September is a crucial time for many parents because that’s when school choices are made.
It’s a tough decision. The days of automatically going to the secondary school in your locality are long gone. For years now, you’ve been able to choose any school you like – it doesn’t even have to be in your own local authority, let alone catchment area. Parental choice trumps everything and, if the school of your first choice has places, you can’t be turned away, no matter where it is.
At Marden, we’ve been aware of that for a long time and we’re glad to admit pupils from all over North Tyneside. In fact, for the first time this year, we’ve started admitting from Northumberland.
Not that free choice makes it easier for parents to decide. With so many schools available (and the secondary schools in North Tyneside are excellent), parents need to do their homework to make exactly the right choice for their child. Your decision can have a life changing effect on your children, so you’ve got to get it right.
And I have to confess that we were disappointed with the secondary school we chose for our children. Compared with their first and middle school experience, they were never truly happy at high school, although they did well academically. And, before you ask, they didn’t go to North Tyneside schools.
What we learnt from that disappointment was that it’s vital to research a school carefully by consulting a range of evidence – not just what people say.
You can tell a lot from a school website: Is it up to date? Is it friendly and professional in tone? Does it convey a positive ethos which puts young people first?
You should also track down the latest OFSTED report. It won’t tell the whole story, but it should give you an idea of how the school compares with national standards.
But the real test is to ring a school and ask for a look round during the day when lessons are going on. (Looking back, I wish that we’d done that.) How well this request is received is a good test of any school. If you’re made to feel unwelcome, there’s a problem somewhere.
And this would be true of the actual visit. A happy, confident school will allow you to see anything you want and the guide should take you in and out of lessons quite freely and speak with pride about the place. And even the little things can tell you a lot about what the school stands for. Is it clean and well presented? How much litter is there? Is there plenty of high quality display of photographs and work which celebrates learning, achievement and a sense of togetherness? Are senior leaders visible and on the corridors to maintain standards and support the staff? Also, and this is not a joke, what are the toilets like? Are they clean, free of graffiti and welcoming? Are they open or do pupils have to get a key from someone? My offspring refused to use their school toilets preferring to dash to a nearby supermarket at lunchtime instead.
And what about the lessons? If you’re not allowed to see lessons, head for the door. Teaching and learning are the core purposes of any school and you need a view of what they’re like. If you’re not allowed in classrooms, the school is embarrassed about something. And when you’re in a lesson switch on your radar. Are the students happy, on task and well behaved? Do the lessons seem active and engaging with the teachers fully involved and not checking their e-mails? Don’t forget that a silent classroom is not always a good classroom.
Oh, another thing: make sure your son or daughter visits with you. They’ll tell you in five minutes if they think they’ll be happy in that school.
And ask the head, or their representative, about exam results so that you can see through the propaganda. To what extent are the figures flattered by entering students for courses which are equivalent to GCSE but which are easier to pass. What are the results like when you remove the equivalents? And are the 2014 grades first or best entry (see last week’s blog for an explanation).
Which brings me to the commercial break. If you’re in the process of choosing a school this year or at some time in the future, you can put all of the above to the test very soon.
Come along to our open evening at 6.00 pm on Thursday 25 September, 2014 and/or our open day on October 3, 2014. You’ll find full details on the website.
Or, if you prefer, ring me on 0191 2006357 and we’ll fix a time for me to show you round.
I’ll even show you the toilets.