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