to be too negative in front of your child about any of the schools you list. Not everyone gets their first choice and you don't want your child to embark on the next five years from a position of disappointment.

And finally, don’t underestimate the value of your support as a parent – it can go a considerable way towards helping your child achieve and be happy at which ever school they end up attending.