Saturday, 6 April 2013

How to choose a secondary school


Posted 10th October 2012

During the next two weeks thousands of families will be trying to choose the best secondary school for their children. In Hertfordshire this may involve choosing from a group of good schools but for some the choice is still daunting.

For some parents the uniform rules can be a tremendous signal of a school’s worth: if it is unfashionable and expensive and can only be bought in one shop there’s your good school. They may be acting illegally but who’s going to tell?  If the school has a test – usually looking for musical or linguistic ability or serves a catchment area of very expensive houses, that’s your good school. If the school, “tries hard with kids with special needs but is not very good at it,” that’s surely a sign of excellence. We can’t be having schools which admit children of all abilities, children who may need stretching or supporting, boys and girls who live side by side in the same streets but are selected out of the “good” schools by the schools themselves. Hide the SENCO is a popular Open Evening game amongst some of the “best” schools who find educating children who need a bit of help to catch up the equivalent of climbing mountains in ankle length skirts.

As I approach my 13th Open Evening as a headteacher I am aware that these events are proof that every science lesson contains explosions or volcanic actions and that PE teachers wear suits. The “How to be a Headteacher” course tutors us in how to describe our schools. On Open Evenings we are all unique , have a special ethos where moral values are important and teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do. Miss out the “we teach a traditional academic curriculum,” “we have many gifted and talented students,” or “our standards are high,” and a headteacher may be condemned to being considered odd, laid back or just plain useless. Our facilities may well be very good but say, “state of the art,” “the envy of others” or even “the finest in the country,” and pray that no-one asks for the evidence.

So….. talk to your neighbour’s children about their school, have a look through the literature on the school’s website, ask about extra curricular activities, try to see exam results in relation to your own child’s abilities and, most importantly, ask to visit the school on a normal day. If we will not let you visit then we may be embarrassed, very very busy people, aloof or unwelcoming.
Google an excellent 2008 article by Francis Gilbert, “How to Choose a Secondary School” for some common sense advice or, if in doubt, tell schools your Level 6, gifted daughter plays violin for England and watch them fall over themselves to form a disorderly queue for her admission.

Dennis O’Sullivan

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