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‘You want them to be happy’: how experts choose schools for their children

It should be easy to pick a school for your child, given the wealth of information – yet somehow it’s not. Ofsted reports, exam results, websites, past newsletters and bulletins to parents can all help. But what really makes a good school and one where your child will thrive? Parents with an insider knowledge of how schools work explain how they made the choice of secondary schools for their children. They all agree on one thing – school is much more than exam grades.

David Wells‘I’ve been impressed with the level of pastoral support’ – David Wells, head of teacher education, University of East London. His son is in year 10 at a west Essex high school.

“I have one son in the middle of secondary education and another who went to the same school and is now at a sixth-form college. What I’ve been impressed with is the level of pastoral support; they look after the children and make sure they are confident and comfortable. I also wanted a school with a broad extracurricular offer to enthuse and inspire.

“I remember taking parents around on open evenings. As a teacher, you show the school as it wants to market itself. If, as a parent, you are not sure about a school, it’s best to book a bespoke visit during the day so you can see what behaviour is like or how classes are interacting. If a school doesn’t want you to visit during the day, that is potentially worrying. Ask the difficult questions and don’t be afraid to be a bit unpopular. It’s your child’s future at stake.

“Ofsted reports provide information but read between the lines. Just because a school is said to need improvement, it doesn’t mean everything is bad. A lot of resources will be thrown at it to help it get better. Equally, if a school is the top grade, it doesn’t mean it is outstanding at everything. There could be weaker aspects that could particularly affect your child or it may be a school with good outcomes because of constant drilling and testing. You want your son or daughter to be happy and enjoy the experience of being in school – then they are more likely to do well.”

Clare de Wolff‘The atmosphere is calm and purposeful’ – Clare de Wolff, primary school teacher in Northwich, Cheshire. Her son, 10, hopes to get a place at County High School, Leftwich, Cheshire.

“We are in the fortunate position of having three good local schools that all perform reasonably well academically. We want our son to be able to get himself to and from school without being dependent on us because we feel that getting up, organised and out on time is a life skill.

“When choosing the school for my oldest son, I made an appointment to visit during the school day. You ideally need to see what the atmosphere is like; to look at whether children seem to be engaged in lessons and whether the atmosphere is calm and purposeful. Both my sons are fairly quiet and calm. I looked at the general feel of the school to see if they would feel happy and comfortable there. I looked at the conversations going on in the corridors between staff and students to see if the relationships were calm and relaxed.

“When my [oldest] son was not performing as he normally would, we had a phone call pretty quickly to check if everything was OK and that is reassuring for us as parents. There’s little point in asking what pastoral care is like at a school as they’re likely to say it’s good so it’s really useful to talk to someone with a child already there. My son has been really happy and well educated at the school and we are hoping his brother gets a place too.”

Ros McNeil‘We want our teenagers to have interests that keep them off their screens’ – Ros McNeil, assistant general secretary, the National Education Union (NEU). Her son, aged 10, is likely to make the transition to Stoke Newington School in September.

“We live in Hackney, east London where there is a good choice of schools. I hope that my son will be going to the nearest one, because I have had a lot of positive feedback about it from parents locally. He will be able to walk to school with his friends which I like.

“I didn’t look particularly at its exam results because parents seem very happy with the school and it has a good social mix. It aims to serve the local community. I wanted a school with a broad and balanced curriculum and a school that emphasises art and music. That’s appealing to me and thinkit probably is to a lot of parents nowadays, because we want our teenagers to have interests that keep them off their screens.

“The fact that it offers a wide range of subjects is another factor because it’s hard to predict what will be your son or daughter’s passion and what path they will take. My son likes singing so I checked out the music provision. You want your children to find things they enjoy so they are motivated to go to school.

“Another factor for me was the pastoral support the school offers and whether it had good links with our primary school to help with transition to secondary. This was because my son has faced a significant bereavement, the death of his father, and is extra worried about leaving his primary school.”

Eman Mohamed‘They have really homed in cultural diversity’ – Eman Mohamed, science teacher at Stewards School, Harlow, Essex. Her daughter, 12, is in year 8 at the school.

“There are some outstanding schools in Harlow and Stewards isn’t the best when it comes to grades. What made me choose the school three years ago was because they have a very strong ethnic minority pupil voice group. They have really homed in on cultural diversity. I was born and raised in London with an Egyptian background and I didn’t want my daughter to forget her roots. For her to be part of a group that holds cultural fashion shows, food events and discussions on topics happening around the world - such as challenging discrimination and racism - was important to me. It’s not only ethnic minority families that love it, the feedback across the board has been fantastic.

“Another factor to consider is the vocational courses that a school offers because not everybody is going to want to follow an academic path. And, on school open days, it is so important to see enthusiasm and passion in teachers because they will pass that on to your child.

“Grades are also important, of course, but I came from a background in Tottenham, north London where people around me were not achieving their potential, yet I managed to work hard, get good grades and a first at university. I know how much a child can achieve, with the support of parents, regardless of the school, so I’d rather have a happy child working at their own pace than in a school where everything is about grades and data.

“I want my daughter to be safe, happy and confident, taking part in a variety of things and mixing with lots of different people and finding out about their backgrounds. I want her to be making memories.”

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