Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Choosing your secondary school

This is the time of year when the tours around schools have either happened or are happening. The schools put their best shows on and they spend money and time making themselves as appealing as possible. It's all show and most of it goes back into the cupboard at the end of the evening; I know, I did it for nearly 30 years.
So how do you really know what is going to be the best place for your child to go, and how do you know whether they will fit in, settle, learn and succeed? How do you use the Open Evenings to inform you rather than flatter you with the glamour and panache?

To be able to make decisions you really need to sort out what you are deciding upon; what are the criteria you are looking for. Think about it, no child is the same and you are looking for a placement where they will be able to maximise their potential; if they are in a place where the style of teaching and routine does not suit them, will they make it?
So here are a few categories to think about;
  • what type of learning style does your child have? Does he like quiet, small classes or is he/she happy to be in the crowd and taught in large groups? (some schools teach lessons in groups of 80 so be aware and ask)
  • is your child sporty? Ask whether there are facilities for a child who has a speciality in say cricket or tennis. What opportunities are there, what clubs are there for a sporty child to develop that side of their skills range?
  • Is your child academic and after the after school clubs such as Chess or Science? Ask whether these are on offer and to what year groups - some are restricted to certain year groups so it is worth knowing.
  • Does your child flourish in the Drama department? If so does the school do any drama productions year 7 pupils can get involved in? Is there a strong drama department and does it offer more than just the drama GCSE?
  • Does the school have a policy of streaming or banding or what to separate the weaker ones from the quicker ones? If not does it teach in full mixtures where they are all taught at the same time and the work differentiated afterwards? If this is the case, would this style suit your child or would they respond better to a class where all the pupils are about the same skills level? If that's the case then a fully mixed school would not necessarily work for you.
  • What are the results like in the various departments? How many pupils make it to the top grades and what is the most common grade they achieve? Not all departments do as well as each other, its dependant upon the staff and facilities, so ask and make sure the ones where your child is good will get the opportunity to get the good grades.
    How many of the pupils get more than the statutory 5 GCSEs at grade C or above; after all you want to aim for higher don't you?
  •  What happens to those pupils who are very gifted in a subject, is there somewhere for them to excel? If so how does it work and how has it helped the pupils who have gone through it already?
  • Is there an A level component to the school and if there is how many courses or on offer? If they only have a few subjects it may be worth thinking about college unless the choice is OK for your child. 
  • Do they have a connection with a local college and if so how does that work? Do they have courses available for year 11 to go to study at the college? If they do what subjects are these?
  • What type of GCSEs do they do? Some now do the iGCSE, this is worth checking as this is far harder in many ways and is a good course of study. Really stretches them and prepares them well for the A level courses which follow.
 So there are a few criteria to think about and look for in the school; what about the availability of food at break time and at lunch time? What about trips to go skiing or going to nature reserves, do they do trips and if so when do they do them and for which years?

Don't presume this will all be in the prospectus because it wont. Remember, that is a sales document and will have been put together to show the school in the best light it possibly can. The pupils you will see on the night will be the best they have and the staff there will have created the exciting demo's and experiments from their own battery of things that doesn't necessarily happen every day.

So armed with your ideas of what it is you want to now about, the last and perhaps most important factor is whether your child really likes the place. If they do, find out why and listen to the things they say. It is likely they will be won over by the hype, so make your judgements carefully and don't presume your 10 year old knows all the answers which, lets face it, will effect the whole of its life.

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