Choosing a secondary school : a parent’s guide by a teacher (who is a parent)

I wrote this article for the Guardian after they approached me to write something for them, and I said that I thought I wasn’t quite suicidal enough to write a “Secret Teacher” piece. I’m reproducing it here with their permission. The original link is at the bottom.

How to choose a secondary school

Choosing a secondary school is something of an illusion. In much of the country, there aren’t a huge number of schools within a convenient distance of our homes, and when the various religious institutions for whom your child is an inadmissible heretic are stripped out, there may be only one candidate left anyway. Even in the larger urban areas, where there are more schools to choose from, that choice is not all it seems, as nearly all schools use proximity in their admissions policy, so whether you get the school you want rather depends on how many other people with children of the relevant gender and age live between you and its front gates. Nevertheless, parents can certainly find themselves worrying about the order in which to place their preferences when the dreaded form lands on the mat.

Ironically, the arrival of an education “marketplace” has done little to clarify choices, and much to obscure them. Schools have become adept at various marketing tools, with glossy brochures, professional websites and colourful adverts in local papers. And just as with all marketing, the relationship between promotional material and reality is not always close. More than one teacher has found themselves following a bus home and gazing on the angelic hard-working children (often wearing safety glasses, a lab coat and a studious look) advertising their own school before realizing that one of the children in the picture has so far been responsible for a hundred disrupted classes, two flooded toilet blocks and an early retirement.

In addition, the language of school marketing is now so uniformly bland and meaningless that it would have Peter Mandelson nodding admiringly as he leafed through yet another prospectus describing the educational nirvana awaiting inside the classroom. The late Simon Hoggart coined the phrase “the law of the ridiculous reverse”, which states that if the opposite of a statement is plainly absurd, it was not worth making in the first place. School marketing literature is a veritable treasure trove of such statements :

The school is committed to high standards” as opposed to “We aim to fail

We demand the highest standards of behaviour” as opposed to “Teachers gather around to place bets on student fights

We aim to ensure all our pupils fulfil their potential” as opposed to “We only care about a few, and the rest can colour-in pictures for seven years

Of course, sometimes schools indulge in what might attract the attention of the Trading Standards authorities were they to be selling a product. For example, Toby Young’s West London Free School proudly claims to give “all children a classical liberal education, no matter what their background” but seems to struggle to attract some backgrounds (children with disadvantages) more than others.  . Meanwhile, Harris Crystal Palace’s prospectus famously claimed that “disabled students, including those in wheelchairs, have full access to the curriculum” but then rejected a prospective student in a wheelchair on the grounds that she would “take up too much space”

So how does the stressed-yet-discerning parent seek to get past the gloss and discover the real picture ? Fear not, because there are ways to do so, some more effective than others.

Ofsted reports

Essentially, these have all the value of wet toilet paper. Remember that Ofsted found several schools in Birmingham to be “outstanding” just weeks before discovering that, in fact, they were dangerously inadequate hotbeds of religious fundamentalism.  Michael Wilshaw hurriedly insisted that when, in 2012, he spoke of Park View, the school at the centre of the scandal, saying “All schools should be like this and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be”, things had since changed rapidly. So obviously one shouldn’t place too much faith in any Ofsted report which is more than, say, a week old. However, even for schools whose apparent quality doesn’t rise and fall quite so precipitously, there are good reasons why parents may not wish to waste their time with Ofsted.  As you can see from the linked evidence, Ofsted’s “judgements” are, in effect, rather divorced from anything the school may or may not be doing. The higher the prior attainment level of students, the higher the Ofsted rating. You could get the same information from the school’s league dataset at the DFE, and you wouldn’t have to read through the irrelevant and turgid Ofsted prose. Don’t bother.

League tables

There was a time when I would have warned parents away from these, on the grounds that headline figures are very misleading. However, the situation has improved somewhat. Head to the Government’s performance information website, and you can get far more detailed information than used to be the case.  In particular, you can have a look at how children of different abilities fare. Don’t look at the year-on-year change to the headline figures; difficult though our politicians find this concept, not all children are the same, and occasionally a school might have a very able or not-so-able year group. So just because a school’s 5 A*-C percentage may have dropped last year, it doesn’t mean the school has suddenly deteriorated. Look instead at the value-added and expected progress figures for that year. You may find that the schools most likely to squeeze the last drop of achievement out of your reluctant teenager are not the grammar schools coasting their way to easy headlines.

Word of Mouth

The parental grapevine is remarkably useful. Nobody quite knows how it works, but school-gate opinion is often not only accurate, but reacts far faster than any Ofsted hit-squad. If you can’t find any parents with a bad word to say about a school, then it’s probably doing ok, whereas if asking about a school results in many parents making the sign of the cross and spitting over their shoulder to avert the evil eye, then you might want to think twice before signing up your offspring. It is not infallible, but parents are generally pretty sensitive to how a school is treating their child, and will happily discuss their views with anyone. Ask around your fellow primary school parents for those with older children in the schools you have your eye on.

Visit the school

There is no substitute for getting your boots on the ground. The trick, however, is to get past the slick corporate presentation from the Head, in order to uncover what the school is really like. Most schools now run an open evening at some point, and an increasing number of schools are allowing parents to visit in small groups during the normal school day. Make the time to go. When you do, don’t worry about the Head’s speech, as it will be full of exactly the same marketing speak as the prospectus, probably a tortuous list of statistics, and maybe a few carefully chosen examples of successful student alumni. If you’re really unlucky, there’ll be a school steel band. But once the formals are over, get out into the corridors as soon as you can.

Speak to the students – Many schools will use students as guides and assistance on open evenings. Talk to them about their experience of school. Children tend to be honest about such things – occasionally brutally so. If the school doesn’t let you near their current students, that’s not a good sign.

Visit the classrooms – I don’t want to go overboard here, as I am utterly hopeless at producing the kind of world-class wall displays my colleagues seem to pin up weekly. But you can quickly tell whether a classroom is being proudly looked after, or utterly neglected. Watch out for the tarting up of just a small selection of rooms for the open evening. Find a darkened room and poke your head in the door to get a view of what the rooms normally look like. Pretend you were looking for the toilet if anyone spots you.

Talk to the teachers – I once had a parent say to me “You look a bit like the Head, but older and not as good-looking.” Don’t talk to the teachers like that. Especially one with a collection of replica medieval weaponry close to hand in his history classroom. But do talk to the teachers. Remember that your child will spend a long time in a classroom with those teachers, but may never speak to the Head once from Year 7 to Year 13, so it’s the teachers you want to suss out because they will define your child’s daily experience. Are they enthusiastic ? Knackered ? Knowledgeable? Clueless ? Human? Again, if the school keeps you away from the teachers then that’s a really bad sign.

Find your fit – If your evening is incredibly regimented, with a non-negotiable timescale, an apparently endless series of set powerpoint presentations from senior staff, and no opportunity for questions or one to one discussions with anyone, then (a) that’s a fearful school run by a management which doesn’t quite trust its staff or students, and (b) that tells you what sort of future relationship you and your child are going to have with that school. If you experience a much more relaxed evening with plenty of opportunity to pop in where you like, chat to students and teachers, and explore the site, then the management are confident in their staff and students, and the school is probably going to be rather more receptive to two-way communication in the future. Choose the relationship you prefer.

Feel the love, man – On any visit, you should witness interactions between the staff and students – possibly your own child if you brought them along. One emotion which cannot be faked is genuine warmth. How do the teachers speak to and about the students? How do the students talk to and behave around the teachers? Find a school with a warm and happy atmosphere, and you can’t go far wrong. Of course, you may not want your child’s teachers to like your child, in which case you’re a weirdo and I can’t help you.

Don’t worry

The irony is that we probably have greater levels of angst than ever, yet by most reasonable measures, we have the best-behaved, most academically successful schools system ever. The public picture of schools created by the unholy trinity of politicians, tabloids and Ofsted is now almost totally divorced from reality. As a result, nearly all schools report very high levels of parental satisfaction, yet many parents are convinced that while their own school is fine, all the others are chaotic nests of feral illiterates. The situation is not helped at all by the silly four-level grading system of Ofsted which, as we’ve seen, lacks a certain accuracy. Or any accuracy, in fact.

The reality is that very few, if any, schools are perfect; schools are very human institutions, and humanity, especially adolescent humanity, is imperfect. Yet similarly very few schools are truly awful; in the overwhelming majority of schools your child has every chance to achieve what he or she has the potential to achieve, depending on how successfully one negotiates the usual challenges of adolescence, most of which are unconnected with lessons. Rather a lot of parents have felt the world is ending when they’ve opened the offer envelope to discover their last option starting at them, yet have later found their child seems happy, fulfilled and doing rather well. So by all means scour the performance data, question other parents, quiz passing children and invade classrooms in your target schools (not in the middle of my Year 9 lesson, please), but try to remember that most of us went to a school based solely on the grounds that it was the closest to our house, and we seem to have survived to adulthood.


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