Choosing the right Senior School for your child can feel very daunting and is a big decision. I know, I have been there…… twice for two very different children. There are lots of different guides for choosing a senior school from different perspectives, but I want to give you some tips from a parent of boys, one of whom has been through GCSE’s in a pandemic and one who will be sitting them in 2022 to finding the right school.
The jump from Junior School to Seniors is massive and choosing a Senior School is a real challenge. For my children, we knew it would mean a move from a village school within walking distance to a school they would have to travel to on a bus no matter what our choice was.
How to choose a Senior School
First of all, I would say do not rule out any school before visiting on their open days based on word of mouth and rumours. Some schools event allow school visits during the day if you couldn’t make their open evening. You might be ruling out the perfect fit for your child. The same goes for faith schools, we never expected that to be the particular school for our boys but it was.
Before you start it makes sense to check out the schools’ admissions policy and if they have specific admissions criteria such as an entrance exam. Find out how what a normal school day looks like in terms of start times and breaks and also if any have a specific application process in addition to the local council requirements.
TIP You can search and compare local schools Ofsted reports using your postcode on the gov.uk website, and if you want to check whether a school was oversubscribed in 2021 or see where their current intake live, find a house near yours on rightmove.com then click on the school checker tab and check you are in the catchment area!
List what is important for you when it comes to Senior school and that isn’t always academic achievement or exam results and grades, in fact, I have come to realise that was the least important for our family. For us, it was all about pastoral care, a sense of community, a focus on mental health and well being and a good all-round curriculum is that made our decision. What is their sex education like? What is their behaviour policy? How did their deal with lockdown? Do they have a focus on team sports? What are their extracurricular activities? How do they deal with SEN?
Don’t be wowed by the headteacher or principals presentations or the school’s website, remember that it is a sales pitch and should actually be the least important part of any visit to a secondary school and your decision making. This was what my boys’ primary school teacher told me and she was spot on. The same goes for their prospectus as it is supposed to be marketing material and show the school in its best light.
Ask Questions – We found that asking the current pupils and teachers questions at the open evening was a great way of finding out more about the school. Don’t be afraid to chat to the teachers and ask if they have children and would they send them here? What support there is for students who are struggling? The same goes for Pulils – Which after school clubs do you enjoy? Who can you go to if you need help with a personal matter? What is school lunch like? (that is so important – trust me)! How much homework do they have each day? Students tend to be honest about such things, So If the school doesn’t let you near its students, that’s not a good sign.
Take the time to visit the school and check out their facilities – Don’t let a shiny brand new building blind you. You can tell when a school is neglected or when it is just old, but well looked after. Classrooms and corridors displaying teenagers work proudly is a great sign. Ask to go to the toilets to see what they look like.
Trust your instinct – We knew after visiting which was our favourite school and why. We also took both our boys when we were looking for our eldest and we knew that it would impact both of them as we didn’t want them at different schools unless it was necessary. Also, lots of schools take older siblings into account. So we listened to both of their opinions too.
Personally, I think that if you find a school with a happy, warm, welcoming atmosphere you can’t go far wrong because learning is so much easier when it is done in a good environment with mutual respect.
How the pandemic changed my opinion
When the pandemic hot and lockdown happened our Senior School was one of the only ones that stepped up immediately and started delivering food to families on free school meals and that rang and spoke to pupils and parents on a weekly basis. Yes, they struggled with online learning in the initial lockdowns but they did their best and that best was much better than other schools in the area, but also a damn sight less than all the private schools in the country. The gap between fee paying schools and state schools became a gulf during Covid.
There was also a geographical gap because schools in the North had many more 2-week pupil isolations where they had to work at home, which meant that online learning was key. I would ask how schools are going to manage this in the future should it be necessary.
Also, make sure you check out our Top Tips for Children Starting Senior School to help them ease the transition from Primary to Secondary School.
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