The deadline date for submitting admissions applications to state secondary schools looms large at the end of October every year. And every year parents are left confused by the options available and the wide ranging criteria which they have to consider when listing schools on the application form/webpage. While the application forms themselves can be relatively simple, the admissions documents of different schools can be up to twenty pages long which means, if you live in a local authority which requests list six preferred school, you might find yourself with a lot of reading to do.
For more on the admissions process, click to read our article Secondary school admissions – what is the process? or alternatively, check out our Top tips when applying for secondary school. Below are some key issues you want to look out for when weighing up your choices. If you have been unable to visit a school but have the opportunity to experience a virtual open day, you may find our Online and virtual open days article useful.
- The environment. Is there an air of care? Are floors polished, bins emptied, displays fresh, thoughtful, inspiring? A school may not have the best of everything, but it should feel welcoming and looked after.
- What is the head like? What strengths do they have? What do other parents, staff and students think of them? A head can singularly make or destroy a school. Look for good, strong leadership with clear guidelines and boundaries. Do the children have a healthy respect for the head? Do they know much about the head? This can be quite telling.
- Additional needs. What is the school's attitude to those who need extra help and support, whether social, emotional or academic? Are there programmes to stretch the most able? What about those with special educational needs and disabilities? Does the praise/ discipline system flex to meet individual needs? Does it fit with your expectations?
- Results and value added. How well do children do? Not just in terms of overall results, but in terms of how far the children have come academically while at the school. You can find a school’s Attainment 8 and Progress 8 scores and explanations of what these mean on https://www.compare-school-performance.service.gov.uk/
- Inspection reports. Read the latest Ofsted inspection report. What are the headline grades, 'Outstanding', 'Inadequate' or somewhere in between? What actions does the report suggest the school should take? Ask what they have done. Some schools share their school improvement plan with parents - you may even find it on their website. This is a good indication of where the focus will be in the coming year(s) and an indication of what they need to do better. But don’t judge a school entirely by its Ofsted report: it may have got its Outstanding rating by ticking the right boxes, or a Requires Improvement rating because it didn’t tick a few boxes you don’t care about anyway. The date of the Ofsted report could render its findings obsolete too.
- Games. How much of the curriculum is devoted to keeping children fit, active, healthy? Do they run teams for all or just the talented few? Is there sport for those who find traditional team games tricky? Do they play against other schools? When? Which sports and teams?
- Arts and music. Are these valued? Will your artistic, musical or thespian child find their talents encouraged?
- What really happens after school and at break times? Browse the school website and school noticeboards - what are the children doing? Are there plenty of extracurricular activities? What about trips and tours - for all or just the lucky few? Is the library well-used? Is there a refuge for children requiring a space for quiet reflection?
- Lines of communication. How does the school report to parents? Is there an active PTA? Are parents invited to be involved with the school? What about newsletters?
- What happens when things go wrong? Ask about their anti-bullying policy and for anecdotes of how incidents have been managed. What happens when children err? Who would be the key liaison person for your child? What is their role?
- Homework. How much, how often, how are you expected to help? Are their clinics available for children who are struggling? Do they have any parent forums or meetings to help parents understand what children are doing?
In order to meet the needs of increasing numbers of enquirers who are interested in the state sector only, The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants has a service with its own expert in state school education – Elizabeth Coatman. For further information please go to The Good Schools Guide Education Consultants
Subscribe now for instant access to more than 1,300 reviews
Our impartial, candid school reviews have been helping parents make educational decisions for more than 30 years. We currently review more than 340 mainstream state schools. To see what we have to say about the schools which interest your family, you can order one of our books from the shop or alternatively, subscribe online now to get instant access for as little as £0.29 a day.