Choosing a secondary school for your child

choosing a secondary school

I can barely believe it. The year after next our daughter will be going to secondary school. We started looking around secondary schools early (year five) because what I quickly came to realise is that choosing a secondary school for your child is a huge, and pretty daunting task which leaves many parents riddled with school application anxiety.

Most of the school open days/evenings take place only a few weeks before the applications need to be submitted which really isn’t much time at all. Especially given there is a lot to consider. As I navigate this process having now visited eight secondary schools whilst on my rounds, I wanted to share what I hope will be useful insights for any parent reading this embarking on the journey.

The postcode lottery

Before you start looking, you need to be real about the postcode lottery. This essentially means that your child can hopefully get a place in your local school if your postcode fits, and you live in the catchment area. Be aware that you can live close by to a school and not be in the catchment area (as is currently the case for our local school). So know your facts about catchment areas, all of which can be found out with a quick google.

Be open-minded

It’s really easy to be fixated on a particular school, or location, but my advice would be….don’t be. If you have time, go round and window shop in as many schools as you can (without driving yourself totally mad). This will really help you compare and contrast and really get a flavour for what the different schools are about.

See the schools in operation

An open evening or weekend is great, but they are effectively shows with all the bells and whistles on. What’s even better is being able to see the schools during the school day, warts and all. You’ll get a much better idea of how the ship is run, how happy and engaged the kids are, etc if you can visit whilst classes are running on a normal day.

Review the facilities

Although facilities are not everything, I do think they are important. Do they have the facilities needed to support your child’s interests and also general learning? Are they investing in making the school look and feel a better place or does everything feel a bit run down and shabby? These things are all important.

choosing a secondary school

Talk to the students

Get in the face of and talk to as many students as much as possible. Quiz them on their:

  • Favourite subjects
  • Subject choices
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Things they like (and don’t like) about the school
  • Transition into high school
  • What they feel their progress has been
  • Where they have come from and where they hope to go to
  • Emotional problems, pastoral care, how bullying is dealt with and interventions
  • Subjects your children are interested in

It’s amazing what you can find out if you ask the right questions. Also look at how the children interact with each other. Are they supportive of each other or is there an element of one-upmanship/insecurity?

Listen to the head teacher’s talk

This is a great way of getting a sense of the leadership and vision of the school. Think about:

  • Do they seem energetic and inspired? Or do they seem tired and deflated?
  • Do they talk about the “whole child approach” or are they only fixated on grades and fixtures?
  • Do they specifically outline their key values and ambitions for the school and students, or does it all seem a bit vague?

If you can’t get onto the head teacher’s talk (they are often fully booked!), then find out whether they will be doing a virtual talk or Q&A.

choosing a secondary school

Grill the teachers

Ask the teachers specifically about:

  • What they learn in the first year and how this progresses through the year groups
  • Extracurricular activities and enrichment opportunities relating to their topic
  • What is their favourite thing/s about the school is/are
  • How do they support children who may not be meeting their learning goals

Swap notes – but be careful

Personally, I have found it useful to swap notes with other parents but it is best to do this cautiously as people can have very strong views about different schools and secondary schooling in general. Find some people who seem to be on the same wavelength and swap notes with each other. Talk to parents whose children are already at the schools you are looking at. Be careful what you say to those who have a very different agenda from you – it can be a bit of a sensitive situation! Also, I have found digging around on the Mumsnet forums about the schools I’ve been visiting useful to. Of course, always to be taken with a pinch of salt!

Know but don’t be obsessed with the school’s grades

Personally, I don’t think choosing a secondary school is all about grades. It’s important to be aware of their grades for sure, but most importantly know about the school’s progress which you can access via the Department of Education here.

Questions to ask yourself

Two questions I always had in my head when looking around the schools for my daughter was:

a) Could I see my child here?

b) Would I want to go back to school here and be excited about it?

c) Do I get a good feeling here? What does my gut tell me? Do I leave the school feeling good or flat and deflated?

Sounds simple but if the answer to those three things is yes, you are probably onto a winner.

If you are about to start your own journey of choosing a secondary school for your child, I hope the above I’ve learned from my own experience will be useful to you. Good luck everybody!

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