Education: Nearly time to make your decisions

Over the next 12 months many parents will begin the search for the right senior school for their children. How do you make the best choice, to enable your child to reach its full potential? By Nigel Coulthard
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The Independent Online
It's autumn, and any parent with a child due to switch to secondary school next year faces some testing times ahead. Just how do you pick the right school for your child? Should it be mixed or single sex? Does it matter if the child will be separating from friends? How can you tell a good school from the not so good? In the first of a three-part series, we tell you how.

Knowing your child

Think carefully about what you know about your child. What they want to talk about reveals their intellectual development, what they are moved by will illuminate their changing emotions, and new relationships will reveal their emerging identity.

What do their hobbies, interests, reading, and television watching tell you about the kind of stimuli they enjoy and how do they relate to others?

Do they like learning a new game with others and enjoy participation, or do they prefer solitary activities, experimenting on their own, or having someone to guide them step-by-step through a new skill? This may indicate something about the learning environment which will help them flourish.

Choosing a new school is rather like choosing a new house for your family. It must suit their activities, interests and give them room to expand and allow their personalities to grow.

What the junior school can tell you

Your child's primary school class teacher is in a unique position to tell you what your child is like at school. Bear in mind, though, that not all children respond to the same teacher, and the teacher may be describing a child who would be altogether different in a class headed by a teacher they gel with.

Do class records show strength in mathematics, language or science? Is there a local school with a matching specialist interest?

Does the teacher feel that the child would benefit from a highly-structured secondary school, or one which gives more rein for individual activity?

If your child has special needs, is there a local school with the strength, experience and commitment for such children. For example, do they have a teacher qualified in helping children with dyslexia?

Listen to your child's own view

Remember that most children take the transition in their stride and are impatient for a change. Make the choice a joint activity.

Talk down fears about being separated from friends if they go to different schools. Remind them that they can still see their old friends in the evenings, weekends and holidays, and that there are new friends just waiting to be made. If you feel it would help, and if it is true, point out just how few people you still know from secondary school, let alone primary school.

Find out what extra-curricular activities will matter to them most - music, travel, sports? Does a school make a point of promoting them?

If a school is at some distance, talk through the issues of travelling on their own to school and the widening of horizons and friendships.

Preparing your child for the time ahead

Time ahead can seem infinite or infinitesimal to a child. Think about ways to let them understand there is a schedule and when things will happen.

Map out the process in relation to Christmas, birthdays and holidays. Get them to fix in their diary the days when you will visit potential secondary schools together.

Ask them to make a list of the things they want to know about the school and the ways they might have of judging it.

Fact, rumour, tradition or reputation?

Schools can acquire reputations which can be ill-founded, to their detriment or benefit. A long-established school may still carry the halo of what it was like years ago.

The best way to arrive on the open days is with a clear schedule of issues, such as the quality of work in your child's favourite area, or the degree to which children are expected to take responsibility in the community. Very able children deserve special attention. What is the school's policy in identifying the needs of such children and communicating with the parents?

Talk to as many teachers as you can to see what you think of them and scrutinise the brochure. It should be examined carefully for the school's ethos, its examination results, and expectations of behaviour. League tables from your local and national press will give further information, but be careful to compare like with like. Schools need to be of similar status, social intake and ability range before valid judgements can be made.

Single sex, or mixed?

There is much very confusing research about whether single sex schools perform better academically than mixed schools. There is some evidence that girls perform better at single sex schools, but the real picture is obscured by the history, social catchment, and ability intake of such schools - many will have been grammar schools, for example. More worryingly, the mirror image of this may be true: that boys under-perform within a mixed school.

Look at whether there is a good gender balance on the staff list. If so, are senior positions reasonably split to offer both boys and girls adult role models?

Do the staff talk differently to girls and boys?

Are boys assumed to know technical things, and girls condescended to about about their interest in them?

Is there a gross imbalance in the number of boys and girls taking different subjects?

What can you tell about the share of exam passes between boys and girls? You might compare these to those in single sex schools.

Do boys also help to serve refreshments to you?

Is there antagonistic, divisive banter between the sexes or do they appear to work in a co-operative manner?

Are they encouraged to work in mixed groups?

Is the school conscious of lower performance by girls in science and technology, or by boys in English and languages - and if so, what are their strategies for dealing with it? For example, some schools teach science in separate sex groups.

In adolescence, most children seek identity by exaggerating the differences between the genders in their behaviour. Schools are not immune to this phenomenon, but need to have a conscious way of addressing it, perhaps through personal and social education lessons, or out of school activities which encourage mutual respect.

Selective, comprehensive or private?

There are excellent and dire examples of each kind of school. If you can afford a private school, make sure that there are real benefits in terms of learning and experience over a free state school place.

Good private schools have evolved techniques to benefit from the smaller class sizes. They can provide more time for the development of artistic, musical and sporting skills, and should be keen on developing social and personal qualities in the children.

Examination results should be outstanding, given the motivation, support and background with which pupils arrive, and the individual attention available to them. If schools do not have automatic access to support services, such as special needs and careers advice, what do they buy into or provide themselves?

The presence of a grammar school is bound to distort other schools in the area, who will not share the same number of able children and cannot be truly comprehensive. Assuming your child passes the entry requirements, a grammar school should:

Show evidence of providing a host of extra activities and demanding lessons to excite academically very able children (although you should bear in mind whether your child will blossom with the intensity of work and activities, or be likely to struggle in an environment which may be quite competitive and intense).

Have 90 per cent of students gaining 5 A-C grades at GCSE (the national figure for all schools is around 54 per cent) to reflect their entry restrictions which take on only the top 20 per cent or so of students.

Be sending most students on to good universities, on courses with entry level requirements of around 3 grade Bs at A-Level.

For most parents a comprehensive is the only choice. You may be lucky and have the option of a special status school, such as a Technology College, offering highly resourced teaching.

A small school may not be poor in achievement, but a school which has a small Year 10 or 11 (under 120 students) will find difficulty in offering a wide choice of subjects.

If the school is shrinking in size, year by year, it will suffer staff losses, restrictions, turmoil and a lowering of morale. Look at the school's brochure figures for the number of students in each year group.

Comprehensive schools should be examined in their own terms according to the ability range they take in. Secondary schools with a wide range of ability can give much better value, because the teachers are more conscious of the need to generate exciting learning and to motivate children.

Ask about the ways schools measure their performance and the tactics they use to raise attainment.

Next week: what to look for and ask on school open days; how to use the school brochure; interpreting exam results; choosing between mixed ability or separate ability teaching