Secondary school: what questions would/did you ask?(20 Posts)
We're in the process of looking at secondary schools for our daughter. I have a list of questions to ask, but wondered what other people asked - if there are questions which you found really useful/revealing/essential? We have a choice of 5 local schools, none of them very good in terms of results, so it's not simply a case of choosing the 'best' one, but choosing on the basis of less clear factors. Any advice welcome!
I wanted to know which subjects are streamed/set by ability.
Whether they offered triple science at GCSE.
For me, in approx decreasing order of importance:
1) Pastoral care. I asked about anorexia which was quite enlightening.
2) General Philosophy
How do you contact a teacher if you need to.
Where are school exercise books kept / how will you know if they are getting on OK.
Attitude towards homework.
Attitude towards exams / league tables (chasing tables v doing what's best for each child v non-aspirational).
Do they stream, or do they set individually by subject.
3) Suitability Academically
Are they good academically for your type of child (high achiever, middle, struggler). e.g. How do they stretch, how do they ensure no 'lost middle', how do they provide additional support.
4) Some details
Do they offer triple science.
What MFL do they start with, and when do they offer a second MFL.
If DC has a special interest, does their school support it well. e.g. active sports team, good drama opportunities, school orchestra.
What is staff turnover is like? Settled teaching is a big bonus. What extra curricular activities do they have that would suit my child? How do they ensure each child does the best they can and how they keep them motivated to do well - eg level of expectation? I would also look at how many GCSE A and A* grades they are getting in each subject. This tells you how many bright children are in each school and are capable of going on to get good A levels. What are the 6th forms like? Do they have them? What are the A level results like and where do the children go after leaving school?
I also think there are lots of very clear factors in the latest table of results/statistics on the D of E website. You can then compare all 5 schools. This gives you the average exam result for each child depending upon high, medium or low ability when entering the school. Is one school getting much better results with the group your child is likely to fall into? As you say, bare results don't tell you an awful lot but you can see what grades the best 8 subjects of the children are attaining in the different categories. The tables also shows you value added. This is a key statistic in my view and I would doubt all 5 schools are the same. I would look to see which one adds most value to the children in the school.
Plus, you have got to actually like the school. Is it an improving school? Look at the Ofsted website to see how they compare with each other on the dashboard information. Are they all the same, or are some doing better than others? Look at the latest Ofsted inspections. Ask the school how they are progressing in the improvements they have been asked to make (if any of course).
Same Qs as LeBeaver
Plus Qs about what %sit GCSES and what %sit other qualifications, such as vocational.
Would also want to see GCSE and A level results for each subject and a list of destinations of leavers for the last 3 years.
Would also be interested to see the %s who are considered low,medium and high ability, as well as the no.s getting pupil premium. Also interested to know the %s making expected and beyond expected progress. This is not about prejudice but building up a picture of the school.
The range of extra curricular activities is also interesting. I'm a,aged how many schools require everyone including staff to be off the site by 4.30.
The very best information comes from existing students and their parents. Unfortunately it can be the hardest to come by.
I remember asking a student what they would do if they didn't understand their homework. He said they would never put their hand up or ask as it would most likely get them into trouble. So I separately asked other students and got a broadly similar answer. That told me more than I would ever learn from the school and was much more enlightening!
I found the head teacher's talk very enlightening and gave a good view of how they lead. Also go along on a normal teaching day.
My dd is in year 5 so we went last sept/Oct to narrow it down for this year.
Do they set per subject, or stream (meaning they're put in the same ability group for all subjects)?
How much movement is there between sets, should for example a pupil have a leap in ability?
> Also go along on a normal teaching day.
If your child has particular interests/aptitudes, check for whether the school does relevant GCSEs (or alternative). For instance whether they offer Computer Science rather than just ICT.
The most interesting I did was ask the children showing me round "What do you like and don't you like about school?" The Girls at the more desirable school could all answer, the ones at the less desirable one struggled. (Admittedly DD is now going to yet another one, where her siblings went.)
How are tutor groups arranged? In random groupings? Streamed? Vertical tutor groups ( mixed ages in a tutor group - for registration etc, not for teaching). Do they keep the same tutor throughout their school career?
Setting? For which subjects? When? i.e when do they put them in sets? How many ability levels in the sets? How much movement between sets/
If streamed - when? How mobile? Do they set across streams? (i.e can someone in a middle set who is a whizz at languages study in top steam language classes)
How many MFL can they study?
Can they do more than one humanity at GCSE? (many schools seem to be able to offer each student either history or geography)?
Can they do triple science?
What languages can they study? Mandarin / Japanese / Latin - whatever you might be interested in.
Anything of specific interest to your child; what sports do they do and what sports do they have a school team in? What are the arrangements for music lessons - can they arrange music lessons in school? What music opportunities are there? School orchestra? Choir? What drama? Do they do a school play that they can take part in each year?
What is the extra curricular - after school programme?
What is the arts offer? Do they go and see proper theatre or to proper galleries? Have artists and writers in to school? Do they have Artsmark?Artsmark Gold?
How do they support and challenge children of high ability in any given subject? How do they enable children who need support in any given subject? (as likely to be applicable to your child).
What qualifications do they offer in addition to GCSE - BTec? Can non-academic kids get good qualifications?
Consider how long the Head has been there: are they new and pushing up standards (but it takes a little while), or have they been there ages and things are going downhill a bit? Or experienced and flourishing...and might retire soon?
Is the school taking up new opportunities, making new partnerships?
In terms of the published results - look much closer at the figures available on the Dept of Edn website. The raw stats - how many kids get A-C GCSE doesn't tell you anywhere near everything. How many children in each ability band make expected progress? Which band of attainers seem to do best against targets? Are the results a reflection of the intake, or of the teaching? (you can tell this from the ratios of high , middle and low attainers a school, has in it's intake). In a school with very low overall results, do they have a high % of low attainers in the cohort and a small number of high attainers doing fantastically well? Are all meeting expected targets?
I would also want to know if they set for individual subjects or if they stream across all subjects. I agree with the former and disagree with the latter.
Is there an unofficial 'cull' before the sixth form, or can any student getting the required GCSE grades continue to Y12?
Whatever questions you ask, start with your own child. There's no point in asking about results at A* if your child is average or below (and, let's face it, 50% are below average). There's no point in asking about separate sciences or number of languages offered, if you know that your child is unlikely to be good at sciences or languages. On the other hand, if you know that your child has the potential to shine academically, you need to ask about enrichment/extension activities. You could ask how the school deals with bullying or underachievement in core subjects, if you think they could be an issue. I honestly think that the questions you ask depend on your own priorities.
Wow, so much to ask! Thanks for all the replies - lots of things I wouldn't have thought about so very useful. Choosing a primary school seems like a doddle in comparison...
You know that caveat they put in financial products - past results are no guarantee of future performance. It's the same for schools. I have suffered twice from choosing a school based on the leadership of one Headteacher who soonafter left and was replaced by an inferior HT who let things slip.
See if you can judge how long the HT is likely to hang around. Apparently, the ideal turnover rate is every seven years.
The one addition I'd make to daphnedill's excellent dictum is that I would ask about pastoral care whatever I thought about my own child's likelihood to need it.
That sort of thing is far more unpredictable than academic results and you never know what could hit your child or your family.
Besides, you learn a lot about a school from how they treat their weakest members: inventiveness and a can-do attitude in that department is likely to signal inventiveness and a can-do attitude all round.
If your child has a medical condition - do the school make appropriate provision e.g. somewhere in school to store inhalers etc.
Have a look at the behaviour and anti-bullying policies - be wary of schools that claim to have no bullying at all! This may mean that they are ill-equipped to deal with any incidents that may occur.
Have a look at the schools uniform policy - how affordable is the uniform and do they insist on one supplier. what are the costs for extras e.g. music lessons, additional sports equipment and school meals?
What are the transport arrangements like - is there a school bus provided or do pupils have to use public transport? If there is a school bus - does this cater for children staying for after-school activities?
I would start by looking round the schools during a school day and talking to any friends you know that have DCs at the schools. Have a look at the school websites - as a parent does it communicate things you want to know e.g. All policies, newsletters, parents letters, calendar, extracurricular activities etc.
Things I like about my DCs' school include:
Setting in maths and English straight away followed by setting in science and languages - with lots of movement between sets. I like the fact that no-one seems to care if their friend is in set 1 or set 4.
I like how good the communication is from school - emails etc. i get emails as well if a DC has performed particularly well or worked exceptionally hard. All the teachers emails are available - you can email them with any problems/queries and they get back to you.
I like the range of extra curricular activies - incl. Stem club, sports, yoga, dance, art, music, knitting, chess etc,
I like the fact that the headteacher knows both my DCs' names (200 children per year)
for the right reasons
They can do 2 MFLs and triple science.
They only do 9 or 10 Gcses.
I like the fact that the uniform is not OTT - it is comfortable
I like the fact that my DCs are happy there!
Personally I would want to see options not taken before year 9 (age 12 is far too young in my opinion) and no early entry of GCSE's.
If your child is less able, ask about provision at the bottom end for those who may struggle to get Cs at GCSE. If they start banging on about intervention in Y11, ask about the support from Y7 onwards. Ask about class sizes for bottoms sets, deployment of LSAs, numeracy/literacy support schemes. Are children struggling in English still expected to take French?
If your child is at the top end, ask about how they are challenged, do they take extra GCSEs in Maths? Triple science?
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