12/10/2013 08:07 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

How To Choose A Secondary School For Your Child

Naema Badhon robh, 12 (right) from Stepney Green, and her Year 7 classmate Alexandria Eagle, 11, from Hackney, read during an English lesson at Sir John Cass Foundation and Redcoat Church of England School in Tower Hamlets, east London, on the day the 2003 GCSE tables were published, showing the school to be the secondary school with the highest value-added score in 2003 for 14 to 16-year-olds and the most improved GCSE performer for the second year running.

A new term dawns, and for primary school children in England, the year six entrants are enjoying being the big fish in a small pond. But this time next year they'll be setting out for secondary school, dwarfed by their too-big-blazers and full of eagerness and nerves.

But how do you choose the right secondary school for your child? Where do you start, how do you know which schools to look at, what to look for and the right questions to ask?

Rather than burying your head in the sand, listening to hearsay and possibly messing up one of the biggest decisions you will make for your child, sit down, take a deep breath and draw up a plan of action. In short, the process is really quite simple – but you do need to plan and spend some time.

When deciding which school to apply for, it's important to find out about the ways in which a particular school will guide and support your child's individual needs and interests. A good starting point is to get hold of the school's prospectus.

Secondary schools hold a series of open days and/or evenings for you and your child to go along to see what they have to offer. These will take place this autumn term – search for details on each school's website or call for details.

Savvy parent Rebecca, whose daughter Ellie is about to embark on year nine of secondary school, checked out a range of schools when Ellie was in year five, and then only took her in year six to see the schools she and her husband liked.

"You have to do a bit of elimination beforehand, and also we weren't going to look around schools which we realised Ellie really hadn't a hope of getting into," she recalled.

And that's a really important point too – check out the school's admission criteria – there is no point in wasting time applying for a school you really won't qualify for, either on grounds of distance, academic ability (in the case of grammar and selective schools) or religion. The criteria will be found in the school's own prospectus, as well as in your Local Authority's guidebook (more on that later).

Clued-up parents might also consider making an appointment to look around the school during normal "working hours". Seeing a school in action on a normal day will give you a much better feel for its staff and pupils and overall ethos than the all-singing all-dancing production with science experiments they put on especially for the open evening.

Once you've whittled down a list of the schools you would be happy for your child to attend, you need to fill out the Common Application Form (CAF) for the Local Authority (LA) in which you live. You can do this online or on paper.

List your choices in preference order, so this really needs to be done carefully and with your full attention. You only need to fill out one CAF – even if you choose some schools in other local authority areas to the one in which you live. Independent schools are applied to separately.

LAs vary on the deadline for when your CAF needs to be in, so check with them - it will be be around the half term week. So plan ahead if you're going away.

If you miss your LA's deadline your child will be an official late entry and you will find it much more difficult to have any sway in which school your child goes to. Be careful – some schools (such as church or selective) also have supplementary forms which you need to fill in and which need to be sent back to the school by the same date. For church schools, you may need a priest or vicar's reference, baptism and first communion certificates.

Then it's a long nail-biting wait until Wednesday 2 March 2011, when parents across England will be ripping open offer envelopes, and bursting into tears of joy or misery. (Or 1 March, if you've applied online.)

Be warned, last year the system in London crashed early in the morning - cue much frustration as no one could discover if their children had got into the school of their choice.

Government worker Michele Singh was driven spare this year when she had applied on-line for her son Tom.
"The system crashed and we didn't hear until much later that day. My friends who had used "snail mail" heard before I did – I was miffed to say the least," she recalls.

So what should you be doing now?

Generally local authorities send an information booklet to all parents/guardians of year six parents in early September. This booklet contains the Common Application Form and information including admissions criteria about schools in that local authority control, often also the supplementary forms required by some schools within that LA. If you are applying for any schools outside of your own LA, contact the school for information regarding supplementary forms which may need to be filled out.

Check the closing date for applications – and call the schools you are interested in viewing to find out times and dates of open evenings. In part two of this series we will be looking in more detail at what you can do to help your child get into the school you all really want.

In the meantime...

Useful sites:

A really useful site explaining how to go about applying – from here you can also access your own Local Authority (whether you're in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) and apply on-line or find out how to get hold of your Local A's secondary school application pack if it hasn't automatically been sent to you via your child's school.
Government admissions website.
School admissions in Wales and Welsh Local Authorities

In Scotland you are automatically offered a secondary school place whilst at primary school, and in the vast majority of cases each primary school feeds into a designated secondary, so Scottish parents don't have any of the angst over secondary school decisions. Information is here.

Our top tips on what to look for on a school open day