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How important is it that I get my child into the right school?

A Decision of Life Altering Importance?

Choosing a school for your child can seem like a decision of life-altering importance. We all know how formative our school experience was in shaping us as adults. You want the best for your child, so choosing the right school is important to you. The deadline for applications, the uncertainty around the process and your child’s friendship groupings all combine to heighten the emotion, and the stakes, further.

However, how important are secondary schools in shaping a child’s life?

Let’s start by exploring the research...

What does the research say?

It is difficult to research conclusively (we will never be able to know the counterfactual), but in terms of academic success it seems other factors play more of a role…

  1. Home life and culture. This is mostly within our control as parents. There is research which shows that how much we value school, how much we model a love of learning and how much we encourage our children has the biggest effect on a child’s academic success. Parents who value learning and education will likely have a child who does so too.

  2. Peers and network. We have some control over this - but probably not as much as we would like! Research shows that peers will have a big influence on your child - especially as they enter the teenage years. Your child will want to ‘fit-in’ with the crowd - so if their friends all want to work hard and do well on tests, it is likely your child will want to do so too.

  3. Individual teachers. We can’t control this. We have all worked for bosses we liked and respected - we would go the extra-mile for them. Conversely, we have all had the opposite experience. The same will be true for your child and their teachers. At secondary school, they will likely come into contact with between 15-100 teachers over the course of their time there. Some they will love. Some they will dislike. This will be true no matter which school your child attends.

  4. The school. Finally, we get to the school. The culture of the school does matter. However, secondary schools are large organisations divided into subject departments. In a way, it is not correct to think of a secondary school as a single unit. It is lots of individual parts combined. All schools will have good aspects and not so good aspects. Schools also change a lot - even in the five years or so your child will be there.

The final point can be difficult to understand as a parent - especially after the primary school experience, so let me expand further.

What is a secondary school?

Secondary schools are very different organisations compared to primary schools. The average secondary school has around three times as many students as the average primary school. This means that there are also many more staff - there may be as many teachers in your child’s secondary school as there were pupils in their primary school! 

Secondary schools are generally (and put simply) broken down into two strands - curriculum (what the students will learn and how) and pastoral (the wellbeing, safety and personal development of students). The curriculum aspect is driven by subject heads of department. The pastoral aspect is driven by heads of year (or heads of house). These ‘middle-leaders’ are often the driving force behind a school.

This can mean there is a large variation within the school in two main areas…

  1. Outlook and values. Although all secondary school headteachers will want their school to follow a standardised approach, they will rely on their middle leaders to implement them. The head of Science may not follow the behaviour or homework policy. The pastoral team may believe in a ‘zero tolerance’ approach while the individual class teacher in History may not believe in detentions! The pastoral and curriculum team may not even get along at all.

  2. Quality. The Music department may have been led by a pioneer in the field with 25 years of experience. The Maths department might have high staff turnover and have no one who has been teaching for more than three years. The morale in the geography department might be really high, but the PE department may be made up of one teacher who is going through a tricky divorce. 

In other words, your child will not experience a singular, unified secondary school - rather they will experience a range of individual teachers and departments under the umbrella of secondary school. 

This is why it is worth not relying solely on exam outcomes (there are many more reasons not to just rely on this data which I cover in later blogs!). The best way to describe this is to think about university league tables. If you search ‘best university UK’ the usual suspects will appear. However, if you search ‘best university to study marine engineering’ you will get a completely different list. You can’t do this for secondary schools (easily - there are ways to find this out…). So the umbrella Progress-8 (P8) score you see on the league tables, will hide the huge variety of results at a departmental level. The English department might be an exam machine with super-high scores which hides the fact that the Spanish department is shambolic.

Finally, it is important to remember that ‘secondary schools’ are not the static institutions we might think - they are hugely dynamic.

Secondary Schools will change A LOT

A lot can, and will, change during your child’s time in attendance. The ‘Outstanding’ school with the brilliant headteacher and SENCO - which you are desperate for your child to get into - might have a terrible Maths department, poor pastoral systems and put your child off learning the piano. The head and SENCO may leave within the first six months, the new leadership might introduce a draconian behaviour policy which you disagree with. Your child’s best friend may move house. Ofsted might carry out a surprise inspection and the 'Outstanding' turned to 'Requires Improvement'. It is simply out of our control.


The data you can find out about a school is backward looking - it gives a snapshot of what has happened over the last five years. It tells you very little about your own child’s five year journey.

Finally, you will also never know the counterfactual - you will never truly know what would have happened if your child attended a different school. Do you know it would have been better? How much of an impact did your school experience really have on your life? Can you be sure that if you went to a different school, things would have turned out differently?

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