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Applying for Secondary School - what to ask/look for during visits?

(48 Posts)
YogaDrone Mon 03-Sep-18 10:59:13

DS is moving into Yr6 and so it's almost time to apply for secondary schools.

I have been looking at their websites, looking at GCSE and A level results and am going to attend the open evenings they are having in the next few weeks.

Any tips on what to look for, and ask questions about, on these visits?


OP’s posts: |
SnuggyBuggy Mon 03-Sep-18 12:34:42

From my experience ask if there is a detention system for misbehaviour, if there isn't and it's "down to individual teachers to set their own detentions" then in there won't be any consequences for misbehaving in class as the teachers are unlikely to bother.

Consider whether setting or mixed ability may better suit your child. This seems to vary a lot.

YogaDrone Mon 03-Sep-18 13:27:49

Thanks SnuggyBuggy, I will investigate both of these.

One thing I have been thinking about is uniform. A friend of mine has her child starting secondary tomorrow an she's had to spend over £300 on uniform (state school). Plus the suit/kilts are only dry clean only. Seems like a dumb idea to have a dry clean only school uniform if you ask me!

How much store should I set on Ofsted reports? One of our local schools is grade 1 Outstanding but hasn't been reviewed since 2009. Surely a more recent "Grade 2 - Good" is a better indicator of the school's current status?

OP’s posts: |
MongerTruffle Mon 03-Sep-18 13:30:47

Our blazers are dry clean only and we just throw them in the washing machine.

BlueChampagne Mon 03-Sep-18 13:32:17

Encourage your DS to think of some questions too. And look round facilities of things they particularly enjoy: music, sport, art, drama ...

Go to the head's talk and listen to your gut feeling about the head.

If you're quick and have time, you may also be able to get a tour of the school during the school day. We did this (without DS1 for better parental concentration) and it gives you the opportunity to observe the school on a normal day rather than when it's in marketing mode.

Leicesterpiggott Mon 03-Sep-18 13:35:52

What they policy on mobile phones is. Some ban then from taking them out during break/lunch... they must be kept in bags til the end of school. But some let them use them during break or lunch. I think this is appalling and we didn't apply for our nearest secondary school for this reason.

Seeline Mon 03-Sep-18 13:40:24

What sports are played during normal people lessons.
What options are available at GCSE, and do they have a free choice or do they have to fit option blocks.
Are some subjects taught in sets - if so when does this start, and are they regular opportunities to move between sets.
What extra curricular activities are available.

greencatbluecat Mon 03-Sep-18 13:43:43

Don't pay too much attention to the league tables and OFSTED.

Ask yourself if it's the kind of atmosphere your DS will thrive in. Try to find out what the kids and teachers think of the head.

My friend's DC is at an 'outstanding' school and is very unhappy and consequently has not done well in GCSEs. (You'll only fulfill your potential if you are happy). The kid is small, arty and musical but the school school seems to attract arrogant science-y rugby playing children. This child has experienced lots of bullying from other students and staff.

The most important thing to be happy in school is good general behavior and bullying should be dealt with properly. Try to hang around outside the school at the end of the day and see what the behaviour is like.

This is also why a good head is vital. I imagine the head in my friend's DC's school is rather usleless.

Astronotus Mon 03-Sep-18 13:54:27

Yoga, speak to the pupils who take you round. They are normally quite honest and you can tell if they have been coached. Is there a seconds school uniform shop? Yes, uniforms do cost £300+ but you may be able to save money buying second hand. Ask if extra-curricular clubs are run by teachers or other pupils and are there restrictions on numbers. A nine year old Ofsted report will not tell you much. Finally, sadly, ask senior management how many pupils take GCSE/A level compared with the number who started in year 7/year 12 - you are looking for a reduction in the number, which could mean off-rolling or exclusions to increase league table position (in the press last week). A long way off but ask what their leavers' destinations were. Don't get too hung up on Russell/Oxbridge etc, but too many leaving with no college or uni place would worry me. Mobile phone use in schools should be extremely limited.

Starlight345 Mon 03-Sep-18 13:58:13

I asked the pupils the best and worst things about the school clubs , how bullying is handled.

I spoke to teachers about my son’s specific Sen’s, how they motivate.

YogaDrone Mon 03-Sep-18 14:51:06

Excellent, thank you all.

A 30 degree wash for the blazer it is then smile

The points about mobiles are interesting - I hadn't even thought about this. I will be very interested to hear about policies on bullying.

DS is an arty, imaginative person. He's sporty but not obsessed with football in the way some of his class mates are. He enjoys rugby, tennis, drama and is pretty confident generally in himself which I hope he takes to his new school. I read some of the threads on MN about bullying and my heart breaks.

Very good idea about hanging around the school gate at chuck out time - I may well do that!

Percentages taking GCSE and A levels compared to initial year 7 starters and leavers destinations are both thought provoking Astronotus. Our closest school (the one we are most likely to be allocated) has only been open for two years so they haven't got any results to look at, no leavers of course and haven't been reviewed by Ofsted yet so a lot is going to be based on speaking to the pupils and staff and our "gut feelings". It is a popular school though and is oversubscribed for 2018.

I will try and book pupil led school tours too; this sounds like a great idea! Asking what is the best and worst things about aspects of the school is also a good idea.

Lots of tips, thank you smile

OP’s posts: |
steppemum Mon 03-Sep-18 15:04:09

hmm, not sure I agree with all of these.
ds goes to super selective grammar, is very happy, and is due to do well, as its a good school. They are fairly relaxed about phones, out of sight during lessons.
Dd goes to the girls school next door, zero phones during school hours.
I am meh. There is no real difference.

Atmosphere is good, but remember your children are only year 6 now, this school has to work for them aged 15, 16, etc, so think about what the older kids look like as you go round. Are the classrooms placing where there is a good working atmosphere? What is on the walls. What is your dc interested in - if art ask about art, if maths ask about maths.

What are their weaknesses? How do they support kids struggling with that? How do they stretch the brighter ones?

Patsoral care - how does it work?
Bullying policy? - beware any school which says it doesn't have any bullying.

clubs - this says a lot about teachers enthusiasm too as clubs are usually run by teachers.

Subjects at GCSE - 3 sciences? modern languages?

Do you know anyone, even vaguely who has a child there? One school we would have put as no.2, we met a family who were desperately trying to move their year 9 son away from it. He was similar to ds, and we decided not to put that school down. Over the next few months we we very glad me made that decision. But same school then had a new head and has pulled back up, so make sure it is current data

YogaDrone Mon 03-Sep-18 15:40:06

I think with phones my main concern will be the bullying aspect. I wouldn't believe a school who said they had no bullying at all.

I vaguely know one woman whose youngest is in my son's drama school. She has moved her elder daughter from the very desirable town centre school to the new school as she found their setting and streaming policy restrictive for her daughter. Once drama starts again next week I hope to get a chance to talk to her again. Also, the older sister of a boy my son plays rugby with will be in year 9 at the school this year. I will see if her parent's will let me buy her a hot chocolate and get the low-down on real life at the school!

I'm not sure I know anyone at the other schools we might possibly get though. I will try and find out.

Another of the schools DS might potentially get into was under subscribed last year and had a fairly poor reputation but seems to have been turned around (or at least is in the process of being turned around) by a new head and take over by a well regarded local MAT. Their A level and GCSE results this year were much improved over the year before too.

One thing I have noticed is that some schools seem to have an oddly weighted day, e.g. start at 8.30am, two hour long sessions, short break, two hour long sessions, short lunch. Two hour long sessions in the afternoon. Then end of day at 2.30pm. My son's primary school is 8.30am to 3.30pm so this seems very short!

I'd like to know about their homework policies too.

Curriculum and support/stretching for those requiring it is crucial. My son is great at SPAG, reading, art, drama, history and English. But rather less keen on maths and science. This is just his inclination though - he has the ability just doesn't find it interesting and so lacks the application.

Much food for thought, thanks steppemum

OP’s posts: |
greencatbluecat Mon 03-Sep-18 18:15:23

OP, your DS might become keener on maths and science in secondary school - these subjects in particular are far better taught in secondary schools. You never know.

If you'd asked me about my DD in September of her y6, I would have said said that she is best at arts and humanities subject and she's probably go to our local super selective school and would then study something like history at university....... I couldn't have been more wrong. She ended up at the local 'bog standard' comp (where she has been very very happy and done exceedingly well) and she is about to embark on science and maths A Levels (she hated maths at primary). She wants to do a Chemistry degree! I couldn't have been more wrong.

My DDs school is also quite relaxed about mobile phones. Teachers do occasionally tell gets to their phones out and take a photo or video.

mimbleandlittlemy Mon 03-Sep-18 18:36:21

Ha - greencat is right - they change totally from primary school. My DS was science obsessed at primary and wanted to do Astrophysics at Uni - until about Y8. He is just about to start 6th form, is doing History, German and Psychology A level and wants to read History & German at Uni. A friend's daughter loved English and wanted to be a writer at primary and is now about to embark on Physics, Biology and Chemistry A levels. You simply can't tell how the exposure to subjects is going to change them and what teacher of what subject is going to give them a new interest and passion. They change SO much from Y6 to Y11 and not just in height, shoe size and depth of voice.

MongerTruffle Mon 03-Sep-18 19:11:38

One thing I have noticed is that some schools seem to have an oddly weighted day
The school I work at is the only school in the city that still has an hour for lunch. We finish at 15:40 and by the end of the day I am exhausted, but I would much rather finish late than only have a short break.

Changemyname18 Mon 03-Sep-18 19:12:44

If you can, ( and i know it's not always possible with work commitments) also to visit on a normal school day. The best tip I had was from a teacher who said to be in the school at the changeover time between lessons. Look at the kids behaviour at this time. Is it chaotic or calm and orderly? And does the member of staff showing you around let you see this or is your tour timed so that you are whisked away into a room/hall and can't see this, ie what is the school trying to hide. But above all, go on gut feel - what is right for your child. School open days can all be shiny about how great they are and what they achieve, but each school has a strength dealing with a particular type of pupil. And this depends a lot on the mix and nature of their typical intake.

Malbecfan Mon 03-Sep-18 20:05:50

Sorry but I don't agree with the mobile phone comment at all. I teach in a secondary school and take the view that they can be used productively in my lessons. All the kids are very respectful and ask my permission beforehand. I reserve the right to check any content on there; needless to say it's always fine because I hammer into them the consequences of using them inappropriately.

I agree about talking to the students and seeing a school "warts and all" during a normal school day. Ofsted reports and exam results are by nature historic. My subject's A level results plummeted this year from A*/A to C. However, there was only one student this year. Have we suddenly become crap teachers? No, this kid was lovely but really struggled and a C was what they needed to get into their 1st choice uni course. However, the statistics don't look great. Luckily the Head knows the kids behind the numbers; can prospective parents say the same thing?

TeenTimesTwo Mon 03-Sep-18 20:13:09

Pastoral care - how organised, how to access extra help

What subjects are set for, and when. How is movement ensured.

Homework levels in lower years (this can vary a lot)

Extending most able / Ensuring no lost middle / SEN support <as applicable>

What level of freedom is there for GCSE options (e.g. ask to see most recent option blocks / info). Who gets to do triple science? Options for less academic? 2 languages possible? 'Ebac' Enforced?

Behaviour policy / Reducing low level disruption in lessons

Extra curricular <dependent on interests>

and not forgetting

General ethos/feel: polished and hard working, comforting and friendly, striving for the best, valuing everyone etc. Is it an ethos that fits with your values and your DC's personality?

thecherryontop Mon 03-Sep-18 20:16:41

Outrageous for @SnuggyBuggy to suggest that individual teachers don't set detentions and ignore poor behaviour. Certainly not my experience from working in several secondary schools; if this was the case the teacher would be making a rod for their own back. Schools have a behaviour policy (may be available on their website) but best to ask the pupils themselves on open evening. Also better to go back again during the school day to see if for yourself and get a feel if you are being directed or they are happy to show you around freely.

Options and option blocks are fluid so this could change. Probably better to ask what intervention is in place for certain groups of pupils, what extra curricular clubs are on offer, what trips and visits etc

Ask staff and pupils about staff turnaround, ask any teacher how long they have been there for... will tell a lot.

Good luck!

TeenTimesTwo Mon 03-Sep-18 20:22:16

I think even though option blocks change, it can be a useful indicator for the thinking of the school.
e.g. If a school enforces Ebacc - are they thinking too much about the school's stats and not what is best for an individual child?
e.g. If there are BTECs available does it show a better understanding of the less academic pupils

Land0r Mon 03-Sep-18 20:22:54

DD1 is at the same girls' grammar as steppemum's DD and I like the no phones during school hours policy.

Visiting the school and talking to the pupils showing you round will give you a much better feel for the school than league tables.

SnuggyBuggy Mon 03-Sep-18 20:48:37

@TheCherry, this was the case at my school

YogaDrone Tue 04-Sep-18 10:12:02

greencatbluecat I found secondary maths and science far more interesting than primary too. Hopefully my son will be like your daughter and develop a love for these subjects. At the moment he wants to be a history teacher!

I was looking again at websites last night. One of the schools enforces EBACC. This is a small school and, although we're officially in catchment, we're unlikely to get in on distance. One f the schools has Cantonese as the compulsory foreign language in y7. This strikes me as a bit trendy but I guess it makes a change from French!

I will take all your points and attend the head's talks, open evenings and arrange tours of the school during the school day, hang around the school gates if I can and do my best to get the feel for the ethos and atmosphere of the schools.

All of your comments are really useful, thank you flowers

OP’s posts: |
AngkorWaat Tue 04-Sep-18 10:22:20

OP, I think the shorter school day with more lessons before lunch has been shown in research to be the most effective for learning. Our primary and secondary school follow a similar pattern now (primary has longer breaks still though)

I got shown around our secondary by pupils, I had a really good chat with some of them which was very helpful! Of course they will only pick their star pupils for this so be aware of that.

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