It’s approaching that time of year again, when Year 5s/6s and their parents start touring the local area to choose which secondary school they would like their child to attend in Year 7.
Schools are busy advertising their open days – just drive past any secondary school at the moment and you’ll probably see a sign clinging to the railings outside the school with the date of their own evening. Or the plaudits given in their latest Ofsted. Or the fantastic set of GCSE and A level results their students gained in the summer. Or all three.
So, what should you look for when going round a secondary school?
I remember doing the rounds when my daughter was in Year 6. Schools handled the open evenings and ‘working mornings’ very differently and some things we saw were either a complete turn-off or scored Brownie points with us. Among the former category were pupils who had been posted outside a particular department in one school but were unable to make eye contact or answer questions. Or the headteacher who gave the same welcome speech as the one on the website from the previous year – word for word! Then there was the school where you had to pick your way through the litter in the playground, past the peeling displays, didn’t have the chance to hear from any of the core curriculum staff and the tour was led by a senior member of staff who gave virtually no information as she took the group round. Come on, this is a chance to showcase the best of your school!
These experiences contrasted with the ones we valued – knowledgeable tour guides who were able to answer confidently about all manner of aspects of the school. Year 7s, only a few weeks into their secondary school life, who made presentations about their experience so far – and did so with great self-assurance. The feeling that you could go anywhere in the school and speak to anyone – that there was nothing to hide!
If you are about to start the hunt for a secondary school for your child, here are some things you might like to consider:
- Try to see the school in action rather than just at an open evening. How do the pupils react when you’re walking around and/or going into lessons? How do the teachers and pupils react to each other? What happens when the bell goes – is all hell let loose or do the youngsters move round confidently, purposefully and in a civilized manner?
- Does the school cater for the things your child is interested in? Does their specialty coincide with your child’s?
- Talk to the teachers on the open evenings (harder to do on a working morning) and see how well they engage with your child
- Have your ‘tour guides’ been well briefed, or over- or underprepared? How do they feel about their experience at the school? Do they appear confident? Happy? Settled? Informative?
- What does the school show you – and what do they seem to hide? Why?
- What feeling do you get about the ethos of the school? What can you pick up about its culture and values from the way the head, senior team and pupils talk about the school? Does that fit with your values?
- How do they reward and discipline pupils? What’s their behaviour management policy? How do they deal with bullying?
- When and how do they monitor progress and give feedback to pupils and parents? What do they do if there are concerns about a child’s progress and/or performance?
- How does their special needs department operate? How do they identify and address special needs? How does their Special Needs Coordinator work with other teaching staff to ensure pupils’ needs are met?
- What are their results like? Are they improving, staying the same or going backwards? Try to look at the results for the last few years as just one year’s results may be down to a particularly strong (or weak) year group.
- What do current pupils and parents at the school say about it in general? And about the teaching? The extra-curricular activities? The behaviour and discipline? Personal feedback and recommendations are often useful ways of finding out what a school is really like and go beyond what the school puts in its prospectus.
- What’s the school’s approach to the use of technology? Are mobile phones allowed, and if so, how and when? How is technology used in lessons? Does the school’s approach fit with your beliefs about technology?
- What will the journey be like? Is it straightforward? How long will it take?
- Look at the displays. Are they current? Are they clear and well put together or messy and falling off the walls?
- What do the displays reveal about what the school does – and what it values? Are they about aspects of the curriculum and extra-curricular activities? Are they about sporting and academic achievements? Do they value pupils’ achievements beyond the classroom and sports hall/fields?
- Above all, can you ‘see’ your child fitting in there? What is it that’s giving you that view?
What do others think?
I asked some parents at a recent St Albans Business networking meeting (www.stalbansbusineses.co.uk) about their experiences and what they would advise other parents and the answers varied hugely, with the comments reflecting just how different people’s opinions are and how important it is to go with your gut feeling and what’s right for your child.
Some focused on the curriculum, results and facilities . . . .
“Look at their latest Ofsted report and ask for word of mouth recommendations. It also depends on your child’s particular interests…e.g. Drama…do they have good facilities around extra-curricular interests? What are their results like…levels of achievement and university places?”
“With our eldest child, he chose. Everyone else went to the catchment area school but he got a place at the school he wanted. For our child, it was the computer facilities.”
Others prioritised the school’s ethos and culture . . .
“It’s about feel and atmosphere. Go on the open mornings and see the school working. The open evening is just like going into a show home. There’s too many people: it’s like an ant colony. Look at how the children behave at changeover time,”
“How do teachers address the children? What happens when a Senior Leadership Team member goes into a classroom?”
“Go on visits. Look at the cultural fit. Does it feel like we as a family and, specifically, my child would fit here? What does the head’s speech tell you about the kind of school it is? How do the tour guides come across? What kind of taster activities do they put on?”
A school governor I spoke to said “Look at the values and ethics of the school. What’s the quality of the teaching? What’s the level of engagement between pupils and teachers?”
Some parents highlighted the problem with getting a child into the school of choice, for example:
“There’s not much point you having a look round, because there’s no places for non-siblings anyway.”
“If you want a specific school [and don’t get a place], register your continuing interest and then reregister continuing interest once term starts”
Other comments included:
“You can spend hours and hours investigating schools but the biggest factor that influences a child’s experience at school is the friends they make. And we have no control over that. But you can look at the kind of children who go there.”
“Don’t do it. Home school them.”
“Move to a place with a nice school”
“Go a year earlier so you get to see the school twice”.
“Don’t worry what other people think, do what’s right for your child. We sent our eldest to a private school, which was the right place for him, and people said isn’t the local state school good enough? It wouldn’t have been right for our 2nd child, who went to the local school, and people asked why not to the same private school?”
Sadly, whichever schools you put on your list, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get your first, second or even third choice, given the admissions codes, sibling priority and so on. But at least if you put the schools of your choice down, you have a chance of getting a place there, using the ‘you don’t ask, you don’t get’ principle. So think carefully about which educational environments will suit your youngster best and make sure you get your application in on time.