If you're the parent of a nine or ten-year old, it will soon be time to embark on the next big stage of their lives: secondary school. Identifying the best school for your child can be bewildering - here's our guide to help you choose.
Yes, but do we really get a choice of school?
That's a fair question. How much say you'll have will vary depending on where you live and your local authority or specific schools' admissions criteria and rules. In some areas, places are allocated by ballot, in others, children pretty much have to go to their nearest school. Even where things are more flexible, it would usually be more accurate to say you're expressing a preference rather than choosing.
Picking only one school would be hard enough but you will normally need to put several schools on your form and, just to make things trickier still, they need to be in order or preference (cue much parental angst over whether secondary X is really a shade better than secondary Y).
Once you do select your favoured secondaries, then it's a case of crossing your fingers and hoping for the best come National Offer Day (more on that in a moment...)
When do I need to get stuck into thinking about all this?
Applications for secondary places can be made from early on in the autumn term when your child is in year 6. Check on your local authority's website for more details of the application process for your area.
Regardless of local authority, the closing date for applications in 2013 (for 2014 entry) is October 31st and you will hear back about which school you have been allocated on 'National Offer Day', which is typically the first week day in March.
With the end of October in year 6 deadline in mind (P6 in Scotland, year 7 in Northern Ireland), it's probably sensible to start considering secondaries in year 5 – schools normally have open days in the summer term.
If you're thinking of grammar/ selective schools, a few have 11+ entrance exams as early as the summer of year 5 or September in year 6, so you'd probably want to visit earlier still.
You might need to put a separate application form in for 11+ schools and religious schools, as well as the main local authority one. Consult the target school's website admissions sections to find out what you'll have to do and when.
Right, so where do I start with finding out more about our options?
Before piling into researching individual schools, it's worth taking a step back and thinking through what sort of education your child might benefit from.
- What do they enjoy doing and what do they find challenging or dislike?
- Are they highly academic, impressionable, sporty, shy, musical, do they struggle socially or in class?
- Do they love trying new things and staying busy, in which case, one with tons of extra-curricular activities might appeal.
- Do they enjoy foreign languages, drama, dance or music, IT or sport, so that you'll want to look for strength in those areas.
- Do you and they like the idea of a smaller secondary or conversely want a larger one which might well have more facilities and clubs?
- What about all boys or all girls schools – how would they find that or would they be better off in a co-educational environment?
- Do they particularly need strong pastoral care due to issues they've experienced or are experiencing, or do they require support for special needs?
If it might help, write a wish list of secondary school characteristics and work out your priorities so you can translate these into something realistic. Ask your son or daughter for their views too.
What else should I consider at this stage?
Although you'll need to look at transport on a school-by-school basis, consider how far your son or
daughter might be happy and cope with travelling each day. If you live in an area with limited public transport, you could find your choices narrow down significantly if you'll be relying on your son or daughter getting themselves to school.
How can I find out what schools are local to us?
By the time your child is in the upper years of primary, you'll doubtless have a fairly good awareness of the secondary schools in your area. Ensure you're not missing any options though by consulting your local authority's website.
Shouldn't I check out the admissions criteria before I go any further...
Definitely. Before you invest time delving into the pros, cons and characteristic of each school, look at the admissions criteria of those on your shortlist to assess whether you even have a chance of getting in. This will save you the heartache of falling in love with a school that's just a mile away, only to learn that it's so in demand that you aren't in the catchment area for it.
Local authority and school websites should have information on geographic catchment areas (these will usually be calculated 'as the crow flies') - look for the furthest distance places were offered to in recent years for a rough indication of your chances. But remember schools' catchment areas expand and contract every year, so you need to realise that last year's catchment in inner city schools may not be the same this year.
If a faith secondary is on your radar screen and your family aren't of that particular faith, your likelihood of a place will depend on the school's specific admissions criteria and how well-subscribed it is by members of that religion. The criteria might however allocate a set percentage of places to children of other faiths or none but elsewhere, the criteria and/or demand for places might be such that there is no scope for others to attend.
Even if you are the 'right' religion for the school, confirm how you will need to prove this - admissions guidance from a school is required to make it clear how affiliation or commitment to the faith concerned must be demonstrated, such as a reference from the family priest/ minister.
OK, so we have got a shortlist of potential schools, what information is out there to help us decide?
There's a plethora of school info for parents to consult and do their own homework over - way beyond the printed prospectus and open day our own parents might have had to rely on. From Ofsted reports and their Parentview feedback site, to numerous league tables and statistics and everything else the internet has to offer, it's quite easy to spend hours researching and deliberating schools.
Overall, this is all about creating a picture of what each secondary is like. There's no one-stop source so you'll have to piece everything together, and then make a call about whether a school is a good match for your child.
In no particular order, here are your main resources for your secondary school sleuthing:
1. Ofsted reports
All schools will have an Ofsted report from the last few years, with a long description and a rating. You'll probably be familiar with these from your primary school but at the time of writing there are four categories: grade 1 ('outstanding'), grade 2 ('good'), grade 3 ('requires improvement' - this was formerly called 'satisfactory') and grade 4 ('inadequate').
Particularly if a school has not done so well, look beyond the actual rating and into the comments the inspectors have made. Are their concerns particularly relevant to your child, eg, the teaching is weak for more able pupils, or for those with special needs, or pastoral care is criticised.
If you're thinking about independent schools, these will not be inspected by Ofsted but the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) produce reports instead.
Ofsted reports are undeniably useful but some parents find a school that is rated only, say, grade 3 stands out for them ahead of one that's good or outstanding. This was the case for mum of three, Helen, when she was choosing schools for her eldest child: "There were two potential schools in our town for her. Most of the other parents at our primary were turning their backs on the lower rated one, which used to have a bad name and was rated satisfactory, but when we visited we preferred it and were not concerned. There is a new head and in the time since the last report, a lot of actions have been taken to improve. She has just started year 7 there and we're all happy with our choice."
2. The prospectus and school website
Check through the 'news' section, letters to parents, and generally have a thorough rummage around to see what's going on. You might uncover indicators, both positive or negative, that go beyond the official messages of shiny, staged open days and the marketing material in the prospectus!
Janette Wallis, of the Good Schools Guide, suggests particularly looking at the last three years' exam results and leavers' destinations. "What do children from the school go on to do? Schools should be happy to share this information with you. Don't just look at the most recent years' results - those could be a blip," she explains.
3. League tables
A useful guide to how academically high performing a school is but again, they are only one piece of information and how a school fares does depend on the nature of the children attending and their attainment when they started. It's not a fair comparison to put a highly academically selective grammar's results, which only admits super-bright children, side-by-side with those of a non-selective comprehensive for example.It's worth considering 'value added' scores as well as raw data as these take account of where pupils started off.
4. Reputation and other local parents' views
Ask around but be aware that another family might take a different perspective on a particular school and what's important to them. Remember that you are looking for a school for your child and not anybody else's!
Additionally reputations might be out of date – schools can change quite significantly in just a few years. All that said, it's still useful to try and chat to parents of existing pupils in your local community. What do they like or dislike about the school? Are they happy with the choice they made, or if they had their time again would they go elsewhere? What sort of child do they think the school suits or does not suit?
5. Other online information
Do an internet search on the name of the school, although you might need to take some of the results with a pinch of salt – sometimes only parents with a gripe post on school review sites or discussion forums. The comments can still provoke issues to look out for, eg, if bullying is mentioned a lot.
6. Open days
Last but definitely not least, open days can be immensely useful for getting a feel for a school, although it's even better if you can go round on an ordinary school day, when things might be slightly less glossy.
It's worth attending open days in the summer of year 5 to give you more thinking time and this also lets you make a second visit in the autumn of year 6, if you feel the need to. Read more about what to ask and look for, when to go and whether to take your child, in our open day guide (coming soon).
How much say should I give my child in choosing?
Most parents quite rightly do want to take their child's views into account, although be aware the average 10-year-old might be more swayed by whether they like the colour of the uniform, the appeal of the contents of the vending machines, or the fact that the pupil who showed you round looked almost, sort of, if you squinted a bit, like a member of their favourite girl/ boy band.
But yes, it is absolutely a good idea to take their opinion into account - it is their prospective school, not yours, after all - but if you clash greatly about it, at the end of the day, you're the parent and your say should go here, given you have at least a couple more decades' of life experience.
Some parents suggest that if you know there's a particular school you would absolutely not want them to go to or which they have very little chance of getting a place at, it's wise to not even take them to the open day. Attend alone for a first look to check your view of it is fair and representative.
Will my child's primary school teacher advise us on the best school for them?
The amount of advice you might receive on secondary school options will vary. Some teachers/ headteachers will be more helpful and knowledgeable than others depending on, eg, how long they've taught in your local area. You've nothing to lose by asking for their opinion of which secondary might suit your son or daughter. A few schools offer secondary transfer information evenings too.
Any tips for filling in the forms?
Check the local authority's admissions information carefully! Even if you have a very strong view about one school being perfect for your son or daughter, if you are meant to put six preferences, it's normally advisable to do so. By having a second and third and so on school listed you will not jeopardise your chances with the favoured first choice but this way you will be more likely to get a secondary you are at least vaguely happy with.
It's fine to include a 'punt' , ie, a school you'd love but might not have much of a chance of getting, but it's sensible to mix this with more likely ones, or else you might end up with another school that wasn't on your list at all.
What happens if we don't get a place at one of our preferred schools?
Whilst over 86% of children did get a place in their family's first choice school in 2013, that still leaves a significant number who did not. Hopefully you will be happy enough with your second or third school but if not, or if you were allocated a secondary that was not on your list at all, you might be able to appeal or join a waiting list.
Unfortunately this will create uncertainty and anxiety for you and your child and your chances of success will vary depending on demand locally, and whether you have reasonable grounds for appeal. Check your council's website for details of the waiting list and appeals processes for more information - this will be in the schools or education section - or call the school directly.
What are your top tips for choosing a secondary school? Has your child started secondary recently - do you feel you made the right choice?
Liat Hughes Joshi is a parenting writer and author of Raising Children: The Primary Years. She tweets at @liathughesjoshi.