Choosing a secondary school for your child can seem like a daunting task. In this article, the Head of St Christina’s, Alastair Gloag, tells Absolutely Education how parents can pick wisely

Choosing a secondary school can be daunting. As someone who has been through this process, as both a father and a headteacher, I can say that, in most situations, things work out really well. However, here are things to consider.

League tables & guides

League tables can be a helpful measure, however, they come with a health warning because different measures give very different results. Additionally, league tables tend not to distinguish between selective and non-selective schools, and therefore can be comparing a brick with a boot. Consistency over time is a good indicator of the level of achievement you might expect but note what criteria are used to formulate rankings. 

School guides can also be helpful in giving a sense of what a school is about. The entry is often the result of a selection process, but schools may pay to be included in the guide and information can be based on a short experience of the setting.

Inspection & facilities

In the Independent sector, schools are inspected every six years for educational quality and every three years for regulatory compliance. The latter will tell you that the school is safe and takes its regulatory obligations seriously, but the former will tell you what you really want to know about teaching and learning, ethos and pupil achievement. When it comes to facilities, it is fantastic to be able to send your child to a school that is kitted out with the best, but look beneath the surface: many a successful and well-adjusted child has emerged from a school that does not have a world-class velodrome.

Selection & make-up

A selective school should be, by most academic measures, well placed within any league table. That does not mean it is a good school for your child. Non-selective schools have a broader intake and teaching within the school may be outstanding (check the value-added score), leading to greater progress by pupils.

When it comes to single-sex or co-educational settings, there is no seminal educational research that I am aware of that can demonstrate that either is best. Where pupils do very well within either type of school, it is because of the quality of the teachers, the leadership of the school and the learning environment. 

Ethos & leadership

Good headteachers are passionate about their school. They have clear values and a credible vision for the children and the setting that they lead. They will be keen to talk about their next big project or initiative. Every head holds the school they lead ‘in trust’, so ensure you understand its intrinsic values and are at least in sympathy with them. 

While open events give a feel for the leadership, teachers and pupils, you should organise a separate visit on a working day to get a more authentic experience. Also ensure that you know what the school offers in the way of enrichment, both academic and extra-curricular. Aside from the intrinsic benefits to deeper learning and a balanced education, extra-curricular interests are often the things that stay with our children well after they have left school.

Ultimately, you need to be able to imagine your child within the school and you need to involve them in choosing it; if they do not like the school, they are unlikely to settle. In making your choice, choose for them, not for you. 

Further reading: The advantages of choosing an all-through school