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Choosing a Secondary School: A Starter Guide for Parents

Updated: Mar 23

As your child approaches the end of primary, the big decisions about secondary schools can easily be to put to the back of your mind. All too quickly the applications open and it is easy to feel out of control. It seems like there is both too much choice, yet not really a choice. Too much information, but not enough quality information. As a teacher, school leader and system insider, I would suggest the following five things to get started.

Image of a person surrounded by question marks

ONE: Which schools are available and what do you already know?

Compile a list of all of the options in the area. At this stage, I would not rule any school out. Even the one you think you would never send your child to. Consider things such as distance, commutes, private, grammar (if available), local authority, academy and free school.

TWO: What information is available about schools?

For the schools on your list, it is now worth doing some research into the basics. I would start by looking at Ofsted reports for each of the schools and looking at the information on the Government’s ‘comparing schools’ site. A few things to note: Firstly, check the date of the last Ofsted inspection. If you are choosing a school based on the judgement alone (not advised) at least make sure it was inspected in the last decade! Ofsted inspectors can only really get a surface level view of the school – they will often inspect with a small team for around two days, so they will miss a lot more than they will see. Secondly, understand the limitations of the exam data. Just because a school did really well last academic year does not mean it will do so next year (let alone in five years time…). Lots can, and does, change in schools, so again, don’t base your decisions solely on this information. Also, remember that performance in exams is only one part of school life. It doesn’t say anything about the number of school trips, extra-curricular activities or how happy the students (or teachers) are.

THREE: What should I look for on a school visit?

This is a great chance for you to get a ‘feel’ for the school, the students, the teachers and the leadership. There are some great blogs which write about how important school visits can be for making the big choice and provide tips for how to make the most of them. For example, Colette writes about her journey towards choosing secondary school for her children – with some great ‘guest’ advice. In another, Sally gives some great tips for making the most of school open evenings. They give great advice which you should read and which I won’t repeat here. My additions to the advice given in the two linked blogs would be:

  • See how the teachers interact with your child. Is this the type of teacher you want them to be taught by?

  • Speak to the teachers directly. This is a great way to start forming relationships (which may be important later) but is also a really good way to find more information about the school. Teachers are (despite what you might read in the press) normal, reasonable adults who are happy to have a chat. They are also not paid on commission so might not give the same ‘sales pitch’ as the marketing material or the head.

  • Ask students questions. They will likely be handpicked students, but they are still children – with all of the famous honesty that brings!

  • Don’t confine your visits to open days. See if you can arrange a meeting with the head or a senior member of staff. See if they do tours. It is good, if possible, to get a feel for the school as it is day-to-day rather than just the open evening when the science teachers bring out the cool experiments.

  • Visit lots of areas of the school. Check out the toilets – how well maintained are they? Any signs of vandalism? What is the library like? Do they have books which your child will enjoy reading? What is the drama/music/sports/art equipment available?

However, keep in mind that just because a school seems to have excellent facilities, doesn’t mean it is the right school for your context. A great building doesn’t mean there is great teaching happening. An amazing PE department doesn’t mean that all students are able to take part in the extra-curricular activities. I would much prefer my child to be happy and supported in an old run-down school rather than un-happy in a shiny building!

If you would like to get a personalised list of things to look for, and questions to ask on a school visit, click here.

FOUR: Which school is best for MY child?

Now you have the information, it is time to process it. Which school felt right? Which school does your child prefer? What do you think about some key school structures? For example:

  • How strict do you want it to be?

  • How exam focused?

  • How much does extra-curricular matter?

  • What do you think about the timings of the school day?

  • What do you think about the curriculum on offer?

  • What is your view on ‘setting’?

  • Is there wrap-around provision (breakfast clubs, after school clubs) which work for your family logistics?

This should allow you to narrow down your list. This can be a complex process. This gets right to the heart of what you value in education as a family. This is one of the topics I work through in depth on my course.

FIVE: How I can find out about school policies?

After having done all of the research and talked through it as a family, you will probably realise how much you didn’t know the first time around. Now is the time to go back and find out all of the information you missed the first time around. Lots of this information can be found on the school website, but this might be a good opportunity to call the school and arrange a visit / meeting. You can now go armed with lots of detailed questions.

Conclusion: What is a good school?

Education is an art, not a science, this means that the ‘perfect’ school does not exist. It is about finding the school which works best for you, your family and your context. This might mean that the school that is popular amongst your parent friends, is not the one which meets your needs. That is ok! I say this as a committed educator, although school is important, it probably isn’t as big a deal as you think – whichever choice you make, or whichever school you are allocated to, there will be pros and cons. It is about making the best of what comes your way. Basically… it is the same as everything else which comes with being a parent!

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