Simon Spencer, Deputy Head of the School of Education, Birmingham City University

It’s that time of the secondary school year when the new Year 7 students are in and more or less settled and attention turns to the next intake.

Competition is increasing and schools will mount ever more elaborate marketing ploys, to attract attention and fill their places. Not surprisingly, visiting a number of different school’s Open Days can be confusing and the task of finding the right school for your child overwhelming.

However arming yourself with the right questions can help make that decision a lot easier.

Here are some questions to ask and some things to consider when making that choice.


 What type of school is it and does it really matter?

As well as Free Schools, there are also Academies of different types, Studio Schools, University Technical Colleges as well as schools that remain in the control of the local authority.  The main types of schools are described here.

The type of school will have an impact on the way the school is funded, the way that it is governed and the way it makes itself accountable. Head Teachers are accountable to Governors or Trustees, but who are they accountable to?

It would be good to ask a governor or trustee how the school makes itself accountable, and how effective that is.


What is actually taught?

The National Curriculum requires that pupils receive a ‘broad and balanced education’ but only local authority controlled schools are legally required to deliver the National Curriculum, although many other schools do.

There is a danger that the range of subjects taught is restricted, so that more time is devoted to those subjects that will be examined later and that contribute to the league tables.  For example, some schools will teach arts subjects in rotation meaning less time to that area of the curriculum and only limited experience of different arts subjects.


What about the wider curriculum?

Schools are also required to deliver elements that contribute to an individual’s wider life such as personal, social and health education (PSHE), citizenship, sex and relationships education, religious education, careers education and so on.

It is worth finding out how these are delivered and also what importance is placed on them.


What qualifications will my child leave with?

Most people understand GCSEs as the main qualification taken by 16 year olds.  The government has indicated that all students by 2020 will take the English Baccalaureate, or EBAC, which means that they will be required to pass exams in English, maths, science, history or geography and another language. This might result in choices of other subjects being restricted.

GCSE exams are in the process of being overhauled, with new exams and grading systems being rolled out in English and maths first, and other subjects will follow.

There are other qualifications available so it is worth finding out what the school offers and why.  If the school has Post 16 provision, there are even more questions to be asked along similar lines.


What extra-curricular opportunities are there?

Most schools offer a wide variety of extra-curricular activities. The range and their effectiveness can reveal much about the school and its attitude and approach.

The extra-curricular activities might look impressive but what are they really like?  What, or who, are they for?  Ask the current pupils about them.


What does the school do to ease the transition from primary school to secondary school?

The transition to ‘big’ school is big in many ways, especially for children themselves.  There are so many massive changes from primary to secondary school; schools need to consider how they will make the transition as smooth as possible for pupils.

There might be structural, curriculum and support strategies put in place and it is worth asking about these specifically.  Does the school know how effective these are from the pupils’ perspective?  For example, some schools arrange the timetable so that pupils spend several lessons each week with the same teacher, just like they did in primary school.  Schools might group pupils with at least one friend from primary school.  Teachers from the secondary school might have been teaching some lesson to pupils in their primary school so that faces are familiar.


How will children be organised?

Part of the change for pupils is that they will be organised differently at secondary school.  There are a number of ways in which this might be done and all have pros and cons depending on what the school decides is most important.

For example, mixed ability classes can help with social integration while ability grouping (setting) can help deliver more targeted lessons.


What does the school do to ensure that my child is happy, well cared for, and making progress?

Again, the way a school provides support for its pupils will depend on what it considers to be important.

The titles used can be revealing, a ‘Head of Year’ might have a different purpose to an ‘Academic Progress Tutor’.  It is also important to know that systems and structures put in place for things such as bullying are used and actually work.

Everyone wants your child to be happy and making progress at school, so finding out what the school does is important.


What is the school like after Open Day?

It’s a fair bet that the school will have put a huge amount of effort into arranging Open Day or Open Evening.  It will be dressed to impress and, if you are lucky, you’ll see and experience the very best that the school has to offer through presentations, conversations, displays and demonstrations.  But once the show is over, what is the reality?  Ask the students and, if you can, visit during the working day to see for yourself.

Your child is an individual and what you want to do as a parent is find the best school to provide the best opportunities.  The school will obviously want to share with you its best features but it is worth noting what the school chooses to celebrate publicly and how it does so.  These prompts are not a conclusive list but will help you to ask questions and seek answers.  Read the school’s latest Ofsted report at GOV.UK.  The Department for Education also publishes a range of data about each school on their website to help you make your choice.

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