Top tips on choosing a secondary school

Schools may be the last thing on your mind at the moment as you limp into the summer holidays. But if your child is coming to the end of primary school in the next few years, you can use the holidays to look at your options. Expert Katie Krais gives some pointers.

1. Start thinking about secondary schools early

I always recommend that parents start to think about secondary school options when their child is in year 3.
2. Identify the ability level of your child
When it comes to choosing secondary schools, it is very important to have realistic expectations. If you decide to sit your child for the 11+ exam, make sure you know they are capable of passing, remembering that competition is great. For this reason you need to know not just where your child is performing compared to those in his class, but also how he compares to the rest of the country, many of who might be competing for the same places. To find out the level your child is working at you can:

– Ask the school. Liaise closely with your child’s class teacher and headteacher – what do they predict for your child in Maths, English and Science for the end of key stage SATs? Find out your child’s reading and spelling age, as well as their current national curriculum levels in Maths, writing and reading. Most schools will have this information, but they will not necessarily volunteer it.

– Find out for yourself. Set some timed practice tests that you can buy in most leading bookstores.

– Ask a tutor. Most tutors will assess your child and give you useful feedback about their level of attainment.

3. Short list the right school for your child
Technology makes it simple and fast for you to not only identify possible schools for your children, but to form strong opinions about them before you even set foot inside them. This is done by surfing the net – using websites wisely and gathering as much information as you can. Here’s how to start.

Government website
Your first website to check should be the government website www.direct.gov.uk/ . This is the official government website for all UK citizens.
 
Local authority website
Your LEA’s website will tell you how the schooling system works in your area.
Choice advisors
Some local authorities offer parent helplines or choice advisors – it is worth giving them a call.
Individual schools prospectus, profile and website
When you have identified a school of interest you can research them further by looking at their own website. You can also telephone them and ask them for a school prospectus. Some schools allow you to download their prospectus on line. Have a look at the school’s profile. This is an annual report for parents written by schools themselves which contains information about the school. They can be read online at www.schoolsfinder.direct.gov.uk/. Be aware, however, that the prospectus, profile and website are all written by the school and therefore may be biased!
Ofsted website
A useful source of unbiased information about a school can come from Ofsted. To access Ofsted reports from your local schools you will need to log onto the Ofsted website – www.ofsted.gov.uk.
League tables
The debate is ongoing with many people outraged that exam results are used to measure the success of a school. League tables measure the academic results of children who sit tests – but many believe this does not necessarily measure of the performance of a school. For this you need to take into consideration a number of other factors, including ‘value added’, number of children with EAL (English as an additional language), pupil turnover, number of children with special needs. These factors will affect a school’s results and may lead to poorer standing in the tables.

4.
Listen carefully to what others have to say, but get your own feel for a school
Personal recommendations are always useful. If you know of other children who have had positive experiences in particular schools it will make you more likely to want to send your child there. Equally, if parents and children are constantly criticising a school you will most likely be put off it. However, it is important to make sure that you get a subjective view about a school as well because parents’ views are often not reliable.
First impressions are very important. Just like buying a new house, you will get an immediate feel for a school. You will make judgements about the external architecture, the behaviour of the children and the pastoral care of the staff. Take time to weigh up all the different aspects of the school before making important decisions.
5. Be familiar with your local schools admissions criteria
There is no point choosing a school if it will be impossible for you to get a place there because you don’t meet the admissions criteria. Admissions criteria vary from school to school and from local authority to local authority. They can also change from year to year so it is always worth checking. Criteria may include having a sibling at the school, being in the catchment area, being the right religion or academic ability.
6. Make sure you are aware of the whole administrative process for secondary transfer

Most local authorities will have their own procedures for secondary transfer available to download on their websites and parents are given a booklet about the process in the September their child enters Year 6. Whilst the system tends to stay the same, there are subtle changes from year to year and date changes etc so it is very important that you read the small print and stick to the deadlines and fill in the correct forms.

Katie Krais is a teacher and tutor and runs ‘Surviving School Transfer’, a consultancy for parents who are overwhelmed by the nightmare that is the transition to secondary school. This consultancy includes testing, interviewing and a formal report giving full feedback on children’s academic strengths and weaknesses and recommendations on most suitable schools for transition. She has written a book designed to help parents get a place for their child in the school of their choice – Teach Yourself Getting Your Child Into Secondary School  (Hodder Education 2009). For further information www.katiekrais.com or call 07003451785. For more information on Teach Yourself books click here.

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