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What to look for in a secondary school?

(21 Posts)
LadyMuck Tue 01-Sep-09 09:07:16

We're about at start the tour of secondary schools. We're in South London with decent transport links, so can look across a fairly wide stretch of schools including KCS, City of London, Westminster, Dulwich, Whitgift, Trinity, Caterham, Sutton and Bromley Grammars, local church and comprehensive schools.

I do want a school where the majority of pupils stay on to 6th form at the same school, which would rule out local comp, and narrow down to one church school. And I guess that I am interested in the heads of the various schools, as they set the tone.

So, as I sit down to read prospectuses and go on the open day tours, what should I be looking out for? Any questions which should be at the forefront of my mind? Do the selective schools stream or set and should this be of interest?

tatt Tue 01-Sep-09 09:21:37

Selective schols will probably still stream but not necessarily immediately. You could ask if and when they do so. Also check how many applications they have per place and what their selection criteria are - no point in setting your heart on one they can't get into.

Have a look at where the children go when they leave school - how many do further education. What sports/music facilities do they offer - even if your child isn't interested it tells you if they are just an exam factory. Do they offer many clubs, usually a sign teachers are prepared to put in an effort.

When you go on a tour who takes you round? If it isn't the students be nervous - they are usually a school's best ad. When you go into lessons do the children look interested? Make sure you are there at a lesson break - how do they behave in the corridors? How do teachers speak to students.

Other questions should depend on your child and their needs. If they are extremely bright you may be interested in what they do for the more able, if less so you may want to look for a school that has better results than its intake would suggest. You may want to think about the distance people travel to school and how they will maintain friendships if you can't ferry them around.

BonsoirAnna Tue 01-Sep-09 09:24:31

Do you have any particular interests/requirements as a family or does your DC have any special talents that need nurturing? That is the kind of information that guides me in my thinking on secondary schools.

My feeling is that in this day and age, universities and employers have a great deal of difficulty in distinguishing potential students and employees from one another. If you want to offer your DC the very best opportunities in life, he/she needs to develop specialist skills - probably ones that your family can support and/or he/she has a particular aptitude for.

LadyMuck Tue 01-Sep-09 09:25:53

And just so as I know where to find it here is an older thread with some good points

AMumInScotland Tue 01-Sep-09 09:29:11

Start by thinking about your child - is he/she particularly interested in or good at one area of the curriculum - science, languages, music etc? If so, you probably want to make sure the school has good facilities and enthusiastic teachers in that area.

Also is he/she likely to be an academic high-flier, a mid-field plodder, or less academic and more likely to head for a vocational course after school? You'll want to look at how the school seems to deal with these different groups - a highly academic school is great for an academic child, but sometimes they don't seem to do much for those who won't shine in that way.

Beyond that, I think the way they deal with questions is often more revealing than the answers - if they seem defensive when you ask about something like setting or streaming, then take a critical look at what they're actually going to be offering your child. They should be clear about what they do, and happy to explain it.

Also, take a look at what things the prospectus or website chooses to mention - if they go on at length about their successes in one area, and don't even mention others, then it's likely that they have a leaning towards that area and think it's the most important.

AspasiaManos Tue 01-Sep-09 15:22:39

Please do think about travelling time as well!

deaddei Tue 01-Sep-09 16:39:17

Is ds yr 5?

teamcullen Tue 01-Sep-09 19:04:02

I also have the headache of picking DSs secondary school in the next few weeks. I am only looking at the state schools although I have the added bonus of Faith schools to choose from.

I missed the open evenings due to having flu, so I am trawing websites, reading prospectuses and OFSTED reports. But really do feel at a loss of which school to choose.

We moved house 12 months ago so we are out of the catchment area for the primary school feeder school.

You get so many different opinions when you ask people advice.

If anybody has any advice of secondary schools in LIverpool it would be apreciated.

Umlellala Tue 01-Sep-09 19:13:53

Hmm... now I was going to say, do the kids look happy? Staff? Are the displays slightly rough round the edges but relatively recent? Do at least a few pupils gain 10 A/A* grades? What does your instinct say from the open evening? Do you like the building?

That's what I would ideally hope for from my dc's secondary school... but then they'll just be going to the local bog-standard comp grin

Umlellala Tue 01-Sep-09 19:15:26

PS going to 6th form/further education college was much better for me than staying on at school, you have to be so much more independent - better prep for university IMVHO.

LadyMuck Tue 01-Sep-09 20:49:19

I'm not choosing 6th form options yet - but I would prefer to have the option of continuation to 6th form, especially as in the independent sector that also gives you options about which year to sit exams in.

tatt Wed 02-Sep-09 08:49:37

6th form in the school is a bit of a mixed blessing. They are so distant in character from the littlest ones that mentoring doesn't always work well - in fact they may deliberately wind the year 7 up. In a school without a sixth form the 16 year olds possibly become more responsible? They almost all have 6th forms here, the one that didn't had a lovely atmosphere.

After a discussion elsewhere I would ask about the school's policy on nuts at school. If they ask you not to send them in they are a school that does encourage selfish behaviour. If they don't do so the school probably has a higher percentage of parents and children of the type I wouldn't want my children to mix with.

potoftea Wed 02-Sep-09 08:56:09

If at all possible I'd spend time outside the schools when they get out for the day. Seeing the pupils outside the restrictions of their teachers would give you a chance to see whether they look like the kind of children your dc would fit in with.
I know every school has badly behaved pupils as well as lovely ones, but just how the general atmosphere seems would be informative.

LadyMuck Wed 02-Sep-09 11:18:59

Well, I guess it is interesting that none of the independent or grammar schools seem to stop at 16, only the local comp. So I doubt I will make the decision purely on the basis of 6th firm anyway.

Tatt - was there a typo in your post. It seems to be a negative thing either way on the answer for nuts?

Potoftea - good tip about checking end of school but still in uniform behavior. Is a regular police presence at the end of school considered to be a good or bad thing in London?!

pasturesnew Wed 02-Sep-09 11:23:47

Just to share some no doubt out of date prejudices from friends' school experiences in London:

Westminster has some really posh pupils, some of whom are tossers, some of whom who go away in their private helicopters for the weekend etc. It is very very academically pressurised.

Dulwich College is nice, not so academically pressurised, really good value for money as fees are effectively subsidised by the James Allen estate's other income from property etc., has some nice teachers (my friend was a teacher there recently), and the pupils seem to be well integrated into the community and have a good social life.

AspasiaManos Wed 02-Sep-09 15:12:25

I can see from your list that you are keeping all your options open LadyMuck!! I assume you are undecided re 11+ or 13+ as well.

I was serious about travelling time too! I'm guessing you are in between Sutton & Bromley (which is why you've mentioned both?). Getting to St Olaves in Bromley could be tricky.

You have covered the academic spectrum with your list - if you are considering Westminster are you seriously also considering your local comp?

mimsum Wed 02-Sep-09 17:07:13

from the spread of schools you've listed there must be some which are a much easier journey than others. My dc could also get to all those schools in theory, however the journey to some would be much, much easier than others.

ds1 goes to one of the schools mentioned and one of the things in its favour, although by no means the only thing, was the fact that he had a simple train journey, no changes and the stations either end are a manageable walk. Also lots of other kids from his school are on the same train so it's very sociable. Another school on your list was very high up on our list, but he'd have had to take a train then a bus, which we thought would be too much at just turned 10. One of my friend's sons goes to Sutton grammar, which again is a simple journey for us, although longer, but he's the only one on the train so gets a bit lonely.

what's your ds like? sporty? musical? academic? how does he cope with pressure? do you want all boys or pref co-ed? would he do better in a larger or smaller school? what kind of scholarships do they offer? what kind of help can kids get if they need extra support? do they offer IB if that might be of interest?

incidentally, a police presence outside a school might be protection FOR pupils rather than FROM .. depending on the school and the area ...

LadyMuck Wed 02-Sep-09 19:15:11

Some of these schools run their own bus services which stop locally. But we're reasonably well-placed public transport wise for the others and we have existing (and hopefully continuing) school and work commutes which would allow many of the journeys to be a single trip on bus/tram or train other than for Westminster which would be train and bus, a 45 minute commute in total (well provided one caught the right train - I guess it would be an hour to 70 minutes if you just missed a train!).

AspasiaManos, currently keeping 10+, 11+ and 13+ options open, though I'd like to make a call on whether or not to do 10+ by mid October. Given that we have grammar schools it seems daft not to consider them, but I don't particularly want ds1 to spend months preparing for the variety of entrance exams - every school seems to have its own format at 11, and I get the impression that some children do sit 5 or more exams - some as many as 8! Given that a large proportion from ds1's school go onto Whitgift and Trinity, there is a trend in boys leaving at 10 and 11, so years 7 & 8 are a rather different experience from the rest of the school - lots of boys come in having failed junior entrance/11+ or wanting to increase a scholarship, and there is less continuity than one might have hoped for.

Not sure whether I would call Ds1 "academic", but he is bright and capable, and his current school are recommending an academic environment. He is not generally a keen sportsman, prefers music, though he hasn't started any grades yet. Loves science, construction, D&T. I would say that he performs under pressure rather than thrives on it.

The local comp is probably the only school in walking distance (practically at the end of our road), but I haven't yet waded though the admission criteria to see what chance we have of getting in (ds1 is not in a feeder school). We would at least look at it if we stood a chance of getting in. If we don't meet the criteria (and we didn't get into any local primary school), then we probably won't look. But I think that it gets reasonable results, and it is sought after locally. Just because one can't compare the results with the selectives wouldn't rule it out. Having done a little more research I've discovered that it now does have a 6th form, though this seems to be a recent and potentially unconventional addition. The nearest undersubscribed comp wouldn't be the right environment for ds (or for most children to be honest), though may provide sufficient motivation to ensure that ds1 does do some preparation for entrance tests.

The IB is an interesting one - I know relatively little about it in terms of how it is perceived by unis and employers. It certainly sounds more interesting than vanilla A levels. Whitgift does both, but I get the impression that boys with a science bias tend to do A levels? Or is that just medics? KCS seemed lower in the FT league tables than I would have expected (and Sevenoaks doesn't even appear), and I wondered it this was due to some reflection on IB?

mimsum Wed 02-Sep-09 20:15:57

the boys in y6 at whitgift and trinity seem to have a whale of a time - lots of 'stretching sideways' and no SATs to worry about

among ds's friends, the ones who go by school bus tend to look enviously at the ones who go by train - going round the houses on a stuffy bus isn't the best way to end a long day imo!

LadyMuck Wed 02-Sep-09 20:55:47

Train would limit us to Westminster and City of London though. Would seem bizarre to skip the closer schools just to get a train journey ingrin. Only considering Dulwich and Alleyns because of the bus service.

That said, whilst I take the point that it must be a do-able commute for an 11yo, I suspect that we may move within the first 18 months of ds1 starting senior school, so commute from here is not necessarily the highest of our priorities. We've moved schools for one child at primary level, and have seen the difference that having a school suited to the child can make.

If we do opt for Trinity/Whitgift then we would probably try for 10+. Whilst I had always assumed that we would opt for the independent sector it is hard to ignore Wilsons results, and I suspect that I would always be wondering "what if" if we chose not to consider it. As his school wants to keep him until 13 it is hard to get impartial advice!

AspasiaManos Thu 03-Sep-09 19:41:31

As you know, Wilson's is super selective and lots of boys who fail their test (and that at the other grammars) go to Whitgift and Trinity. So the fact that Whitgift and Trinity have results even remotely close to those achieved by Wilson's and the others shows that they must be doing something right.

I have been told that Wilson's and St Olave's are real hothouses so you would need to be sure that your ds would thrive in a hyper-academic environment.

Are you sure that your local Comp has feeder schools? I can only think of one (non-church) school is that general area that has feeder primaries and that one also takes children by distance as well. Of course, you may be somewhere else from where I'm thinking of!

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