Where to begin when choosing a school?
Results and Ofsted ratings are not the only things to consider
A school’s sensitivity to young people’s wellbeing is a key consideration for parents
Photograph: Getty Images
It feels like a make-or-break decision. Choosing a secondary school for your child is already daunting; during a pandemic, it risks becoming bewildering. Since you are unlikely to be able to visit the school’s grounds, you’ll need to rely heavily on its website and track down information by other means.
The good news is that many schools have created videos showcasing what life is like for their pupils, while others have filmed virtual tours of their premises. Most are holding online open evenings, where the headteacher and other staff members give presentations and parents have a chance to ask questions.
The key question is: what should you be looking for? Information on school websites can feel overwhelming, or seem like biased marketing material. How do you get to the heart of what it’s like for a child to attend that school? What questions should you ask the headteacher – and what answers should ring alarm bells? We spoke to experts to find out.
Do you like the school’s ethos and values?
The survey app Parent Ping recently asked parents what they wished they had prioritised when choosing a secondary school for their child. The most popular answer, chosen by 45% of parents, was “the ethos and values of the headteacher and senior leadership team”.
“The ethos and values that are set by the headteacher pervade all the way through the school”
By contrast, only 6% of parents of secondary school children said they wished they had placed more importance on the school’s latest Ofsted report.
“The ethos and values that are set by the headteacher pervade all the way through the school,” says Karen Wespieser, from Parent Ping. “It affects what it is like to learn there and how the teachers treat the children and the parents.”
James Bowen, from the National Association of Head Teachers, recommends chatting to other parents of current pupils about their experience of the school, and asking headteachers about their vision for the school and what makes their school unique. “It’s quite revealing what the leaders then start talking about, because it gives you a strong sense of what they really value.”
Some headteachers emphasise academic achievement and career destinations, for example, while others will focus on how much they value “the whole child” and encourage children with different interests and abilities, he says.
“Talk to your children about what is important to them”
Alicia Drummond, an adolescent therapist at online wellbeing site Teen Tips, warns against judging a school on exam league tables. “Results are important but they can fuel a toxic culture for pupils,” she says. “Talk to your children about what is important to them, and look beyond the shine. Great facilities do not equate to child happiness or even achievement.”
During the pandemic, many schools have started making promotional videos about their facilities and some are very slick. However, they tell you little about the ethos and values of a school. “The production quality of a video might just tell you that someone in the school is really good at making videos,” Bowen says.
Madeleine Holt, the founder of state school support group Meet the Parents, agrees: “Don’t be taken in by the look of a school. Just as a slightly shabby looking NHS hospital may provide a better quality of care than a gleaming private hospital, what matters most is the feel of a school and whether the staff really care about their students and inspire them.”
Is the school inclusive?
Parents should also pay attention to whether headteachers mention pupils who have additional needs. “They are sending out a powerful message about the extent to which they want those students in their school,” says Holt.”Do you want your child to be in a school that’s not genuinely inclusive?”
She adds: “Some of the best, most imaginative teaching takes place in schools where staff have to try that much harder to reach the students who struggle with learning. Personally, I don’t think you can overestimate the value of being educated with everyone and understanding what makes us all so different.”
Bowen agrees that schools that welcome mixed abilities are typically the ones that offer the best learning environment for all children. He suggests asking headteachers how they support children with the full range of differing needs – from those who find learning challenging to those who are more able and need to be stretched.
Is the headteacher kind?
Figuring out a headteacher’s personality is another important piece of the puzzle. Carrie Herbert, the founder of Red Balloon learner centres, which cater for children who have experienced bullying or trauma, recommends parents look for kindness.
“The person who is at the head of the school is going to have an influence on how the whole school works. Their values, their morality, their integrity and the way they treat their staff will have a big impact on the children at that school. So ask yourself: do you like the head? Do you think they seem like a nice person?”
Bowen suggests asking a headteacher: “Can you talk me through what happens if a child is misbehaving in class?” Their response will illustrate just how strict a headteacher is, and help you understand how they put their behaviour policy in practice.
“Ask yourself: do you like the head?”
Herbert recommends asking how many incidents of bullying occured last year. “If the headteacher says we have no bullying here, my response would be: you’re either an absolute liar or you haven’t got your finger on the pulse and you’re not listening to your staff,” she says. “Because in a mainstream school, you will have bullying. The question is how they deal with it.”
She would choose a school where there is a member of staff who deals specifically with bullying. The best schools, she says, focus on how to get a child who has been bullying another child to understand what it feels like to be in the other child’s shoes. Telling a child off and punishing them doesn’t teach them anything, she says. “They have learned how to bully. Now, they must be taught how not to do bullying.”
The emotional needs of your child
Another consideration for parents is the level of pastoral care for pupils. This means asking about mental health support and establishing whether the school will be able to identify when a child is struggling and step in to help if needed.
“We know that young people, as they become teenagers, have tricky and challenging years,” Bowen says. “If a school can talk at length about their pastoral care and how much support they give to students emotionally, that will give you a real sense of how much of a priority it is.”
Herbert recommends looking for a school where pupils are placed with the same form tutor each year so there is at least one teacher your child sees every day. “What that does is provide stability. They act like an anchor for the school, providing you with somebody who knows your child and providing your child with somebody who is there for them.”
She also highlights the importance of residential trips and extracurricular clubs, particularly arts, drama and sports clubs, for children’s wellbeing. Non-academic activities like these enable children to mix with others in different year groups and with different abilities to fulfil their passions, form bonds and build their self-esteem.
Drummond recommends checking what pastoral support the school has offered their pupils during the pandemic: “When it comes to wellbeing, a lot of schools talk the talk, but don’t necessarily walk the walk. ”Parents should ask whether staff are trained in child and adolescent mental health, whether there is on-site counselling and adult and peer mentors for every child. This matters, she insists, because: “Young people who are happy, achieve.”