Choosing a secondary school

Let’s start where we ought we start – with the child. When I was considering secondary schools for my son I wanted him to be happy, which is something it’s easy to lose sight of in the frenzy of school gate conversations, online Ofsted reports, slick open events, well-spun prospectuses and bewildering league tables.

Your child’s primary school and local authority will be the ones who guide you through the mechanics of choosing and applying for secondary school. If you live in a selective area there are additional considerations and choices to be made and the information about the 11 Plus Exam on Oxford Owl is designed to help you with this.

What this blog post aims to do is to help you consider the day-to-day realities which will kick in once you and your child have made that choice. Now that my son has made the transition to ‘big’ school, these are some of questions I now realise were important and which you might want to take into account.

Well-Being

There are many aspects of school which are not directly about learning but which have a significant impact on it:

  • Are any good friends going to the same school?
  • What’s the journey to and from school like?
  • How much will s/he have to carry every day (are there lockers)?
  • Does the school have a caring and effective pastoral system?
  • How does the school deal with upsets / bullying / school refusing?
  • How is the school day set out?
  • What are the toilet facilities like?
  • How well supervised are students during breaks?
  • Can your child access the football pitch at lunchtime or is it monopolised by Year 11s?

I have worked at one school where first break wasn’t until 11.20 and lunch for some students was at 1.40. If a child has breakfast at 7.15, this is a pretty long stretch of time to get through.

On the up side, one school near me has organised the timetable so that students have Wednesday afternoons off. If you know your child finds a full week hard-going, this kind of initiative could be a winning formula for your family.

Academic

Learning is clearly the main aim so find out as much as you can about the realities of learning in schools you are considering:

  • How much academic pressure is applied? Is it enough to stretch your child? Might it be too much?
  • Are exam results satisfactory, especially in core subjects which are basic requirements for later training and careers?
  • Are there good staff and facilities for the subjects your child likes best or struggles most with?
  • Are there staff shortages? Does the school have its own cover supervisors who are likely to know the students well and manage their learning effectively in staff absence?
  • What are class sizes like?
  • How many students opt to stay on into Post-16?
  • Is the homework manageable and relevant? (There are a number of ways you can find this out – for example the school’s website often has departmental info about what students are covering that term, you could ask other students or teachers when you visit the school).
  • How are Special Educational Needs managed and supported?

You can use open events to ask these sorts of questions. I’d recommend attending both open evenings and daytime visits if the school offers these. Open evenings will often include tours by students and this gives you the chance to ask them questions and to observe the pride they take in their school. Daytime visits enable you to see the school as it really operates and to observe snippets of lessons.

Remember that staff in schools love to be asked questions: they would much prefer to interact with visitors than to simply reel off talks or click through powerpoints. Don’t feel shy about asking probing questions – many teachers have children themselves and they know how important this choice is. Aim for open questions: ‘What do you like about working here?’ / ‘How does the school tend to deal with homework?’ The answers to these sorts of questions will give you a lot more information.

Remember to talk to as many other parents and students from a school you are considering as possible. Don’t assume that one student’s experience says it all; schools are not a one size fits all arrangement. Try to include a range of student ages in this informal research. You may find that your neighbour’s kid didn’t enjoy year 7 but was in their element by Year 8. And remember to factor in what you know about your own child by comparison to another. You might hear a horror story about homework but then realise that the student in question is only happy if they can be on X-Box for 6 hours after school!

Most of all, make this a positive experience. Encourage your child to see it as one of the first big decisions they will help to make about their lives. And always bear in mind that, if it is not an irreversible decision; there are always other doors you can open at a later date.