How to find the right senior school for your child

Wondering how to choose the right secondary school? Here’s the vital info you need for your child’s move from primary school

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The milestones don’t end just because you no longer have a baby or toddler on your hands – your child’s move from primary to secondary school definitely counts as a one major! Here we take you step by step though deciding on a senior school for your child now she’s in her final years at primary school.

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Find out what borough or county you can apply in

If you live in a city, you might be on the cusp of several boroughs and have quite a bit of choice. On paper, you can apply where you like. In reality, factors such as distance to the school will come into play, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you live on the borders of two education authorities. Identify them at Directgov.

You can identify likely schools within your area by checking our Neighbourhood section. When you log in to your MFM account, you can select your neighbourhood by putting in your postcode.

Check Ofsted reports

You can read Ofsted reports online. These are the views of an inspector on one day, so might not show a complete picture. Also, if the head teacher has changed since the last inspection, this can make a huge difference.

Schools also produce their own brochures and prospectuses – they may be available for free from the school or online.

Visit the school

Book in for school open days. Check out the school’s website, which may have details of when these are happening. Secondary schools often also have an open evening where you can take the children and days when the school is in operation, where you can go and see the school on your own. You could also ask to go in on an ordinary school day to see the school as it really is.

“I found these in-operation days far more enlightening than the ‘staged’ open days,” says mum Mel, from Buckinghamshire.

Be aware that if you’re in a county that has the 11-plus, the school open days are often just before the children take the test. If you feel this will be too much pressure for them – dangling in front of them what they might have if they do well in the next couple of days – there’s nothing to stop you taking your child when they’re in Year 5. In fact, many mums we spoke to suggest doing that anyway, so that you have plenty of time to think about the schools, and giving you another chance to view them the following year.

Remember that times have changed since you went to secondary

Secondary schools have changed enormously since your own school days – more so, depending how old you are! Anyone who remembers having to share one computer in class will be bowled over by the IT suites available in schools now – but remember this is pretty much par for the course across high schools now.

“Try not to be too wowed by your first secondary school. They often have fantastic DT facilities, music rooms and sports facilities, especially if your child went to a small primary school. But you will find as you visit more schools, that most have similar facilities,” says mum Mel.

What to look for when visiting a secondary school

See how the teaching staff act with the students. Are they welcoming or dismissive?

Talk to the teachers about the curriculum to gauge their involvement and understanding of it.

Check out amenities such as the library, canteen, IT suite and so on.

Go with an open mind. Try to leave your preconceptions at the door.

“Don’t get put off by Educating Essex and the prevailing view that state secondary schools are dens of evil. I was horribly prejudiced but ended up working as an invigilator in the state secondary where my daughter now goes, and while it is rather run down physically, there is a wonderful energy about the place and they are always striving to improve both their results and the experience for the children,” explains Berkshire mum Lucy.

Study the GCSE stats they give out. Do they include maths and English? Have they included BTECs and other vocational courses in the figures?

“Look at the pattern of GCSE results over five years: pupil intake varies and all schools have good and poor years, so you are looking for the average over a few years,” advises Glynis Kozma, author of Secondary School, A Parent’s Guide(Need2Know).

Making your choice

If you have seen lots of schools, you can make a shortlist of your favourites and revisit them – just as if you were buying a house! Often a second visit will highlight things – good and bad – that you didn’t notice the first time.

Remember that your nearly-teenager will want a say in what school is chosen. When you applied for primary school no doubt you and your partner made the decisions, but this time you’re dealing with a child who will want to have some say in the decision. Be prepared!

“Decide whether you will choose a school which you feel is best for your child rather than one they want! Some schools appeal to children because of the facilities, such as IT suites, but may have poor GCSE results, social problems and so on. You need to decide if you are willing to compromise – for instance, if your child wants to go to a school with their friends, is this more important than another school that is more academic?” advises Glynis.

Remember that even if this is your second or third round at choosing secondary schools, you need to look with new eyes, as your children may thrive at different kinds of schools.

“My second daughter is determined to go to a girls’ only school – unlike my first. Luckily there is a state girls’ school nearby,” says Lucy, from Berkshire.

Things to keep in mind when choosing a secondary school

As well as the Oftsed reports and league tables, there are other criteria that can be just as important.

Distance to school

Children who live 20 miles from school will have to get up really early and get home late, making the school day incredibly long. That’s okay for commuters, but will your child stand up to that?

On the other hand, bus and train journeys are great opportunities for making friends and establishing friendships – but that will depend on your child.

Will you have to take them yourselves? That’s a five- to seven-year commitment. Will that impact on your work or other commitments?

Being a long way from school can affect friendships and possibilities for attending any after school activities and clubs.

Cost of transport

Don’t automatically assume that your child will get free transport – check the criteria for each school.

Schools that specialise

Lots of secondary schools specialise in subjects such as performing arts or technology. There’s no point in sending a techy child to a performing arts academy just because it’s closest to you!

Grammar school

Be realistic about what school will suit your child. If you think they’re likely to pass the 11-plus or an entrance exam by all means let them try, but try to be honest with yourself and take guidance from their teachers, too.

If they’re unlikely to pass – even with tuition (if there is time and money) – do you really want to put them through all that heartache for nothing?

Talking to other parents

Talking to other parents and children about their school experiences can provide a great insight when school searching. Online forums are a simple method of contacting other local parents to ask their opinions.
That said, always remember that what suits one child may not suit your child.

Be honest with yourself about your child’s strengths and weaknesses – don’t send then to a really academic school if it is not their strength – they may miss out on all kinds of other exciting opportunities available at a less exam-oriented establishment.

Be wary of opinions of schools from parents who have neither visited the school nor sent their child there! Schools do change but reputations can linger for a long time. Bear in mind that a new head teacher can make an enormous difference to a school.

Don’t panic!

We know this is hard but try not to panic!

“I know it’s a time when you can make yourself sick with worry, and in the end, as my friends and I have found out, there’s not a huge amount you can do about the outcome. Do your research, visit the schools and apply for those that you and your child like. If you really dislike the school you get in the end, bear in mind that you can go on waiting lists for other schools. My daughter was one of only two children from her junior school to be accepted by a local Academy. She’s doing well there, but it isn’t perfect, and she’s under a lot of pressure,” says mum Jane, from London.

Mum’s story

“Choosing a school has less to do with results and more to do with finding one that fits your child’s personality”

“I didn’t actually understand the process of applying to schools in the UK – secondary or otherwise. In the States you go to the local one – you simply enroll, you don’t apply. And if you have the misfortune of living in a bad area then you’ll be lucky if your child learns to spell his name let alone learn subtraction. But in England it becomes a focal point for years – a tedious topic of discussion at the school gate, school fete, sports day, parents’ evening and, insanely, even at the local Sainsbury’s if you happen to run into a school mum.

“All kids are unique in their own way, and to my mind choosing a school has less to do with league tables and results and stats and more to do with finding one that fits your child’s personality, temperament and ability.

“I viewed a state-funded boys’ grammar school in greater London that was simply stunning. The facilities were second to none, the school was immaculate and pristine, and the head teacher dynamic. The boys who guided us around were all polite, mannered and beautifully spoken. But they spoke only when spoken to and I soon realised the school’s ethos was all about ‘moulding’ the boys into an ideal. My son is simply not ‘mouldable’. He would have wilted there.

“Then I viewed the school he currently attends – a state-funded boys’ school – and was so instantly impressed I thought I’d cry. We were greeted on open day by an Indie band of boys in the main hall and escorted around the building by boys who were  – as the Brits say – full of beans, chat and enthusiasm. They were confident chatterboxes, eager and helpful, and absolutely adorable. The one thing that stood out on open day was how much pride the boys felt in their school. The difference was palpable. I soon realised this school nurtured and encouraged individuality, creativity and innovation. I suspect it’s the type of school Steve Jobs would have loved.

“Its ethos is about becoming the best young men you can be – leaders, learners and gentlemen. The other school seemed like the sort of school that knocked the stuffing out of boys and moulded them into a prescribed ideal. My son’s current school embraces all children, as they are, and guides and nurtures. It doesn’t push them forward, rather it extends a hand – and the boys flourish. It offers a pastoral care that is simply heart warming – to all 1,800 students. It is an extension of a value I hold dear – I work with the child I have, not the child I’d like to have. My son’s school has the same philosophy – there is a place for everyone at that school, and everyone has a place.”

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Donatella, originally from USA and now living in Kent


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