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Choosing a secondary school

(30 Posts)
anice Thu 04-Oct-12 11:11:34

I am currently going to see prospective secondary schools for September 2013. The thing is I don't know what to look for. 'd know exactly what matters to me and therefore what to look out for at a primary but I have only learned that through experience.

Does anyone have any advice?

GettinTrimmer Thu 04-Oct-12 11:54:05

I'm in exactly the same situation!

We have seen 2 schools, one is very high achieving with most pupils gaining 5 A* - C including maths and English at GCSE. it is an academy and very well presented. Parents are not encouraged as much to be involved with school, discipline is tight. A great place to learn. The visit felt very stage managed but we got the feeling our ds would achieve without doubt.

The other is a specialist sports college, extremely good on pastoral care, not as well presented (buildings are scruffy). The Head came across as very much wanting to involve parents, the home school link worker was there, and it was open house with the school being thrown open with the high achieving pupils showing us around. Very friendly.

First of all, go by your gut feeling.

Our ds has said a couple of times he would like to go to university - at the moment he is average in maths and science but very strong in literacy.

I think the first school would be better for him, but he is very anxious! The second school is very good at pastoral care and when I asked about the transition they said nothing is too much trouble, he could have as many visits as possible, etc.

It's just a difficult decision confused

anice Thu 04-Oct-12 12:22:04

gettingtrimmer - do you think you've got equal chance of both?

we saw a school yesterday that seemed really good. Local parents talk well of it, and I know my DS has a good chance of getting in. I can't put my finger on it but somethign doesn't feel right. Its as if its too perfect IYSWIM?!!

I am in a similar situation. I have 3 schools to chose from so I looked at the ofsted reports for them and then looked round on the open days. The school I always had in my mind for my first choice was not as impressive to me as the school we originally had for our second choice.

Anice - my original first choice (outstanding in every aspect of ofsted) was the same for me...a good a school as it is it didn't have the same heart and feel to it as the other school did...I so wanted to love it as in my mind it was the one but I just didn't. Academically it has the edge but there was just something about it I wasnt as keen on.

anice Thu 04-Oct-12 13:33:14

That's it exactly... I really want to love it and be sure its right. Some of the teachers I met were great and no one raised any red flags. I'm trying to be rational here because I don't want to do something stupid with my son's education just because of a feeling. Maybe its just the parents-pay-for-things-online-but-otherwise-butt-out speech that the HT made??

lljkk Thu 04-Oct-12 14:14:36

I suppose I am trying to think what DD is or might be good at & whether the school could help her develop.
Practical concerns, too, the school in town is much easier than every other option.

GettinTrimmer Thu 04-Oct-12 15:09:34

Anice I got that feeling as well about the academically sound outstanding school we saw, parents at arms length! I am just about to e-mail the head of year 7 to ask about extra transition help for my very young year 6 ds.

I just have a feeling somehow it is a better school for him. He is not into sport, music or drama and that's what they seem to offer excellence in.

But the staff seemed really kind and more open to talk to parents at the second school we saw! I just don't know confused

GettinTrimmer Thu 04-Oct-12 15:12:06

I meant to say second school offers excellence in sport/drama/music.

Anice/Betty have your dcs seen the schools you feel haven't quite got the 'heart?' When is the closing date for applications in your areas?

AndrewD Thu 04-Oct-12 15:19:21

I did a question list which was a bit over the top but it might give you some ideas

purpleroses Thu 04-Oct-12 15:22:36

Thinks I looked into were:
- GCSE subject options - depends what your DC is into but for my DS the option of 3 single sciences was important. They all offer the basic academic subjects but the more vocational options vary a lot.
- System of setting by ability, or not, and if not, how they manage mixed ability groups for subjects such as maths - the school we decided not to go for pretty much told me that they use the brighter kids as unpaid teaching assistants helping the others along...
- Out of school clubs and activities - in hindsight didn't check this out too well as school that DS goes to has an impressive list of clubs, but most only run for certain year groups for one term only (even football!). So should have looked at an actual example of what was on offer in any one term. As well as giving them lots of opportunities for sports, etc I think it's a mark of how comitted the teachers are.
- Actual GCSE results, by subject by grade. Had to ask specially to get hold of these, and wasn't as easy as you would think it ought to be from any of the 3 schools I looked at, but they did eventually supply it. Enables you to see a lot more detail than the rather crude % getting 5 good GCSEs and above. I would be wary of him going to a school that wasn't getting a single A in subjects that he's good in.

And the other thing I should have looked at was how frequently they send reports to parents, and how often they have parents evenings. DS is happy at his school but they're not great at communicating much to me.

Gettin - yes DS has seen both schools and as academically there isn't much between them I let him have the final say....he chose the one we all preferred. Both the schools have great offsteds (original favourite slightly better), both excel in sports, music and science and as my DS is quite a good kid I think he would do well at both.

I did my application online...we are out of catchment for both schools but in our area it's a low birth rate year so we will get our no.1 or 2 choice anyway I am pretty sure.

It's a minefield isn't it....sometimes I don't feel responsible enough to make an decision this important confused

GettinTrimmer Fri 05-Oct-12 19:24:14

Yes ikwym Betty. I hated secondary school sad and underachieved. It didn't matter in the end as I went to university as a mature student - but I don't want that for my ds.

I just have a gut feeling the first school is better for him academically, I just hope they are not too dismissive of his anxiety...

Andrew thanks for the link.

lljkk Fri 05-Oct-12 19:29:55

Around here the schools usually publish their individual GCSE results, they are right there for anyone to see in school materials, how many pupils got A* to G to in each subject offered. And they aren't super impressive, either; the school we visited the other night said (?boasted) that 10 of its 150 y11s got all As & A*s.

BackforGood Fri 05-Oct-12 22:36:53

I would talk to as many parents of pupils currently at the school as you can. IME (3rd dc now in Yr6 and doing this) there isn't really much of a correlation between the best impressions at open evening, and the schools that actually turn out to be the best. Indeed, some heavily oversubscribed schools seem to not really bother, whereas those that have benn having problems, can pull out all the stops.
I would also try to get shown round by (or at least ask questions of) a younger pupil - they generally haven't learned about things such as marketing the school and can be very honest wink.
I bumped into someone I knew at a recent open evening, (she has a dc in Yr9 and 1 in Yr6) and she told me all sorts of things that weren't in the prospectus or HT's talk, but which were very interesting from a parents pov.

lljkk Fri 12-Oct-12 10:20:07

I think I'm getting to be an expert at school visits, at least I will know a huge amount about what to look for by the time DC3 & 4 come thru.

Seems that all?most? local secondaries run a system where the pupils do 2 options GCSEs in each of Yr9, Yr10 & yr11. The groups are mixed age which I quite like, but am not so sure about getting GCSEs awarded in Yr9 (chances of lower mark than if DC had done them later). I know it only matters if DD is very high ability & very ambitious; problem is, she IS high ability & seems relatively ambitious. Argh! I can't change the system... I think? Not that I liked idea of 9-11 GCSEs all cumulating in Yr11, either.

Mintyy Fri 12-Oct-12 10:22:24

envy at people who can choose between secondary schools!

ByTheWay1 Fri 12-Oct-12 10:29:00

Please also be aware that it is not just the school you are looking it, but also the place where your child will make lasting friendships - I never quite forgave mine for sending me totally out of catchment, so I could not join in the impromptu - shall we nip to town after school (no I have to get the school bus), can you go for coffee in the morning - (no there's no bus from mine and dad is at work with the car...).etc etc etc..... I had a great education - but very insular life...

lljkk Fri 12-Oct-12 10:32:36

Mintyy: we get to express a preference, I wouldn't call it a choice. We are out of catchment for our likely first preference, so really dunno if we'll get in. And I am worried about the social life problems ByTheWay suggests.

Catchment secondary has GCSE pass rates incl. Eng+Maths typically around 50%, I think most MNers can beat that hugely.

Madmog Fri 12-Oct-12 10:40:54

anice, after parents evening, most schools will offer parents and children a few hours in school to observe lessons and walk around school when it's basically full of children, with lots of different unexpected things happening, so this is a great way to check again if you need to feel more comfortable with a school. If they don't offer this, phone the school up again and say you like to have a walk around with your child just to be sure you're making the right decision.

We did look at two schools. One was well prepared, lots of really good work on display, clean, getting brilliant results and had so much to offer, like you say almost too perfect. The other school we looked at was the opposite and I had alarm bells ringing, so we chose the first school which my daughter started at in September. She's had to adapt to what's expected (like in any school), but so far she seems happy with the really good school and says the teachers are really friendly and fun if you are well behaved. She is being encouraged to join school clubs for fun or where teachers can see they might suit her. Also, we getting a lot of feedback on work already as they bring workbooks home - never had that at primary school, so everything is good so far.

lljkk Fri 12-Oct-12 10:53:18

Oh, and another thing: Why are geography & history classrooms always the grottiest? In biggest need of repairs, paint and a new carpet? Are they the poor relations to every other subject?

DD loves history & my first degree is geography, so I would feel different.

I only found out about the GCSE options schedule because I asked the history teacher if they had to choose between history of geog at GCSE (read that sometimes happens on MN), and she explained their system to enable both. I thought the whole system was subject (recent Gove pronouncements) to imminent change but she seemed to think not. confused

anice Fri 12-Oct-12 13:02:45

Madmog - this school day tour was exactly what happened a few days ago, and you are right: it completely reassured me. I think it was the two year 8s who did the tour that really did the trick. They were polite, unassuming, eager to help and I'd be proud to be either of their mothers.

Without my asking, they even mentioned a question that someone up-thread had i.e. what happens when someone swears at a teacher? The answer is a day in isolation working in the corridor outside the head of year's office and the whole year is told what you did and what your punishment has been. It seems that the school has very tightly defined rules about what behaviour is permissible and a scale of punishments that apply to everyone who lapses. Apparently, even the hard-nuts who disrupted the class daily at primary school decide that they are better off behaving after a couple of times in "isolation".
The result is a well behaved school who are focused on the work at hand and where striving to always do your personal best is considered "cool".

The school's results are extremely good and now I understand why. I am really glad that I'll be able to send my children there.

lljkk Fri 12-Oct-12 14:14:11

oops, sorry, that should read "choose history OR geog" up there.

Madmog Fri 12-Oct-12 15:02:47

anice, glad you've cleared things up in your mind, it does help to feel right about these things.

There were a few things we didn't like about the other school we looked at, but some of the children we spoke to clearly didn't know what they should be doing, where telling us things that were worrying and I'm sure the school wouldn't want us to know, rather than wanting and trying to create the right impression. My daughter's new school wanted some of the younger ones (Years 7&8) available this year as they felt the Year 6s could relate to them more, so your son's potential new school also thinks about.

lljkk Fri 12-Oct-12 18:25:06

Someone suggested you hang out by the gates at letting out time to see what behaviour is like.

Friend went totally snobbish last night, but I think I appreciated the principle.
Her trick was to ask the young people staffing the open evening "What do you want to do when you grow up/leave here?" type questions.

We decided good sign was answers like Teacher, scientist, pilot.

Not so great if only answers were I dunno, catering & hairdressing.

Kincardine Tue 16-Oct-12 05:45:38

ByTheWay1 said:

Please also be aware that it is not just the school you are looking it, but also the place where your child will make lasting friendships - I never quite forgave mine for sending me totally out of catchment, so I could not join in the impromptu - shall we nip to town after school (no I have to get the school bus), can you go for coffee in the morning - (no there's no bus from mine and dad is at work with the car...).etc etc etc..... I had a great education - but very insular life...

I agree. Ages 12-18 are really important for friendships etc and I'd see that as just as an important factor in choosing a school

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