Choice spells homework for parents

Finding the school that is right for your child can be a daunting experience but there is no substitute for individual research. Diana Hinds suggests what to look for, what to ask
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The Independent Online
Parents in many parts of the country are in the middle of choosing which school their child should go to this September. Others are just finding out that their chosen school has no room for their child. The notion of parental choice is one of the great myths of the present education system. In reality, "parental choice" is no more than a glorified - and highly misleading - term for "parental preference".

The 1980 Education Act entitled parents to state which school they would prefer, and made it possible, in theory at least, to apply to a school across a county or borough boundary. But there was never any guarantee that this preference would be met - as thousands of disappointed parents have since discovered. Competition for places at the most popular schools has intensified, largely as a result of this policy, so the task of finding a school you like, where your child has a realistic chance of a place, has become all the more fraught. Here we offer some tips on how to go about it.

PRIMARY SCHOOLS

Start looking at schools in your area at least a year before your child is due to begin, and don't forget you can apply to as many as you like in the state or independent sector. Before you lose your heart to a school, check its criteria for admissions: many state schools give high priority to those living closest. A call to the school secretary will tell you whether you have a chance.

Tune in to the local grapevine for others' opinions of the schools you're interested in, but try not to let this influence you unduly. A school's reputation can quite easily be talked up, or down, by anxious parents; changes in staffing can also mean that a very good school deteriorates, or vice versa, in as few as four or five years.

The school prospectus and annual report of the governing body (both available from the school or local authority) are useful sources of information, as long as you don't assume the glossiest brochure ensures the best schooling. There is no substitute for visiting the school. Most primary heads are happy to show you round.

The headteacher is perhaps the single most important factor in determining a school's success and, particularly at primary level, in setting the tone for much of the teaching. Does she / he inspire confidence on first meeting? How does she relate to the children you meet around the school? Could you imagine bringing to her any problems your child had?

Ask questions - even jot them down beforehand - but try not to overdo it. You can learn as much, if not more, just by looking. In the classroom, for instance, you can discover a great deal about a school's vitality by what is up on the walls.

Try to look at some of the children's workbooks, talk to the children. Do they seem busy, happy and purposeful? Are there plenty of books and somewhere comfortable to read them? Is the noise level in the room:

a) quietly productive (a comfortable buzz)

b) too constrained (quiet)

c) deafening?

Another key factor in a thriving school is how involved parents are. Most primary schools are increasingly keen to work alongside parents - to encourage home reading, invite their help in the classroom or, more traditionally, have their support with fund-raising. It is important to feel you will be as welcome at this school as your child.

You may wish to ask about particular aspects of the curriculum or methods of teaching. What, for example, is their approach to reading? Do they use phonics (the c-a-t spells cat method), reading schemes (books specially written to introduce new vocabulary stage by stage) or "real books" (learning to read from ordinary books). The most satisfactory answer will generally indicate a combination of approaches, since different children learn to read in different ways.

Is there a mixture of whole-class teaching and working in small groups? What are the sports facilities like? Can children learn musical instruments, and does the school have an orchestra or band? Also important, especially when classes are on the large side (over 30), is what provision the school makes for less able and for highly gifted children?

SECONDARY SCHOOLS

In choosing a secondary school, many of the above principles apply. But you know very much more about your child now, in terms of his or her interests, strengths or weaknesses, and you should consider the child's views about a new school.

Take your child with you when looking round. Many middle and secondary schools arrange open evenings for prospective parents, but this is not the best time to gauge how a school really works. Try to see it during the day, too - and you may glean valuable inside information if you can be shown around by a pupil.

Examination league tables will show, fairly crudely, the percentage of candidates who gained five or more GCSE passes. They do not tell you the percentage of pupils in that year who sat the exam and, if the GCSE score looks low in relation to other secondary schools in the area, the comparison may not be fair. A school with, say, a large intake of pupils from difficult or deprived backgrounds may have brought these pupils on considerably through good teaching, but will still not achieve the results of a school that selects certain pupils and then allows only the brightest to sit the exams.

Transferring from primary to secondary level can be tough for children, so it is worth finding out how a secondary school liaises with its feeder primary schools to effect a smooth transition for pupils.

Looking ahead, you will need to know what options are available for pupils at 14: which subjects are compulsory, how much parents are consulted, and whether the girls and boys do equally well in all subjects.

If the school has a sixth form, how many pupils stay on? What A- and A/S-levels are offered, and can further subjects be studied in conjunction with other schools or colleges? Does the school teach the new General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) and, if so, how far do pupils mix A-levels and GNVQ courses? What do they go on to do after leaving school?

Do not neglect to ask about opportunities outside the classroom - such as sport, chess clubs, drama groups, residential visits or work experience in the local community.

Discipline is a big question for many parents. Watch the way pupils behave as you go round the school, and listen to how pupils and teachers talk to one another. What are the school rules and how are they enforced?

Parents will differ in the style of regime they prefer. The important thing is to know whether you are authoritarian or liberal as a parent, and whether you are sending your child to the equivalent type of school.

Debunking modern myths

1) Beware the banter of estate agents when choosing a school. They will try to lure you into an expensive property on the grounds that it falls within the catchment area of a good school. Their information may be

a) exaggerated

b) out of date

Their job is selling houses.

2) Popular wisdom has it that if you really want to see how well is school is run, go and check out the loos. But don't be deceived: schools are getting wise to this one, and may just have cleaned them out before your visit. Ask to wander around on your own for a while; that way, you can be sure the school has nothing unsightly to hide.

3) Peeling paintwork and the odd patch of damp may not look pretty, but don't get too het-up. If there are good stocks of books and equipment in the classrooms, and enough artwork on the walls to make the corridors look cheerful, then the likelihood is that this school has got its priorities right.

4) Children who wear uniforms to school are not necessarily any better behaved, or more academically inclined, than the children in tracksuit bottoms at the school up the road.

How to appeal If your child is not given a place at your preferred school, you do not have to accept the school the local authority offers you instead: you have the right to appeal. The number of appeals has risen dramatically in recent years, and about a third are successful.

When you are notified, usually in the term before your child is due to start at the school, the local authority (or governing body in the case of grant-maintained schools) should explain why it has made the decision and should give you instructions and a form in case you want to appeal.

In making your appeal, be specific about why you want your child to go to the school and why you are not happy with the school you have been offered. Concentrate on your child's needs.

Your reasons for wanting a school may include social or psychological reasons for staying in the locality (such as a long journey); or a strong preference for a specialisation such as music or a foreign language not available at other schools.

Talk to other parents who have been through the appeal process. Fight every step of the way and try not to get disheartened.

You may have the chance to resolve your appeal informally through discussion with the admissions authority. But if this is unsuccessful, your appeal will be heard by an independent committee, comprising members of the local authority (or governing body) and others associated with education in the area.

Your appeal will be held in private, and although you do not have to attend, it is in your interest to do so. The authority puts its case first, then the parents give theirs, and both sides can question the other.

The decision of the appeal committee is binding: if you win, you must be given a place at the school. If you are unsuccessful, you may want to put your child's name on the school waiting list.

If you feel you were not given a fair hearing, you can make a complaint to your local councillor or MP, or to the local government ombudsman.

For more information: `School Choice and Appeals', an ACE handbook, £4.50, from the Advisory Centre for Education, IB Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London 15 2BA.

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