Generally children are expected to attend the schools in their own locality (catchment area). However for a variety of reasons this is not always what their parents want. Some parents are therefore inclined to look elsewhere hoping to find that “perfect” school but do not necessarily know how to go about it.
There are several factors that influence choice of a school and finding that “perfect” school is near impossible as no school is perfect. What parents should look for is the best fit for their own child, every child is different and so is the school that is most suitable for each one of them.
Factors that influence the choice often include safety, distance from home, discipline, faith, academic results, the range of extra-curricular activities on offer, grounds, sports facilities and demographic mix amongst other things. A starting point for the search is often the school league tables. Despite the amount of criticism levied against the tables by the media in recent years they are still very useful when you start your search for a school. Although the league tables are not the be all and end all, statistically schools that score highly in the league tables also tend to satisfy a lot of the other criteria that parents seek especially in the area of discipline and extra-curricular activities. Some of the following factors will also help parents in their final selection.
Do not rely only on one year’s league table results check back for about 5 years to confirm trends and consistency in academic standards. A school that was known to be very good in the past may be heading downwards whereas a previously failing school could be on its way up.
Ofsted reports are another good indicator although like league tables, some critics view these with scepticism.
Find out what the next steps are for most of the school leavers. For example for secondary schools, check whether or not most of them progress on to further education and if so, exactly where do they go.
Most schools have open days at least once a year so visit the school to get that “gut feeling” about suitability for your own child; this is something you cannot get from a website or glossy brochures. If you are good at forward planning you could visit more than once to capture anything you missed the first time. Some parents visit prospective secondary schools when their child is in year 5 then again in year 6 for a broader perspective and to ask more questions having seen other schools.
By all means check out the school grounds, sports facilities and available equipment especially if your child has specific interests in sports, music etc. but remember that whilst brand new facilities are good they do not necessarily reflect the levels of discipline, academic standards and the culture of the school.
It is generally assumed that faith schools are usually good schools and single-sex schools are better than mixed ones; this is quite often the case but there are exceptions to every rule hence no assumptions should be made, it is often unwise to select a school based on a single factor without further investigation.
Word-of-mouth is useful particularly from parents of existing pupils however this should always be taken with a pinch of salt as expectations and standards are not always the same. More caution should be exercised when listening to someone whose child does not attend the school. Notwithstanding this, referrals are still a good indicator especially if more than one existing parent is saying the same thing about a particular school.
New schools provide a good opportunity with fresh ideas, modern facilities and equipment and no historic baggage. Free Schools are one example of these that have sprung up across the country since 2011. Although these schools are government-funded, the LEAs do not run them. The general idea is that since these are set up by groups who have a passion for education, they are expected to provide more choice. One key disadvantage of new schools however is that there is no track record or history to depend upon.
Another indicator of a school’s ranking is the level of subscription. A school that has a consistently low number of applications may do so because of its location (sometimes this happens in the rural areas). However if this happens in an averagely populated area or where there is another school not too far away that is fully or oversubscribed, then it is probably not a good sign.
Other things to think about when searching for that the “sales pitch”. The open day is a marketing event so it doesn’t necessarily tell you all that goes on in the school.
To make the most of the visit ask as many open questions as you possibly can. These should cover but not be limited to: discipline; pastoral care; unauthorised absence figures; careers counselling; regularity of tests/exams; frequency and content of formal reports to parents; and teachers’ expectations of their pupils.
Avoid asking closed questions e.g. if you asked “do you have a drug/bullying problem in this school?”, the answer will probably be NO. Rather ask what their drug/bullying policy is and then ask when last they found it necessary to apply the policy. Depending on the response you get you could choose to interrogate further such as asking how many times the policy has been applied in the past year.
Also ask direct questions like what is the average turnout at parents’ evenings. If much lower than hundred percent, it’s not a good sign as the school is probably lacking parental support and that will be reflected in the pupils’ attitude and standards.
Another thing to establish is the school’s approach to a child who is having difficulty with a subject. For example would remedial action will be taken through subject clinics etc. or would the child will be sent to the lower set/stream in that subject. Whatever the answer is, do probe further to find out if the parents will be informed and how soon.
Finally the Good Schools Guide www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk is quite a useful resource covering both state and independent schools. There is a lot of free, independent information on their website however for some specialised information a payment is required.
The tips given above are by no means exhaustive so continue to research, ask questions and take timely action based on sound information. Remember that one size does not fit all and it is often better to base your decision a range of considerations rather than a single factor.