Skip to main content

Article published 2nd June 2008

You've identified possible schools, now what?

Every single reference book on schools indulges in advice on how to find and choose the perfect school. Lists of questions tend to make headteachers bristle but going in as a parent can be daunting.

We explain the steps needed to take control and lead the way.

Why finding a great school requires a little homework

On the day of your visit, get to the school early in order to sniff around. Approach children/staff and ask them anything...It’s amazing how telling their replies can be.

Prep time...

  1. The prospectus - magazines and brochures. Send for (or download) the prospectus and a copy of the school magazine. These wonderfully crafted marketing marvels will show the school in the shiniest of lights. The positives will be highlighted, the mediocre minimised and the negatives annihilated!
  2. The end result. Ask for the last three years’ exam results (for senior schools) and leavers’ destinations (for all schools). Is this where you see your child in years hence? Request a list of governors too.
  3. Get an independent insight. The Good Schools Guide team works tirelessly to uncover the truth about schools. Use this website or read The Good Schools Guide as a book. We review 1200+ GOOD schools and, on-line, have lots of information pin-pointing how well all English schools that take public exams, are doing.
  4. Inspection reports. Read the latest Ofsted or equivalent inspection report (and the school’s reply to it), and any other bumf. This is easier than you think; on this site we link directly to Ofsted reports on individual school-pages. Ofsted reports, good as they are, are written in obscure language by educationalists, can be hard to penetrate and may entirely fail to see the school from a parental point of view. ISC reports can be too cosy by half, we have seen some excellent ones and some that have had parents up in arms!
  5. The school's website. We link directly to school websites (log-in to see these). What does the website convey about the school - welcoming or weary? Recruiting or selecting? Don't be too surprised if the school's website appears to be aimed at prospective parents. Many schools, fearful of data-protection issues, operate parent portals with access given only to those with children already at the school.
  6. Registration/admission. Ask about registration dates (state schools are duty bound to point you to the official admissions procedure) and, for fee-paying schools, costs. When, typically, will lists close for any given year group?
  7. Subjects offered. Find out what subjects are available and how popular these are. For senior schools we have detailed exam information showing not only how well schools perform but how good they are for children of different abilities. If you're interested in a primary or prep school find out what, if any, modern languages are offered and whether Latin and/or Greek form part of the curriculum. If you are looking at sixth-form options it's important not only to check that subjects of interest are offered, but that certain combinations of subjects are possible too.
  8. Hours and holidays. Make sure the timing of the school day and holiday-dates fit with your plans. Don't select a school with Saturday sports if you spend your weekends fly-fishing in France.

Plan a visit

Once your research uncovers schools of interest, the next step is to visit those schools.

School open day v personal tour

Open day. You may find you are directed towards an open day or registrars, and, for big schools with large numbers of applicants, this is an understandable way to start. Indeed if you are only vaguely interested, just want to get a feel for the school (or indeed discount some on your list) an open-day is a good way to start. Open days show the school in all its glory: polished pupils, interactive multi-sensory teaching, fun lessons, delightful displays, heavenly home-baked biscuits and words of wisdom from the head. As with any visit, ask yourself if you see your child in among the masses.

Look at the older children, would you like your child to be like them?

Personal tour. If you are seriously considering the school, short-of time (or have previously visited the school on an open-day) make an appointment to see the head and tour round the school. We think being shown round by pupils is best. This option is however, time-consuming for you: remember you have to meet the head – no amount of wonderful buildings make up for a rotten one, possibly stay for lunch and tour the campus with care. Make a note of how the receptionist or secretary who answers your telephone call or greets you on arrival seems to you – they often absorb the underlying character of the school and play it back amplified.

What to wear?

Project the right image – not too smart (particularly if you are looking for a cut-price offer), but not dowdy either. No school wants to feel it is attracting dull people and, if you have something to offer, however humble, say so.

When you arrive at the school

On the day of your visit, get to the school early in order to sniff around. Approach children/staff and ask them anything (‘where is the main school noticeboard?’). It’s amazing how telling their replies can be.

Visiting the school - what to look out for

Atmosphere and attitudes

  • What are the pupils like? Do you want your child to be like that?
  • Bearing of pupils – politeness, neatness. Bearing of staff, ditto. Do they look clean, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (or whatever you like)?
  • Attitude of pupils to staff and vice versa. Does the head know who they all are (not often practicable in big or house-based schools)? Do pupils flatten themselves against the wall as the head passes? Do they flatten him/her against the wall as they pass? (If so, do they stop and say sorry?)
  • Watch the interaction of staff and pupils: it should be easy and unforced, but respectful.
  • Is self-confidence universal or confined to just some kids (and if so, which ones?). Is the atmosphere happy? Fraught? Coerced or co-opted?
  • Do you fall over pupils smoking in corners? How many are slumped in front of the television (key question when visiting around 1.30pm especially)?
  • What does the school smell like? What is the state of the paintwork – a glance at the ceiling will usually tell (not that it matters per se.

Classes and teaching

  • Grab an exercise book or three in passing and look at the standard of work and the standard of marking – this can tell you an enormous amount. Check the size of teaching groups – it’s amazing how often numbers do not tally with the official version.
  • What is the average age of the staff? All old can mean not enough dynamic new ideas or energy; all young can mean too inexperienced and also, possibly, too transitory.
  • Ask if you can pop in to a class or have a good long look through the peep holes and see what is really happening. Are the children dozing? Is the teacher dozing? Is there rapport between the teacher and the taught?
  • What’s on the walls? Look for evidence of creativity and the celebration of pupils’ achievements.
  • Look at noticeboards for signs of plenty going on, and names you know (for grilling later).
  • Where is the head’s study: in the thick of things, indicating a finger on the pulse, or still in an ivory tower? (For some heads unbreakable precedent governs where they reign from.)

Resources

  • Observe the state of the library: rows of dusty tomes look impressive but bright, new and dog-eared is healthier. Where is the library – is it in a useful position, do the troops use it? What is the annual book budget?
  • What are the computer facilities like? Are there enough for all the kids all the time? According to the school? According to the kids?
  • How common are laptops? Laptops are a pain in the fundament to most schools, parents and even pupils who have to worry about losing them and – if their parents are buying them rather than the school supplying them – have to worry about whether their model is sufficiently cool.
  • Are keyboarding/typing skills universal (a great plus for later life)? Is good use made of the internet, and is internet access fast? Do all teachers use computers/interactive white boards in class as an integral part of lessons, or just some of them? Is the school proud of its imaginative use of computers?

Finally

Do you like the look of the parents and are you going to enjoy having their company in the years ahead? 

by

by

Related articles


  • Special Needs introduction

    Signs of special needs in school age children; how to get help; which type of school to choose; Education, Health and Care Plans ... Read more ... Need help? Perhaps you suspect your child has some learning difficulty and you would like advice on what you should do. Or perhaps it is becoming clear that your child's current school is not working for him or her, and you need help to find a mainstream school which has better SEN provision, or to find a special school which will best cater for your child's area of need.  Our SEN team helps…

  • The Good Schools Guide online subscription

    Find the best school for your child. Subscribe for one month for £15 (£0.49 per day) Subscribe for three months for £36 (£0.41 per day) Subscribe for six months for £60 (£0.33 per day) Subscribe for one year for £105 (£0.29 per day) Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark Try before you buy - University of Chicago Register for instant access to: ☑ Search for more than 30000 schools in our parent friendly interactive directory. ☑ Create and save lists of schools via My Schools. ☑ Use our comparison grid to get an exam results overview of schools you…

  • Where to find a state grammar school

    Identifying and locating grammar schools. Grammar schools are located in 36 English local authorities. Almost half of these are considered 'selective authorities' (eg Kent and Buckinghamshire), where around one in five local children are selected for grammar school entry based on ability. The others are areas such as Barnet or Kingston, with only a few grammar schools.

  • Boarding schools explained - the right choice?

    The headmaster/mistress runs the school but boarding houses are usually the domain of either houseparents or, in smaller schools, the head of boarding. Whilst the housemaster/mistress oversee the house, the day-to-day running is usually under the supervision of a matron.

  • Choosing a school for a child with performing arts talents

    As proud parents, we all know our children are unique. They're smarter than anyone else's, funnier, certainly more attractive, better behaved and above all bursting with the kind of talent that would leave Daniel Radcliffe, Jamie Bell and Charlotte Church standing. And for some extraordinary - though totally understandable - reason, everyone but us seems blind to our offspring's God-given artistic gifts.


Subscribe for instant access to in-depth reviews, data and catchment:

Comprehensive catchment maps for English state schools inc. year of entry.
 School exam results by subject and performance GCSE, Alevel or equivalent.
 Which schools pupils come from and go onto.
 Honest, opinionated and fearless independent reviews of more than 1,100+ schools.
 Overall school performance by GCSE, Alevel or equivalent.
 School data comparison by A/B weighted, relative success and popularity.
 Compare schools by qualities and results.
 Independent tutor company reviews.

Try before you buy - The Charter School Southwark
 

The Good Schools Guide subscription

 GSG Blog >    In the news >

Newsletter

Educational insight in your inbox. Sign up for our popular newsletters.

Transgender policy now needed in every school


3rd editions of Good Schools Guide - London North and South now available, all entries fully revised with 2016 results. Buy now...