5 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Secondary School

The school year has only just started and you may be wiping the sweat off your brow, thankful to see that back of your little ones for seven hours each day, but for parents with students in Year 6 (and some earlybirds in Year 5), it's time to think about secondary schools.

The deadline for applications to state secondary schools for entry in September 2017 is the 31st of October 2016, and deadlines for grammar and private schools will most often be earlier.

Choosing which schools to apply to is a big task and can be overwhelming, but don't panic: take your time, and do your preparation. When it comes down to it, this decision is personal to each family, based on preferences and what is important to you. To help you get started, below is list of five questions you should be asking when choosing a secondary school. Use these to consider which considerations are most important to you.

1. What do the students go on to achieve?

When thinking about secondary schools, considering the academic success of any potential schools is a good place to start, and it's worth doing your research. Measures of academic success are never a promise but they are a good indication of the typical experience of a school. As well as school league tables, most schools will publish more in-depth reports on their GCSE and A-Level results on their website.

This is a good opportunity to think about what you expect from a secondary school in terms of academic process. For instance, you might ask if the school streams classes - dividing students based on ability in a particular subject. Opinions on teaching methods differ, but it is a good idea to look into a schools' ethos and make sure that it fits with yours.

Moreover, this is definitely a time to think ahead. If you dig a little deeper, many schools also publish the destinations of school leavers - how many go on to university, for which subjects and at which schools.

2. What subjects do they offer?

Speaking of thinking ahead, schools do not all offer the same curriculum. Although it feels odd to think as far ahead as Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 subject choices for a 10 or 11 year old, you might consider if they are leaning in any particular direction yet, such as towards the arts or sciences.

Are any potential schools an academy? Academies are self-governing and sometimes operate slightly differently to other schools. For instance, academies do not have to follow the National Curriculum. If you are considering an academy, it might be worth getting in touch with them to find out what they do differently.

Additionally, some schools will have a sixth form (years 12 and 13) attached, whilst others will not. If this is important to you, make sure you check, and when you do, ask what qualifications this sixth form offers, such as A-Levels or the International Baccalaureate (IB).

3. How will your child get to school?

Choosing a school is not just about academic factors. It is important to consider the practicalities of what everyday life would be like with a child at a certain school. Factors such as travel time and route are important: would you have to drive them to school every day? Is there a school bus? How much will travel cost? If you think you've found your dream school, but it would take your child four hours of travel each day, maybe this isn't a sensible choice.

Think about any other practicalities that are important to you. For instance, does the school offer after-school clubs if you won't be home until later in the day? Is there a uniform? What is the policy on lunch - can students leave at lunchtime?

4. Does the atmosphere feel right?

There is a lot you can gauge about a school from its atmosphere. If you are able to, visit as many schools as you can, whether at open days or by making an appointment for a tour. Don't be afraid to ask your questions, and talk to the teachers to get a good understanding of the way the school works, and a feel for the community. This school will be a second home to your child for usually five to seven years of their life; it is important that you like it too. Moreover, visiting can be a great opportunity to introduce yourself as a parent and begin to engage with the school community.

5. Ask others: are you happy with this school?

If you want to get to know the honest truth about a school, a great place to start is by asking its students and parents. Remember that not everyone's experience will be the same, but those, both parents and children, who have gone through this process have wisdom and understanding of what is really good and what might be not-so-good. If you ask, other parents will often happily regale you with 'what-I-wish-I'd-known's, and, with local knowledge, they might be able to point you in a good direction too.

Tavistock Tutors, a leading education specialist in London, are available to help with your school choices.

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