10 Things to Consider When Choosing Your Child's School
The choice of secondary school that you make for your child can completely alter the course of their life.
It’s a high-pressure decision. Their schooldays could be the best days of their life – or they could be the springboard to an even more exciting future. We’ve written before about how to choose a UK boarding school, and the questions you should ask when you visit, but if you’re looking at multiple options, not just including boarding schools, there are more questions to consider when you’re working out what the right destination is for your child.
There are plenty of obvious things to look at, such as league tables, exam results, and whether your child’s primary school is a feeder for any particular secondary. In this article, we take a look at some of the issues that you might not have thought about, and how you can take them into account.
1. Should you choose a private or state school?
For most parents, the choice between a private and state school is simply a matter of affordability. If that isn’t the case for you, then this may be one of the first decisions you will make.
It may be wise to begin by updating your understanding of what state schools are like. For example, if you were a parent of a school-age child in certain parts of London in the 90s, you might have done everything you could to avoid your child having to study in a state school there. But things have changed so dramatically that London’s state schools are now among the very best in the UK, and parents who can comfortably afford to educate their children privately send them to state schools instead.
Unfortunately, this reversal doesn’t hold true across the country, so investigating this is a good starting point. Similarly, if you are interested in schools that are especially good at promoting sports or musical ability among their students, the additional resources of private schools may prove to be a better choice. And if you want your child to be able to board, you will almost certainly need to choose a private school; only a small handful of state schools in the UK have boarding facilities.
2. Should you choose a religious or secular school?
Religious education in the UK is a little strange. More than 90% of state primary schools in the UK are nominally connected to the Church of England, though you may not realise from the minimal level of religious content in most of them. If your child is already in a religious primary school in the UK, regardless of your own religiosity, you might assume that secondary schools will be similarly low-pressure in terms of religion.
However, that’s not usually the case. Explicitly religious secondary schools tend to require pupils to practise that faith much more than their primary school equivalents, so it’s sensible only to send your child to a religious secondary school if you actively want significant religious content in their education. Additionally, Catholic schools in many places have gained a reputation for being particularly strong academically, but there isn’t always the evidence to back this up. Your own faith – and whether you want your child to be surrounded by like-minded people, or to have more diversity in their education – is your best guide in this decision.
3. Should your child go to the same school as their siblings and friends?
First things first – your child going to the same school as their siblings will certainly make your life easier. Admissions are usually streamlined for siblings, you’ll already know some of the teachers, and, crucially, the school run will be much less of a faff with only one school to get to. Your child might also see it as a disaster if they don’t get to proceed to secondary school with the people they already know, whether that’s friends or siblings.
Sending them to the same school is definitely the path of least resistance. But it isn’t the only option. For instance, if your child’s primary feeds into several different secondaries, your child is likely to be separated from some of their friends, so it will feel like less of a wrench. Similarly, if the alternative school you’re considering is one where most new starters don’t know anyone else, they should be good at providing an environment where your child will settle in quickly and make new friends.
4. How will they get to school?
The difficulty that some parents get into when answering this question is that they think about what’s appropriate for their child aged 11, but not 13, 15 or 18 – forgetting that if you make a good choice now, this will be your child’s school for the next seven years. Or to put it another way, you might be perfectly happy driving your 11-year-old all over the place, but are you sure you’ll still have the patience to do it when they’re 16?
Or there’s the inverse – there might be a journey that you’re not happy with them doing alone aged 11, but that might be perfectly fine when they’re 13; so you might be committing yourself to driving for a couple of years, but after that they’ll be able to get there by themselves. It’s also worth considering that the location of the school doesn’t just have consequences for the school run, but also for where your child’s friends and possibly their hobbies will be – so if there’s a great bus service but only until 4pm, you might still be signing up to be a taxi service for the next few years.
5. Are there any admissions issues?
Admissions criteria can run the gamut from basic questions like whether you’re in the geographical catchment area, to whether any evidence of religious observance is required, to whether there are any interviews or entrance examinations involved.
Particularly among private schools, some may pick the brightest pupils, but others will choose more holistically, based on working out who they feel will fit in best with the ethos of the school. Although the school will do their best to make your child comfortable (and if they don’t, that’s a very good reason to pick somewhere else!), these things can still be stressful for shy or introverted children, so you may want to factor this in when figuring out whether it’s worth filling in the application form. Coaching can help, but it’s only worthwhile if you believe that the school is right for them; you don’t want an introverted child being coached into getting accepted by a school that is better suited to extroverts.
6. What does the school prioritise in its ethos?
Schools can vary remarkably in terms of their ethos, which can be a result of long-standing tradition or simply reflect the attitudes of the current headteacher. Some will apply more academic pressure than others; some more pressure to succeed in music, sports or extracurriculars; and some will avoid placing pressure on their students wherever possible. Some will be full of loud, enthusiastic pupils; others will prefer quiet. Some will punish minor infractions harshly to discourage rule-breaking; others will be more lax.
You probably have a good idea of what’s right for your child already; the difficulty can be figuring it out. Schools that lean to the extreme ends of any of the above options will be happy enough to let you know, but most mainstream schools fall nearer to the middle. Almost all ethos statements from UK schools will talk about celebrating diversity, encouraging confidence in their pupils and building a community, for instance, but it’s also clear that some schools fulfil these aims better than others.
Practical questions may help (you could ask about typical punishments for things like forgetting homework, or what steps the school takes if pupils aren’t achieving their predicted grades), as can asking around in case you already know people with children at the school in question, but beyond that, it’s up to you to read between the lines and get a sense of the school for yourself.
7. What percentage of pupils stay on from Year 11 to the Sixth Form?
Changing schools is disruptive, and in areas where the best schools are oversubscribed, can be quite a challenge. As a result, pupils tend not to move between schools unless they’re significantly unhappy. The exception is the move from Year 11 to the Sixth Form, when it’s easier to move around as places open up (for instance, as a result of pupils leaving to take up non-academic paths such as apprenticeships), and continuity is less important.
The result is that pupils who aren’t deeply unhappy, but aren’t exactly happy with their school, take the move from Year 11 to the Sixth Form as an opportunity to go somewhere better. If a school holds on to a lot of its pupils going into the Sixth Form, that’s a very good sign – though there are other reasons why some might leave. For instance…
8. How broad is the curriculum?
Especially following the introduction of academies, schools have a certain amount of leeway in the variety of subjects that they teach. This is particularly true at Sixth Form, which is why some pupils will leave a school that they’re essentially happy with in order to move to a Sixth Form that teaches the subjects that they’re interested in studying.
Larger schools usually teach a greater variety of subjects, because they’re more likely to have enough students to make niche classes worthwhile. However, some smaller schools still manage to teach a broad curriculum, and may even partner with neighbouring schools to share resources and facilities in order to do so.
Subjects that some but not all schools will teach include Latin, Greek, Art History, Mandarin, Philosophy, Computing, Music Technology and Home Economics, among others. Particularly at Sixth Form, there may be the option of all of your child’s preferred subjects, but not necessarily in combination. Look out also for the diversity of options within subjects – will your child get a choice of modules, or will that be decided for them? And finally, just because a subject is offered, doesn’t mean that it gets much time in the timetable – particularly for subjects like Art and Music, it’s worth checking if they get a decent number of hours.
9. Where do pupils go to university? How much freedom do they seem to have?
The school may provide a list of ‘Sixth Form destinations’ or similar, that gives you an impression of what pupils usually do when they leave. It’s sensible here not to look for the most prestigious, but for the destinations that best reflect what you think your child might like to do – of course, these things may be one and the same.
If the list is all universities, then the school may not have that much experience in finding pupils good non-university options, or may be encouraging pupils to go to university who might be better off with a different destination. Conversely, if you think your child might one day want to go to a university like Oxford or Cambridge, and the school you’re looking at has never sent a pupil to anywhere so prestigious, they might not be best-placed to support your child in their ambitions.
10. What extracurricular options and trips are there?
If your child has a hobby they’re passionate about, it’s obviously wise to consider whether they’ll easily be able to continue it at secondary school. But you also want them to have opportunities to develop new interests while they’re there, so take a look at the range and type of extracurricular options and trips available. Are they all focused on a particular area – for instance, have there been trips to three different continents in the past year, but only for members of the sports teams or the orchestra? Or are they more broadly available to pupils with different strengths?
Similarly, take a look at the clubs and activities. If a pupil wants to establish a club, is that straightforward? Is there funding available, or would the pupil be permitted to fundraise themselves? While wealthier schools will usually have better options available, you can look for how much the school supports its students in making their own opportunities as well.
Image credits: pencil and notebook; scissors; stack of books; church; siblings; school bus; rubicks cube; hoop; paths; masks; christ church.