To choose a school that is right for your child, look beyond results. After the dazzling open day, don’t forget to inspect the loos.
Finding the right secondary school for your son or daughter can be very daunting. There are so many different kinds of school. Depending on where you live, there may be, within reach, local authority schools, academies, a free school, a university technical college, and a studio school — as well as special schools and private schools.
They may be selective, partially selective or non-selective. Some are only for girls or only for boys, others for both. They may be secular or have a religious affiliation. Some, but not all, have sixth forms. Size can vary widely from a few hundred students to more than 2,000. In some places, you are literally spoilt for choice.
How then to decide? The golden rule is to fit the school to the child, not the child to the school. There are good schools among all the various types.
David Blunkett, when he was secretary of state for education, was fond of saying: “Everyone can recognise a good school.” And there is truth in that. But a school also has specific features that may make it especially suitable for your child; perhaps the language teachers, the sports facilities or the orchestra.
Good schools do have a number of things in common. They have a culture of learning, engaged and well-behaved pupils, perceptive leadership and enthusiastic teachers who know their subjects. They are well managed, financially sound, have low teacher turnover and well-qualified staff, even for subjects such as maths, physics and modern languages, where there are often shortages.
There is extensive information published about each school. Parent Power provides an easy-to-read guide as to how the schools fare in national examinations.
The Department for Education has a school and college performance website, which not only presents exam results but also provides data on what pupils do next, truancy, inspectors’ ratings, staffing and finances, all of which can be compared with other schools. And schools have websites where they have to display, among other things, the inspectors’ reports.
But statistical analysis and inspection data is not enough. It embodies the official view of the good school, which amounts to scoring well in examinations and on other measurements, and complying with regulations. As important as exam grades are, they are only part of becoming educated. Even more vital is developing the character and resilience to live a full and satisfying life.
This is not so easily captured in numbers so there is no substitute for a visit. Go along to open evenings, but if there is little more than marketing speak on offer, be warned. A confident school will arrange for you to talk to the pupils — who, on their own, can be devastatingly frank — and teachers. It will allow you to wander the corridors. Inevitably it will have put on a bit of a show for the open evening so do try to arrange a daytime visit too, perhaps taking your child with you.
You will see for yourself the general state of the facilities. If possible, arrange your visit to be close to lunchtime, which can become chaotic if a school is poorly managed. Try to take a peek at the toilets, too, which are also a giveaway. Go past schools as the children are leaving. Are the pupils considerate of other pedestrians and do they queue in an orderly way for buses, or are they raucous, careless of others and scattering litter in their wake?
Finding the right school means being honest with yourself about your child’s talents, personality and interests. If he or she is academically inclined it will be worth seeking out a school with several streams, especially if the child is bright but content to go with the flow. Being alongside other bright pupils will make children more aware of what they themselves can achieve. But if academic study comes hard to your child, it does them no favours to gain entry to a school where they would struggle to keep up.
Other aspects of the school can become very important: single-sex or co-educational, for instance. Both my daughters went to a nearby girls’ school. But while one daughter loved it, the other became increasingly disenchanted with a single-sex environment. Fortunately, I was able to arrange for her to be transferred to a co-educational school, where she thrived.
Parents of children already at a school can tell you a lot about what it is really like. The grapevine has generally sussed out the best schools. But therein lies an enduring problem. When we speak of school choice, it amounts to no more than being able to state a preference. If a particular school is by common consent “the one” to go to, chances are it will not have room for everyone. “Choice” then becomes selection by schools or the local authority.
Schools have to give priority to children in care, but otherwise they make decisions about which child to admit according to how close the child lives to the school, or whether there are brothers or sisters already there. Faith schools will give priority to those who show commitment to a particular religion; selective schools will have an entrance exam; some secondaries have “feeder” primary schools. Top private schools often have entrance examinations as well as hefty fees. Since you may not get your first choice, it is important to have other schools in mind. In applying for state schools, you will be asked to list at least three. If you do not like the outcome, you’ll be able to appeal, and if you do not think the appeals process is fair, you will be able to complain.
School choice was brought in by the Thatcher government through the Education Reform Act of 1988, in an attempt to improve the quality of education. The central idea was that by giving parents choice of school, funding schools mainly on their pupil numbers and exam results, a market would be created. This would drive up quality, with poor schools withering away.
Riding this wave, Parent Power was first published in 1993, complete with league tables and a foreword by John Patten, then Conservative education secretary.
In fact, competition between schools could not operate as a real market and, as differences between schools grew wider, the government was faced with the reality of limited places at good schools and the need for all children to be educated somewhere. So, choice might not have worked out exactly as was hoped — but it has given parents at least some measure of control over which school their child attends.
By exercising great care over your child’s secondary school you are not only giving him or her the best possible start in life, but also helping to ensure that our education system has reason to improve continuously. In fitting a school to your child, you are also fitting the education system to the society we seek.