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Which Secondary School? Ten Pointers from a Teacher for Making a Smart Choice

19/09/2014 12:38 BST | Updated 15/11/2014 10:59 GMT

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My son is in Year 6, so my diary for the next few weeks is full to bursting with open mornings, open days and open evenings for the local schools we're looking at. It's a huge decision to be making, especially if this is your first child to reach secondary age - one that could impact their life (and yours) quite significantly.

Last night though, at the first of many visits to come, I was surprised at how many parents were finding the whole thing bewildering and overwhelming, and how many didn't know where to begin when it came to knowing what to look out for and what questions to be asking.

As a long-time teacher as well as parent, I know something of both sides of the game (I'll be playing teacher-salesman at my own school this coming week) and over a drink afterwards, asked if people would like a quick run-down of some key pointers. Given that the 'YES' nearly deafened me, here's my quick guide to surviving the secondary school tour, and some tips for what to look out for as you try to make a smart choice.

1. Talk to your guide

Every school tour I have ever been on - and every school I've ever worked in - has used students at the school to take parents on a pre-planned route. This is great. You're going to get to meet one of the best the school has to offer, and have a chance to - politely, and sensitively of course - grill them a bit about what life at the school is really like. Don't be shy. Talk to them.

Ask what year they are in, and what subjects they are doing. Ask if they enjoy school, and listen carefully to the answer. See how they interact with other students who are around, and see how the staff at the school interact with them as the tour proceeds. How the staff relate to students is a key signifier of the culture of the school.

2. Find out about Year 7 - and the Sixth Form

Ask your guide what it was like starting in Year 7. Some schools I've visited have a separate playground for Year 7 kids - at least for a term or so - and others have a strong induction programme to help the new students settle, perhaps bringing them in a couple of days early.

The transition from primary to secondary can be stressful, especially if the secondary school is very large. Ask your guide about the way the school is organised to help this happen smoothly. What is their tutor group like? Do they have 'houses'? The way in which a school organises its pastoral (as opposed to academic) systems is another key signifier.

It may seem way off in the future, but ask about the 6th form too. It matters. What percentage of students stay on? Do they get to do their A-Levels on site, or do they have to be taken around to other schools in a 'federation' to do some subjects? What percentage go on from AS to do A2?

3. Does the school run a condensed Key Stage 3?

Traditionally, Key Stage 3 ran from Year 7 - 9. Key Stage 4 was when your child began the GCSE courses they'd chosen, running for 2 years from Year 10 to Year 11. These days, I've seen lots of schools running a condensed Key Stage 3 - crunching it into Year's 7 and 8, and basically getting kids to start GCSE course options in Year 9.

This matters. Key Stage 3 is the only time that children are going to get a broad sweep of a wide range of subjects. If the school runs a condensed KS3 it is unlikely that your child will do any music, art, drama or design technology unless they take it as a GCSE. In other words, they'll only be getting 2 years of these sorts of subjects, not 3.

At one school I visited, all of the KS3 design technology and art was done on a 'carousel.' What this meant was that, over the course of Year's 7 and 8 the students got about 8 weeks on each area: design, textiles, art, resistant materials (woodwork and metalwork to you and me) etc. That's really not a lot. Schools do it because they are desperate to squeeze in as much time on core subjects like maths, English and science. That's honourable, but you need to know what other subjects are being made to pay.

If all your local schools are doing this (which is very possible) ask what provision there is for students not following these subjects at GCSE to get involved in them.

4. Beware the 'Amazing Media Lab'

On one tour I did recently included a beautiful media lab, jammed with iMacs and film-making equipment. The school was rightly proud of it, but - having been told that it was 'for everyone' - a little digging with the guide revealed that she'd only ever been allowed to use it a couple of times on very special occasions.

Of course schools are going to 'show off' on these open days - and don't be harsh on them for doing so. But you need to avoid being blinded by the things you are shown too. Ask how often students are allowed to use them, and whether its reserved for 6th form or students on certain courses.

5. Talk to teachers

It may be that you are guided around the school by a member of staff. They will be busy herding you lot and trying to remember their spiel, so if you don't get to speak to them, make a point of talking in depth to other teachers around in their departmental areas. Don't worry if this means you get left behind. You can join up with another tour when you're finished.

6. Ask about staff turnover

Ask teachers how long they've been at the school, and how they find it as a place to work. The level of staff turnover can be a very key indicator of the health of a school. Teachers might not give you much detail on this, but you can ask your student guide - or even the Head during their talk. On one tour I did the student told me that every single one of their teachers was new. That worried me. Individual staff members might be brilliant, but why are so many leaving, and where is the continuity?

7. Dig down into data

As with any organisation, a school in open day mode is going to throw the best stats it has got at you. This can be tricky as there is often a lot to take in quite quickly, but try to dig down into the data a little.

I asked a teacher in one maths department about their GCSE statistics and was pointed to some figures showing the number students who'd got A* - C that year. It seemed impressive, but when I asked what this was as a percentage of the whole cohort turned out to be way less so.

Try to find out what the trend is too. How do this year's figures compare with last year? And try to compare with other schools. You may hear something that sounds amazing... but it may actually be completely standard, something that almost everyone else does.

8. Setting or Streaming?

At some point in your child's life at secondary school they'll be put into different groups according to ability. Some schools try to do this straightaway, others wait a while for new Year 7s to find their feet.

Ask if the school 'sets' or 'streams.' Streaming is when your child is basically put into a group who will move at a faster pace across all their subjects. The different streams in a year group may not mix at all and it can be very hard for children to change stream once it has been done. Setting is usually done on a subject by subject basis. They might be in the top set for Maths, but a middle set for English. Ask how often kids get the opportunity to change sets.

9. Look at the building and the site

The school will be looking at its brightest and best and teaching staff and support staff will have worked really hard to make it sparkle. Be complimentary! It's so nice when people are, but sadly pretty rare. Do have a good look at the fabric of the place too though. Ask what building work has been done, and what is planned. One school I visited was due to be torn down and totally rebuilt over the next 3 years. Fantastic - but do you want your child having to go through the unavoidable disruption?

Ask about the playing fields too. How much outdoor space is there? Where are the sports fields? Is it a bus ride away? How did the girls' football team do last year? Again, you want to get a sense of, like music and art etc, whether sport is focused on those doing GCSE, or if good provision continues for everyone.

10. Are people happy?

At the end of the day this is what matters. You want your child to get great results and head to Cambridge to read Astrophysics and Mandarin - fine. But most importantly you want them to flourish as a young person and be happy. Schools are places where we gather our children to teach them something about what we value in society. If it's great results and all pressure pressure pressure and people look haggard and not very happy to be there, to me that matters because it speaks about what values are being shared. Look around. Are people smiling? Do students have a good rapport with their teachers?

That said, these open days are seriously hard work for schools, often running very late into the evening after a long day's teaching. So please, be generous, courteous and say a little thank you. But, as you ride the roller-coaster with all the lights flashing and amazing stats coming your ways, do keep thinking: is this the right place for my son or daughter to be happy?

Finally though, do remember: while this is a big decision, it's not the be all and end all. You might be in an area that doesn't have much choice, or where competition is so fierce it's become a lottery. Don't panic. As a teacher who's taught in all sorts of schools I know full well: what matters almost more than anything is the learning culture and family environment you've fostered at home. And you came out OK didn't you?