Talking Head

Headmaster's blog at Newcastle School for Boys

February 13, 2018

How to choose a school for your child

The following blog is an extended version of an article published in Northern Insight magazine’s January edition.

During the coming months, places will be offered and decisions made for thousands of children starting new schools in September.  How can parents make the right decisions for their children?

In choosing a school, you are trying to match your child’s needs to the school with the most suitable approach to meet those needs.  So parents need to identify what’s important in their child’s education then seek to ensure that the school is well matched to those priorities.

This is more important than the school’s brand, facilities or exam results.  It is ultimately the quality of the teaching and learning at the school that will determine how much progress and learning a child achieves in school.

It is, of course, a good idea to do your homework: look at school websites, inspection reports and exam results.  However, these will not tell the full story.

For example, unsurprisingly, the most selective schools tend to generate the best public exam results.  This is not necessarily a measure of the most important factor which is progress.   So try to understand how much progress children make during their time at the school, not just what their final grades might be.  If they are bright, they may well have achieved these regardless of which school they attended.

Many schools can be very similar in what they promote.  How can you differentiate?  A visit to a school is invaluable and, if at all possible, try to hear first-hand about the school from its Head.  Establish what it is that is unique about the school.  What are its aims and priorities?  It is not always easy to arrange to see Head teachers at short notice.  If, however, it seems impossible to meet with the Head as a new parent, this may tell you something about how important your child and you are to the School and its Head.

Try to establish what it is that the Head thinks is unique about his or her School.  What makes it stand out from its neighbours and competitors?  What are the School’s aims and priorities?  Schools sometimes publish quite flowery and fanciful school aims in their glossy prospectuses or on their website.  Ask about what this means in the daily life of the school.

How will your child be cared for in the school?  Who are the key people who will be overseeing not just academic progress but wellbeing and personal development?

Ask about bullying.  If you are told there is never any bullying in the school, this is unlikely to be true.  Every school will at some point have experienced bullying-type behaviour amongst its young people as they grow up, make mistakes and find their way in the world.  What is important is how it is responded to by the school and, crucially, how any intervention is monitored to ensure that children have learned valuable lessons and changed their behaviour.

What about the co-curricular programme?  Does it offer opportunities for your child to develop existing or new interests?

Arrange to tour the school ideally during the school day.  Open days and events are all well and good but what are the lessons and corridors like on a wet Wednesday afternoon in February?

As you tour the school, try to notice how the school’s aims and priorities are lived out in its daily life?  How do the pupils seem?  Are they happy and cheerful?  Do they engage well with their teachers and with one another?  Are they able to talk about their learning and the progress they are making?

If the opportunity arises, try to see some pupils’ work: their exercise books or their folders.  This may give you an insight into standards and expectations, but be careful too.  You will only see a small sample of one or two books from the school.

If you can, arrange for your child to spend some time in the school on a taster day, experiencing first-hand lessons, lunch and the changing rooms.

How flexible are the admissions arrangements?  Some large schools may only admit into particular year groups at particular times.  Does this suit your circumstances?  Is the school able to accommodate new pupils into different year groups at different times?  This is increasingly the requirement for families with fluid working patterns and arrangements.

And the final question to ask yourself and your child: will he or she be happy at this school?  If the answer is yes, they will also have a much better chance of being academically successful and personally fulfilled.

David Tickner