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23rd December 2015

Headship by degrees


What did Good Schools Guide heads study at university?

A very important part of any Good Schools Guide review is the profile of the head. We generally find that most heads are happy to answer all our questions - even the more personal ones. We also hear on the grapevine that this part of our reviews is often used (presumably as background) by candidates applying for headships at other schools. It’s a privilege for our writers to spend time with such interesting and busy people and we love finding out what led them to work in education. A surprising number of heads claim to have ‘fallen’ into teaching - how careless of them!

Some of our writers have observed that music seems to be a popular first degree subject for heads; others thought history was the top choice. This got us thinking - so we decided to look through 800 or so Good Schools Guide head biogs and see what trends emerged.

Top of the head undergraduate subject charts are in fact science, technology and engineering degrees (16.7 per cent) but only if you group physics, chemistry, biology etc together. As far as separate subjects go, it’s English (16.45 per cent), closely followed by history (15.67 per cent). Other subjects are as follows in order of popularity:

Maths: 7.57 per cent
Languages: 7.18 per cent
Geography: 7.05 per cent
Music: 6.53 per cent
Education: 5.35 per cent
Classics: 4.96 per cent
Theology: 3.26 per cent
PE: 2.74 per cent
Economics: 1.70 per cent
PPE: 1.31 per cent
Drama: 1.31 per cent
Law: 1.04 per cent
History of art 0.78 per cent
Archaeology: 0.39 per cent

So, it looks like a win for the liberal humanists. It’s hardly surprising that a head with a degree in music is more likely to be in tune with, say, a choir school, but should we worry that so many English graduates and historians are leading our top schools? Lord Sugar might take a view on this but we couldn’t possibly comment.

Written by Janita Clamp - Senior Editor The Good Schools Guide

13th December 2015

Pray or Pay?

‘On your knees, forget the fees,’ proclaims an unabashed father in the first episode of the wonderful series, ‘Rev’, where Adam Smallbone’s usually virtually empty congregation is filled with hordes of middle class parents about to apply for places at the local Ofsted “Good” Church of England primary school.

Faith schools are popular – and not just with parents who want their children to be educated in them for the sake of their religious character. A major reason is that they are often academically high achieving: whilst  constituting around a third of all state schools, they hold 17 out of the top 30 positions in the 2015 Sunday Times primary schools league table and 15 of the top 30 in the secondaries one. It is also unusual for them to have less than a “Good” Ofsted.

Pew jumpers

The ‘Rev’ episode is, in fact, not totally realistic, as parents would probably have needed to attend church regularly for at least a year to have had a hope of obtaining a place. So, canny, well organised, often middle class, parents (also known as ‘pew jumpers’!) get ahead of the game by sacrificing their Sunday morning lie-in well in advance.

According to recent C of E research, growth in church attendance is strongest in areas with over-subscribed faith schools, the conclusion being that ‘some churchgoing is clearly motivated by a desire to qualify for school admission’. Who knew? The rise by one third in late RC baptism (after the first birthday) in a decade could also well be to secure admission to good Catholic schools.

Inequality agenda

There is also data showing that a significantly higher percentage of well-off people are regular church attenders. This is in line with the evidence that faith schools often have a much lower percentage of children on free school meals than the average in their locality. So faith admissions criteria do little to advance the social equalisation agenda. This unfairness is compounded by the high price of property around top schools.

At the heart of the church

Some admissions policies are stringent: The Grey Coat Hospital C of E School in Westminster (attended by David  Cameron’s and Michael Gove’s daughters) prioritises children who, along with their parents, have attended church weekly for at least the five years prior to applying and are communicants.

Some are so complicated you need a degree to get your mind round them, eg to grasp the difference between being ‘at the heart of the church’ and ‘attached to the church’. The old policy for The (RC) London Oratory (attended by the Blair and Clegg boys) had a complex points system that included service to the church – eg flower arranging, cleaning, choir singing. This has now been dropped following a legal judgement that found it unfair to parents who lacked the time to meet such requirements.

Secondary school black holes

In general it’s easier to find a good primary school, faith or non faith, than a strong secondary. This is particularly the case in London, where it really pays off to be a practising Catholic if you live in Greenwich, Hounslow or Hammersmith and Fulham, or an active Anglican in Westminster, which is why ambitious, secular parents can get frustrated by being excluded from their local high flying state school. This has motivated the creation of some of the new free schools – though several of these are faith ones.

An end to faith criteria?

Not all C of E schools select by faith – some have a wide mix of faiths and ethnicities. Others only select a proportion by faith, using the standard criteria for the remaining places, so serving their local community more.

The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life’s newly published report, ‘Living With Difference’, recommends that faith schools should have to take half their pupils from other backgrounds – which is already a requirement for all new academies and free schools.

But what would happen if faith schools were compelled to drop their selection process entirely?  If they kept their religious ethos and changed their intake, would standards remain high nevertheless? I suspect results would drop if the percentage of children from supportive families (middle class or immigrant) fell below a critical mass. It would certainly be interesting to measure the extent to which their religious character could counter the educational damage inflicted on children by poverty and chaotic homes.

Guest blog by Liz Coatman, Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants' specialist in state schools.

25th November 2015

Wrong Move

There are times when moving a child out of a school and into another makes perfect sense. If he is being bullied, the school’s efforts to deal with it are inadequate and you have lost your confidence in their capacity to keep him safe, by all means look elsewhere.  If your daughter wants to take A levels in subjects not offered by her current school then, of course, find a school which does them.

But there are always costs in a move between schools – not all of them financial.


We are disturbed by what we hear – from both parents and schools. Parents whose child is flourishing at a fine school call us to discuss the option of moving him to  a “better” school – usually one which gets more children into “top” schools at 13. Others worry that their child’s school’s results dipped by a percentage point the previous year and that she won’t get the opportunity of Oxbridge that she might elsewhere.

Of course, each family and each child is different and the advice one gives is unique in each case and dependent on circumstances. It is always true, however, that schools which are highly selective at entry are bound to get superior results to non-selective schools, and that results dip and rise at any school.


Perhaps more disturbing is what one hears from schools – especially from schools which work with “agents” who provide them with pupils, usually from overseas. Not content with having placed a child at a given school, some less scrupulous agents are, 18 months or so later, contacting the parents, sowing seeds of doubt about the quality of the chosen school and offering to help move their child into a “better” school – thus pocketing another hefty fee plus commission from the new school. It doesn’t take much to unnerve a parent – especially one who feels dependent on advice from their agent – and children are then moved – unnecessarily and, we contend, often destructively.

On the back foot?

Moving schools is not something to be done on a whim. It takes time to learn a new place, to adjust to new teachers, to absorb a school’s culture and rules and, above all, to make new friends. If a young child is moved from a school in which he is happy – for no reason he can grasp – he may well feel that it might be as well not to put down roots again as they will probably be pulled up. Easier not really to try, not to get to know people. Older children are expected to break into established friendship groups, surrender the work they have done in the previous school and make up work done in their new classes before they joined them.

They don’t know the teachers and the teachers don’t know them. In  other words, they start on the back foot and are forever running to catch up. Not all schools are as helpful in integrating the newcomer as one might hope.

As we said above, there are, occasionally, unarguable cases for moving a child. When this happens, both the first and the second school will usually help and cooperate. The child’s best interests are what matters. After all, as we maintain, happy children learn. But concerned parents are well advised to think hard and long about such a move.

Talk it over? And you can always call us to talk it over.

19th November 2015

School governance – everyone’s business?

It is our business

Sir Michael Wilshaw, HM Chief Inspector of Schools, has published his thoughts on school governance. Do not yawn. Do not think this does not concern you. With increasing numbers of schools now self-administered and, therefore, more distant from local authority and government supervision and control, how they are run, the policies and practices they pursue, their ethos and the level of achievement they aspire to is everyone’s business.

We have persisted with an outmoded and, now, inadequate system of governance in many of our schools and local authorities. It has been customary to fill seats with anyone who volunteers rather than people with the experience, know-how, skills and time to manage a modern, efficient educational operation. As Sir Michael says:


the role is so important that amateurish governance will no longer do. Good will and good intentions will only go so far. Governing boards made up of people who are not properly trained and who do not understand the importance of their role are not fit for purpose in the modern and complex educational landscape.”

Whereas there are examples of excellent governance in many schools, last year there were nearly 500 schools where inspectors were so concerned about the performance of the governing board that they insisted on outside experts carrying out an urgent external review of governance.

Sir Michael notes that

“… depressingly, we often find the weakest governance operating in the most challenging schools in the poorest areas of the country – the very schools that stand to gain most from strong, professional and forensic governance and are least able to muddle through when this is absent.”

Payment for results?

He also asks: has the time not come to consider paying chairs and vice-chairs in order to recruit the most able people to schools in the most difficult circumstances? and he has commissioned inspectors to undertake  a survey into the effectiveness of governance in our schools.

It is a real problem. At present, school governors are not paid so we rely on their altruism and generosity. But is payment an answer? The answer? How would one evaluate the remuneration for such a role? We need to recruit people with real skills – financial, people management, site management and with an understanding of social concerns, the chairing of meetings, delegation and so on. Above all, they need to understand enough about a complex educational world – while not, themselves, being educators, for the most part – so that the head teacher and SMT are enabled to teach and lead, knowing that they are supported by a competent and effective board of governors.

Should all governors be paid if we want to recruit the right people?

Sir Michael calls for a debate and for contributions from an interested community. We add our voice to his.

Your ideas needed

Send us your thoughts on the governance of schools – .

4th November 2015

The Sad Saga of SATS

So the Secretary of State for Education wants ‘more robust tests for seven year olds’, to replace the current teacher (therefore suspect) assessments. My heart, having leapt on reading that a review could lead to the abandonment of testing at 5 (the new baseline tests) and 7, and that national tests at 11 might be replaced by teacher assessment, has now plummeted to its residual depths.


To cheer myself up, I read through the 2016 exemplar grammar and punctuation test – 49 items in 45 minutes, mostly multiple choice – and groaned. As Michael Rosen says, in his excoriating critique in this week’s Education Guardian (November 3rd), spending vast amounts of teaching time training children to identify examples of grammatical terms in isolated sentences will do little to help them learn how to write ‘coherently and interestingly’. How much more valuable it would be to spend this time exploring engaging fiction. How dis-spiriting for children to spend months practising for their SATs in reading, writing and maths and having little time for all their other subjects and additional enriching experiences.

Measuring and labels

So now our four/five year olds are to be subjected to formal baseline tests in their first weeks of school. This should be a time for their teachers to focus on getting to know and bond with around 30 little individuals, each with their own anxieties, enthusiasms, talents and other quirks, who will learn in different ways and at different rates. Rather, they will have to begin the year by measuring their ‘skills and competencies’ in literacy and numeracy, identifying their deficiencies and giving them labels that could follow them throughout their primary school years.

It is hardly surprising that only 34% of those participating in the official consultation thought the tests a good idea, and that almost 3000 heads are believed to be continuing with their own assessment methods instead. 

No Nirvana

Under the present regime children become statistical fodder and their teachers collateral damage. Children who do not achieve the expected standards – about to become much more exigent, to bring England up to the level of the winners in international tests – will be given a sense of failure likely to crush their self confidence and cripple their eagerness to learn just when they are advancing to secondary school. A third are expected to fail the new Key Stage 2 tests and up to 12,000 primaries to be at risk of not meeting the new, much higher floor targets and therefore of being made to become academies – the still unproven assumption being that this will bring about educational Nirvana.

Our school system is dominated by testing, so that learning is synonymous with achieving qualifications rather than satisfying intellectual curiosity, acquiring new skills and developing talents and cultural interests that can give pleasure throughout our lives. Not enough young adults leave secondary school able to work co operatively and independently, solve problems creatively, think critically and adapt to the radical changes in the workplace that technological change will bring – all qualities employers are crying out for.

Weighing the pig

So what have 25 years of SATs tests and 23 of Ofsted brought us? Children described as ‘some of the most tested and unhappy in Europe’ (Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) and teachers of whom over half are considering leaving the profession. That is: children unable to enjoy learning, teachers to enjoy teaching, together with heads unable to enjoy the rich potential rewards of their position for fear of the consequences of failing to meet their targets.

As we say:

Your child – nothing matters more.

Guest Blog by Liz Coatman, Specialist in state schools for the Good Schools Guide Advisory Service


28th October 2015

Appealing for grammar places

It will be a good year to appeal to the Weald of Kent Grammar School. That’s the verdict of experts speaking at a conference on the Kent 11+ (21 October).

The speakers revealed how the supposedly impartial and independent Kent grammar appeals system is distorted by political winds. Having won the right to open a satellite grammar school, Weald expects to have many more desks to fill, and the pundits believe it will bring a spirit of generosity to the appeals, as the school moves towards two additional forms of entry.

The variation in success rate of appeals to different schools is staggering, said former headteacher and education consultant Peter Read. ‘Increasingly appeal panel decisions reflect the meaning of selective ability according to demand for places at the school, or alternatively the school’s wishes. In 2014 Weald clearly thought the Sevenoaks annex was just around the corner, and out of 69 appeals to the school, 48 were successful. Unfortunately the Sevenoaks story went cold and the school discovered it had no more room; the success rate in 2015 fell sharply to six out of 70 appeals.’

Independent appeal administrator and former grammar school head Marylyn Atkins related how success varies not just by year, but also across the county. ‘One school in East Kent had 146 appeals and only 33 were upheld. One in mid-Kent had 107 appeals – the school was heavily undersubscribed on Offer Day and encouraged parents to appeal, and 73 were successful. In north-west Kent 70 appealed to a school, but only 6 were upheld. Her message if you want to appeal: Do your homework, and target promising schools.

Parents facing the long wait until the summer term appeal hearings could be reassured that this year, their child’s chance is better than ever.

Grammar schools in Kent have traditionally selected the top 25% by ability. But Census figures show that 29% of Kent children were in grammar schools in 2014, according to Reed, who suspects the figure is 30% this year. Nearly 700 appeals were successful this year, 100 more than in 2014.

But be prepared for stretched resources as a result of the swollen numbers. ‘A large number of schools are choosing to expand largely to cover up gaps in decreasing government funding, not because they are finding a larger cohort eligible,’ said Matthew Bartlett, headteacher of Dover Grammar School for Girls.

If you’re thinking of relocating for a grammar, it’s worth knowing that Dover is among five Kent grammar schools which runs an additional test of its own ‘to select for different skills’. Pupils can gain entry by passing either test, making these a good punt for children who may be close to the borderline. The two tests run days apart, so children have to sit both to hedge their bets.

And setting up home in east Kent rather than west also improves your odds when it comes to headteacher assessments. Headteachers receive results approximately two weeks before parents, and at this point they are able to appeal for pupils who they had expected to pass, and show work to a panel to demonstrate grammar ability. These panels are supposed to select a further 4% of pupils to add to the 21% who gain automatic passes. That has recently crept up to 6%; but Reed says you are twice as likely to win a headteacher appeal in the east of the county compared to the west.

Weald of Kent school aside, pressure is likely to increase on girls’ places, as the revised Kent test (now in its second year of operation) brought in a literacy element which has favoured girls (nearly 2% more girls than boys passed this year, a reversal of the position under the old test).

As well as introducing a literacy component, the new test was designed to reduce the effect of coaching. Reed’s verdict is that tutoring still has a significant effect, albeit less than in previous years. Coaching has its clearest benefit in reasoning, and Reed has crunched the numbers to show that it is resulting in cut off scores for a pass five points higher in reasoning than in English or maths. Bad luck kids, but the verdict was that if you are gunning for the super-selectives in particular, every point counts (three of the 32 grammar schools are super-selective, five are partially super-selective).

But don’t go into appeal bemoaning the lot of a summer born babe: ‘Children born in August have exactly the same pass rate as those born in September. That’s standardisation working,’ Reed said.

For those faced with supporting their child through the anxious wait until appeals, Emma Hickling, executive head of three primary schools in Maidstone, had some advice. ‘We tell the children to show us in lessons what they can do,’ she said. Your head can then report at the appeal hearings in the summer on the standards of work the child is producing.

Getting your head’s backing is all-important, but Atkins reassured parents with children at schools where heads are politically opposed to the 11+. ‘We know the schools where the head refuses to support anyone,’ she says. But you must ensure your head provides the facts. ‘The head’s letter needs hard data on reading, writing and numeracy.’ It must also be unequivocally supportive, she said, referring to one head’s letter her panel considered which could only stretch to ‘We admire this father’s aspiration’.

For individual advice on appealing to or choosing a Kent grammar see Kent Grammar School Appeals

24th October 2015

School Reports

When is 4:1 not a good ratio? When it’s a four page letter to explain how I should interpret my son’s one page report.

His school is revising the format of its half-termly assessments and, over these four pages, the head explains that pupils will now be sub-graded by four different letters and numbers for each subject.  Why do I suspect that at the end of this brain-taxing exercise I’ll have no clear idea how he is doing?

“Funnily enough we’ve had a similar thing – my eyes glazed over I’m afraid,” yawns a colleague.

And we are not  alone.

Emerging, Expected and Exceeding – Exhausting?

As National Curriculum levels are abolished, schools are coming up with their own reporting systems which parents of pre-GCSE course children will have to wrestle with. And good luck to parents of primary school pupils, whose children’s skills will be described by one of three words – Emerging, Expected and Exceeding – when teachers freely admit that an ‘Exceeding’ as applied to one child, might mean something rather different to another.

What We Want

For those of you still deciding on a new system, here’s what parents want:

  • a return of the handwritten, personalised reports
  • bring back the ink dripping with sarcasm and dark humour, which we can dine out on in years to come
  • stop shying away from any criticism; we want to know where our child needs help
  • tell us clearly and honestly how our child is doing against a peer group, not some woolly target of his own.

My son’s former prep gave simple figures for each subject – a percentage figure for him and the average percentage for the class/set. Perfect. I knew exactly how he was doing and it didn’t need an accompanying tome to explain it.

Top crimes in school reports:

  • Computer generated reports with lines of bilge about what your child has been ‘experiencing’ or ‘enjoying’. We don’t need the curriculum reeled off – if it’s been interesting our child will have already talked about it. “You can’t tell your child was even in the room,” laments a parent.
  • Cut and paste – my elder son’s form rip open the envelopes and laugh together at the science teacher who uses one of two texts for every member of the class. “You often find blatant chunks of cut and paste across reports for different year groups,” says one parent who found her son’s name becoming ‘Lucy’ halfway through a report.
  • The tick system – “drives me crazy, it feels so indiscriminate and gives you no real individualised feel for how your child is doing,” says another parent.
  • Statements about children being quiet and/or shy. As one aggrieved mother puts it, “It’s a personality trait, not an academic failing.”
  • Relentlessly positive reports which shy away from the truth.

Let’s get real.

A colleague’s son was described as “lazy, disruptive and immature” in a biology report. Doubtless true (he is a linguist and a naughty boy) – it gave us parental ammunition” she tells us. Another colleague, whose son thought school was huge fun but not a lot else, found his report began : “While not afflicted with the work ethic….”

  • Spelling, factual and grammatical errors. Or, as one mother read: ‘Caroline needs to check her work more thoroughly’. She has one daughter. Called Freya.
  • Using one of five statements from a drop down menu.
  • Meaningless education jargon and obfuscating phrases. Although we hear tales from one highly regarded prep, where bored report-writing staff would select a word from the dictionary with a pin. Next player had to use it in their report. Explains all?

Can we forgive hard-pressed teachers for not always getting it right? Here are some teachers’ nuggets from report writing of the past:

‘Writes indifferently and knows nothing of grammar’ ( of Charlotte Bronte)

‘Unusually unpromising’ (of Martin Amis)

‘Her knowledge of the subject is so poor as to make one wonder if she is simple-minded’ (of Beryl Bainbridge)

‘If I had to select an expedition to the South Pole he would be the first person I would choose. But I would make sure that he was not on the return journey’ (of politician David Owen)

‘He has no ambition’ (of Winston Churchill)

‘He will never amount to anything’ (of Albert Einstein)

‘He must devote less of his time to sport if he wants to be a success’ (of Gary Lineker)

‘Moral conduct, very satisfactory’ (of Adolf Hitler)

‘Has an attitude like a Bolshie shop steward’ (of our very own head of SEN who says, “Up yours Miss Mitchell, I’m proud of my 14 year-old self standing up for those I thought you had treated unfairly.”

As we say:

Your child – nothing matters more.

Written by Susan Hamlyn, Director of the Good Schools Guide Education Consultants

18th October 2015

Satellite Grammar School Spin Off?

The Secretary of State’s granting permission for Weald of Kent Grammar School to open a satellite in Sevenoaks is the culmination of a four year struggle (it’s been the only sizeable town in Kent without one). This is good news for its brightest girls – though not for its boys, condemned to continue their 25 mile round trek to the Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells grammars. It is very likely that a number of other grammar schools will follow suit: there are already possibly 15 similar proposals in the planning stage.

For all that is often said ‘bright children will succeed at any kind of school’, grammars offer a very enticing environment in which they can thrive happily. They can study alongside other able, well motivated students, without having to worry about getting teased or, at worst, bullied for having academic interests and ambitions. (My daughter more or less got away with it, at her mainly middle class comprehensive, by being known as a ‘goth boff’.) They don’t have to get frustrated and bored by work that doesn’t challenge them, as can be the case in the less good comps – although in well ordered ones, the most able children will be identified early and given extension work in class and more opportunities outside it, this doesn’t always happen for all children and with all teachers.

Fast Track to the Russell Group

Grammar schools usually achieve 95-100% five plus A*- C GCSEs including English and Maths, as opposed to the 2014 state school national average of 53%. More importantly, a much higher proportion will get As and A*s, followed by A*-B in the key A Level subjects favoured by the most prestigious universities. The first 130 places in state school league tables are usually dominated by selectives (there are 164 remaining grammars in England), and some ‘super selective’ ones come in the top twenty in tables including independents. Academically gifted children are often multi talented, so the standard of music, art, drama and sport is often very high, too.

Tutoring triumphs

Small wonder, then, that parents who can afford it invest in many hours of tutoring for their 9-11 year olds (and even younger ones – I have been dismayed by an advisory client assuring me her 5 year old would be starting tutoring imminently with a view to her getting into the highly competitive Henrietta Barnett). They can expect to pay 25-50 pounds an hour, or even more. Despite recent attempts to make the 11+ tests ‘tutor proof’ – the schools themselves would prefer not to have children who struggle later on, and may end up having yet more tutoring – plenty of prior practice is a big advantage, to develop the requisite speed and expertise. Another strategy is to go private, to save on secondary fees.

What price equality?

So a substantial increase in the number of grammar places is to be welcomed, for the thousands of children who pass each year but are denied a place. But – and it is a big but – it will, on present showing, do little to promote social equalisation. Grammar schools take a significantly lower proportion of children on free school meals than the national average – commonly 2-3%, versus 17.5. The much vaunted claim that they were chiefly responsible for the ‘golden age of social mobility’ in the ‘60s and ‘70s is not conclusively supported by the evidence – they contributed to it, but other factors were important, too, such as the growth of middle class jobs. To that end, I hope many more grammars will follow the example of the Birmingham King Edward VI schools, that are reserving 24-32 places for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The local comprehensives will not be rejoicing, when they lose even more of the able children who bring up their crucial GCSE success rates. Research shows that pupils in secondary moderns in wholly selective areas achieve less well than those of similar ability in non-selective authorities. Nor will the children who fail the tests and are left with what can be a crippling sense of failure at the tender age of 11 – far too young for such momentous academic ‘sifting’ to occur.

Funding boost for all

The best solution would be to fund all kinds of state school adequately (grammars, too, are suffering from the changes to A Level funding), to allow them to meet the needs of children of all kinds of ability – maintaining a flat rate of funding is tantamount to a 12 per cent cut in view of additional pressures, such as teachers’ pay increases and higher pension and national insurance contributions. Some schools will lose even more when the ‘national fair funding formula’ comes in; this involves a redistribution of income from some London schools to less well funded ones in the regions. More money rather than less is needed, to significantly improve teachers’ pay and conditions, for example by decreasing class sizes and increasing funding for pastoral care and children’s mental health. If ever there was a ‘false economy’, failing to do this is one par excellence.

There is a looming crisis over teacher recruitment and retention (not just to do with cash – the demands and stress of Ofsted have a big bearing), plus that of headteachers, likely to be exacerbated once the Education and Adoption Bill now going through Parliament is enacted. This is coinciding with a huge projected explosion in pupil numbers. We should be far more concerned about this than any expansion in the number of grammar schools.

Written by Liz Coatman, lead state schools adviser for the Good Schools Guide Education Consultants

8th October 2015

A Site for Sore Eyes?

A website is a school’s shop window. The first thing a parent, looking for a school, will do is find the school’s website. They want primarily to get a general impression of the school and then information which will be key to the applications they will make.

The first impression made by the school’s website may well determine the ultimate decision as to where to send their offspring.

So you’d think that every school – especially independent schools which are, after all, dependent on fee-paying parents – would take the trouble to ensure their site was easy to navigate, up-to-date, full of basic information and – above all – not irritating.

And many are.


We at the Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants spend much of each day scrutinising schools’ websites. We look for eg current fees, what subjects are offered at A level, exam results, term dates, which are the main sports and so on.

Many schools’ websites are a pleasure to visit. We’d like to stay longer – not just because of the heartening pictures of smiling children but because you move smoothly from page to page, finding what you need.

Driving You Mad?

Too many others, though, seem designed to make an enquirer give up and go elsewhere. Some have pages which jump up and down or shift sideways when you’re in the middle of a sentence. Others seem deliberately to obscure or conceal information. Some have search boxes which sidle off when you type in what you are looking for. Many have features which might seem a good idea to a marketing director but which drive you mad when you have to revisit the menu to find what you are looking for – eg the video of disarming children telling you about “forest school” but which keeps restarting.

So: here is a list of our absolute pet hates:

  • head teacher (not even a name) nowhere to be found on a school’s website
  • schools which don’t tell you who they take eg are they co-ed or single sex? what age groups do they take?
  • fees which are, it’s claimed, “competitive” but you can’t find out what they are
  • no mention of support for children with SEN
  • no breakdown of A level subjects offered or results. Parents want to know which subjects are available and what results are attained. Simple.
  • no mention of leavers’ destinations OR pointless lists of schools/universities leavers’ have gone to but when – over the last 3 years? 10 years? 50 years?
  • clichés. “To us, every child is an individual…” YAWN!
  • boarding schools. Parents want to know whether their child can come home at weekends, not that “each boarding house is a real home from home”. Full/weekly/ flexi? – tell us!
  • out-of date. Some schools still display their sporting fixture diary for 2013, their term’s dates for 2013-4 and their “News” section hasn’t been updated since 2010.
  • no search facility or a search facility that comes up with everything except what you’re looking for
  • tiny print and too much of it 

6 of the best schools’ websites:

These show how it can be done:

Abingdon School


Drayton Manor High School* state school

Oakham School

Old Buckenham Hall

Rossall School

6 of the worst schools’ websites:

These need an overhaul:

Cranleigh School – misspellings, far too many words, chaotic

Kimbolton School – induces brain damage

Moulsford Preparatory School – ghastly design and complicates every enquiry

The Perse School – words, words, words and does it have a head?

St Mary’s, Calne – try searching for SEN (you get Latin) or boarding options

University College School – can anyone find A level options? far too much movement on screen

As we say:

Your child – nothing matters more.

Written by Susan Hamlyn, Director of the Good Schools Guide Educational Consultants

6th October 2015

The Vote – A Matter of Education

The European Court of Justice has voted to uphold the French government policy of denying the vote to prisoners. This removes the pressure on the UK government’s similar stance on this matter. We see this as a tragic missed educational opportunity.

Of all the privations and deprivations suffered by prisoners, the lack of the vote is probably not highest on the list of most of them. Why is this? A huge proportion – perhaps 60% of prisoners – have poor literacy skills and only a small percentage would be able to read a daily paper. They do not have the vocabulary needed to be able to partake in and contribute to discussions on social or political questions. They are, therefore, marginalised and disenfranchised not by government but by a lack of  English. And I am not talking here just about those whose mother tongue is not English but by many of our own, home-grown prisoners. So why should they care about the vote?

The prime purpose of prison in any civilised society must be to rehabilitate, educate and reintegrate its inmates into society as productive and contributing members. The vote – all that it signifies and all that the concept of the vote brings with it – could be a transformative tool in the hands of those that strive to do this profoundly important work.

To instil in a prisoner – chaotic, bitter, anxious, addicted or whatever his condition –  the knowledge that his vote carries as much weight as anyone’s in the land and that he has a right to use it as he wishes would be an essential first point. Second would be history – the story of the vote, how, gradually, it stopped being the sole right of the privileged and the property-owning classes and became the equal right of everyone over 18 is inspiring – particularly in comparison to the lack of such a right in so many places in the rest of the world. Opportunities for literacy work are endless – the etymological links between vote and voice could be a starting point.

Once you show disaffected  and desocialised people that these ideas start from them, not that they are “education” from the top down, you have a chance to motivate and engage.

Prisoners should have the vote. It should be seen as an essential tool in the meagre kit of those who work to rebuild fractured lives. An understanding of the universality of the vote is the first step towards an individual’s self-respect.

As we say:

Your child – nothing matters more.

Written by Susan Hamlyn, Director of the Good Schools Guide Education Consultants


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