Learn all about a school before you finally decide

Changing Places: PART TWO
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The second part of

our series helping

parents make

informed choices

about secondary

schools. By

Nigel Coulthard

The school brochure

What are the dominant messages? How strong is the sense of a coherent identity and purpose? Do the same ideas underlie every section of the brochure? Or is it appealing to you through educational catch-phrases? For example, does a "caring" school show this in its behaviour code and its contact arrangements with parents? Does a school valuing the "achievement of potential" have a policy for setting targets for your child - and how will you know what they are?

Are these values reflected in the talk to parents? Do the staff know what the school stands for - ask what this means in practice? If the school is proud of the its support for special needs, how do the staff respond to a hearing impaired child's classroom needs?

Look for trends in exam results over the last few years to see if they are up or down - at least two years results should be printed. Check against other schools you believe to have a similar social and ability intake. Compare with local and national figures.

Look at the subjects all children take - English, Maths, Science, Modern Languages, and Technology, to see if performance is consistently good. Optional subjects can be misleading - only a few very able children may choose Russian, and their excellent results will give an unbalanced picture.

Inspection reports can be edited and used out of context. You can ask for a full copy of the report from the school or search for it on the Internet. Asking how the school has responded to issues raised by Inspectors, such as the need to improve attendance, will show how prepared it is to adapt and respond.

What are the principles on which homework is set and how is it monitored?

The staff list will give some indication of qualifications held. Having a good honours degree does not necessarily make a good teacher, but a school with a number of staff taking additional qualifications, such as MEds and OU courses will indicate a lively interest in education.

Compulsory information

These include the subjects offered at each age group, behaviour and pastoral care policy, and special educational needs arrangements, sex education programmes, careers preparation and religious education.

Check out the rhetoric that is being used and if it actually means anything. Ask the staff and the students what phrases like a "family-spirit of pastoral care" means in practice. If the school "values the most able", how do they recognise this in special support or extra opportunities. Does a "firm framework of discipline" mean children are frightened to ask for anything, or does it mean they clearly understand the rules for positive learning?

A school cannot help the design of its buildings but you can detect whether dreary architecture has been compensated for by imaginative use of space.

Uniforms are to help children act out the role of being students. Their design is less important than the apparent respect with which children wear them.

The Head's Address to Parents

Is it a one-person show, possibly offering strong leadership? Or are several staff, men and women, from different ethnic backgrounds, invited to share the limelight, suggesting a real corporate feeling?

Are you being invited to join an institution or is the school offering you its qualities in the support of your child?

Are fine words backed by hints of how these ideals are translated into action? Every school welcomes parents - but how, in particular, will it to talk to you, when and on what terms?

Find out how the school works out the value added - how children have improved over and above what would have been expected, either from GCSE to A-level or from Key Stage 2 to 3 (11 to 14 years), or Key

Stage 3 to 4 (14 to 16 years).

What does the school do with predictions about how a year group and an individual should perform? How do they inform parents? Do they monitor students against expected targets? How do they intervene if the child is slipping?

The tour

Don't read the displays, find out if there are always some there for the benefit of children.

Don't watch the teacher, no matter how whizz-bang the science experiment - watch the pupils for glimmers of understanding and observation.

Don't watch the state of the art equipment - ask if it is generally in use by children.

There will always be the odd child playing up , but on the whole, do the children appear to keep focused on their tasks?

Do the teachers seem to actually enjoy working with young people? Do they seem to really know the children in their care?

How co-operatively do the children share their equipment, their ideas and their talk?

Questions to ask students

Which topic have you most enjoyed in this subject? A response with a sparkle and a little bit of detail will speak volumes.

Do you think you are successful in this subject? Whatever level they are working at, their answer should be a firm yes.

How difficult was your homework last night? Neither easy nor hard indicates a sensible level of task.

Questions to ask teachers

What national curriculum level do you think this class will be at by next year? Any answer from teachers that indicates an awareness of differences in ability in the class, and a sense of the pupils progression will be good.

What do you enjoy about teaching?

An answer to do with the children rather than the subject will be a sound indicator.

Next week: What are admissions criteria; how to handle appeals; the transfer process