Secondary school transfer evenings: What do you need to ask?

Open evenings for parents to view secondary school are in full swing and it’s important not to be daunted by them. Workingmums.co.uk gives advice on how best to glean the knowledge and information you need to make the big decision on your child’s secondary school.

Open evenings for parents to view secondary schools are in full swing, and it’s important not to be daunted by them. Workingmums.co.uk gives advice on how best to glean the knowledge and information you need to make the big decision on your child’s secondary school.

Know broadly which type of school you want
You need to discuss this with your partner and your child long before you set foot in the classroom. Does one of you desperately want your child to attend a faith school while the other wants to steer clear? What about single sex schools versus mixed sex schools? If you have differing viewpoints you need to come to some sort of consensus on the broader issues before you ever start analysing the finer details of GCSE or BTEC provision in any of the institutions. This is also the time to work out if you want a different type of education for each child or would you want them all to go to the same secondary school if there’s a sibling policy.
Listen to your child’s opinion. However, be aware that he or she may be swayed by which school his or her friends look set to choose. Explain carefully that while friends are important, other issues also need to be taken into account when the serious decision has to be made.
If you were brought up in the same area when you were a child, don’t be influenced by your own experience of a school if it was the one you attended or if someone you knew went there – schools change over the years, particularly if there’s a new headteacher with a different outlook or if catchment areas change. Your priority is to select the most suitable school for your child not to go on a prejudiced trip down memory lane coloured by your own schooling.
And don’t let playground chatter affect you either. Listen to it, evaluate it, but don’t allow it to make you think you definitely must put a certain school down as first preference or ditch it from your list simply because someone else said so.

Be prepared
Top tip: Make the round of opening evenings in Year 5. Parents often feel rushed when it comes to having to make a decision just a few weeks after they have viewed schools. Touring the schools a year earlier will help you to get a feel of what they’re like and what you’re looking for. The more time you have to mull over this far-reaching decision the more likely you are to come to a decision that you’re satisfied with.
Seek out each school’s Ofsted report on www.ofsted.gov.uk. This will give you useful information about a school’s strengths and weaknesses, but don’t think that it’s best to automatically place the school with the ‘outstanding’ Ofsted report as your first choice.  There are many more aspects to consider.  But see if the school has been placed in ‘special measures’ and look out for reports on inspections for the likes of English and maths.  The school should also have Ofsted reports on its own website.  Compare and contrast with neighbouring secondaries.
Also look at the website to see how many vacancies for teaching staff are advertised.  If there’s a big staff turnover this could signify dissatisfaction among staff with the way the school is run.
Check out if the school has been granted specialist status in any subjects such as drama, sport, music, science or the arts.  Also check out if the school has a selective policy in any areas of excellence  – music and sports places are available in some schools, so if your child is a budding Mozart or Flintoff this could be a good way of getting a place at the school you prefer.  Ask the teachers in the P.E. and music departments what a child needs to do to have a chance of getting into the school via its excellence programme.

On the night
Don’t dismiss the headteacher’s talk as a ‘meet and greet’.  A headteacher can turn around a failing school, so you need to analyse whether you were impressed or not by his or her speech.  Was it vague but well-meaning? Or did they tell you about specific areas in which they are improving and which areas they will be working on in the future?
When you’re inspecting work displayed by pupils, make time to fully read some of it.  Then buttonhole the teacher to ask if the work on show has been written by higher-achieving pupils or a mixture of top set and lower sets.  This will tell you if the school is happy to show how it brings on children of lower ability or how much it stretches the higher ability stream.  Similarly with projects displayed on the walls, look closely to see if it has been copied and pasted from the Internet or if it is original well-though-out work.
Don’t be taken in by shiny new buildings, but as you walk round see if there are enough computer facilities – your child will be able to tell you if the IT rooms pass muster.  Also take note of the libraries.  How do they compare to each other?  Is it a welcoming well-stocked area of the school or is it a small space with too few books?  If your child has special needs seek out the SENCO.
Ask individual staff how long they have worked at the school – this will give you an insight into whether the staff themselves value their school and are committed to it.
Go to the loo – this will show you how clean the school is.
If you’re being shown round by a pupil, ask them plenty of questions about why they like the school, how good the activity clubs are and if the teachers are good.  You generally get honest answers from school children.

Get behind the statistics
If you’re presented with what looks like a glowing list of achievement in GCSEs, scrutinise the results closely.  Most secondaries will tell you the percentage success rate for each subject and will also give you another set of figures compiling how many pupils gained five GCSEs, including maths and English, with grades from C to A*.  This is where you need to have your questions ready.  It’s no good being a shrinking violet – this is when you have to ask the headteacher what proportion of pupils who studied the subject were entered for the exams. 
The CVA – contextual value added – score can tell you a lot about the school. This gives you an indicator of how well the school is progressing and compares the level of pupils when they arrive (How many children get free school meals? Are they from a largely disadvantaged area?) and when they leave.  Remember, a school with a relatively well-off catchment might not be moving forward despite having pupils who are deemed to have a higher ability, whereas a school with pupils from a more disadvantaged background could be forging ahead and stretching its youngsters despite the exams results appearing to be poorer than its neighbouring secondary.
Other questions to ask: does the school ‘set’?; what about a second foreign language?; triple science?; and vocational courses?

Don’t miss out any schools
Touring secondary schools can be bamboozling and wearying, but don’t be tempted to miss any out.   You need to see them for yourself, not rely on reports from other people.  Their ‘nightmare’ school might be your ‘preferred’ school and vice versa.  You have to make the decision so get as much information as possible – even if it’s only to confirm your initial opinion – and you need to be able to fill in a carefully considered list of schools in your preference order.  You don’t want to find yourself allocated a school which you hadn’t even visited.





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