Whether you’re starting, moving up or relocating to a new school, finding the right fit for your child can feel daunting. To take some of the stress out of a school visit, we’ve come up with our School Guide's Top Ten Questions to help you navigate your way through the decision-making process for each phase of education:
It may seem simple but asking your school tour guide to come up with three words to sum up the ethos of the school can be really enlightening. Not only can you compare the three words with the school’s vision and values to check everyone is on the same page, but you can begin to build a picture of what it really feels like to work, play and learn there.
This can be a tough question. Comparing their answer against the latest Ofsted or ISI report – where there will be recommendations for areas of teaching or school life to improve – will enable you to get a feel for whether the school is working towards the suggested improvements and whether or not they take them seriously enough. Not only this, but the reply will also help you to establish how honest and transparent the members of staff are about the school’s real status.
At the heart of quality teaching and learning is how a school is able to make learning accessible and challenging for every child in the class. Whether the children are entering, mastering or accessing the curriculum at a greater depth needs to be acknowledged and evidence of small group work and effective use of teachers and TAs is vital to establishing whether sufficient support and stretch is available to children of all abilities.
An integral part of the national curriculum is ensuring children are taught how to be happy, healthy, safe and confident citizens. Let’s face it, school is only a short stepping-stone to life in the real world so getting a run down on how a school prepares children for life after school is essential. Citizenship is a non-statutory part of the PSHE curriculum and schools are not required to follow it, but from a parental point of view, it can provide a great insight into the ethos and aspirations of a school.
Another awkward question? Why not? Staff turnover is a great indicator for how a school treats and rewards its employees. A revolving door and you could question the state of staff morale and quality of leadership; ‘lifers’ and you could wonder whether the staff body is forward thinking and or ambitious enough.
Historically, many schools have struggled to achieve parity of achievement between boys and girls in English and Maths or STEM subjects. Digging deeper into how the gender divide is tackled by the school can reveal much about a school’s hold on its data and its aspirations to enable all children to access all areas of the school curriculum.
Another gauge on the enthusiasm and ambition of the staff body to produce rounded citizens, is to get a feeling for how many extra-curricular clubs the staff put on for the children throughout the academic year.
If clubs are only offered by external providers, then they are likely to be more expensive and therefore prohibitive to some families. However, clubs that are run by staff members are often free and demonstrate the passion of the staff body to enable all children to access extra-curricular activities.
All schools have to provide PPA (planning, preparation and assessment) time for their staff and how schools choose to cover this part of the timetable can be powerful. Asking whether or not the school employs specialist teachers for languages, PE, drama, art and music (to name a few) helps paint a picture of what proportion of the budget the school is prepared to invest in quality PPA cover.
Chances are the answer will be no thanks to gradual downward budgetary investment in SEN provision over the years. Every mainstream school will have a SENCo, as required by law, however SENCos must either be already qualified teachers or headteachers or be actively working to become a qualified teacher. Therefore, most SENCos work on their SEN role on top of their other school responsibilities. Establishing how many budgeted hours the school has ringfenced for this role can speak volumes for how highly the school management team rates SEN provision.
Finding out whether a school has future proofed its systems to align with advances in technology is key. Access to an ICT suite, interactive whiteboards and high-speed broadband is one thing, but how is the school preparing children for a technologically literate future if it doesn’t introduce concepts such as coding and programming, let alone online safety?
A solid starter of a question, but one that any parent of a teenager will be understandably worried about. If a school has a strict policy regarding phones and a strong PSHE module on phone safety, then the chances are they’re just as worried as you are.
Headline grabbing incidences of trolling and sexting have given schools an unprecedentedly pervasive headache and any policies they have written to counteract this new technological threat to the health and happiness of teenagers, is a window onto how seriously they take their pastoral role.
Whether a school sets (individual sets for individual subjects) or streams (groups into a set for all subjects) using the KS2 Sats (standardised assessment tests in Year 6) or by first term assessments or CATs (cognitive abilities tests) is a good barometer of their attitude to differentiating learning.
Many parents complain that they didn’t realise how a poor SATs result in Maths could negatively impact their child’s setting for English. Therefore, establishing whether or not the school streams or sets can provide a greater insight into how your child’s individual strengths and abilities will be assessed in the first term.
Whether or not a school offers an alternative to the traditional A-level will inform parents as to the depth and breadth of the school’s curriculum. The English Baccalaureate differs from A-Levels because it demands students continue with core subjects beyond GCSE and into sixth form. According to research by the Sutton Trust, studying the EBacc can help improve a pupil’s performance in English and Maths.
A study by the UCL Institute of Education showed that studying a wider range of subjects included in the EBacc increases the likelihood of pupils staying in full-time education and provides them with greater further education opportunities.
Traditionally independent schools have opted for the IGCSE (International GCSE), but more state secondary schools are now turning towards this model too. IGCSEs traditionally place less focus on coursework in comparison with GCSEs, so depending on your child’s experience in exams, you may wish to identify early on which pathway the school offers.
Finding out what percentage of pupils stay for A-Level or EBacc is a good indicator of a school’s reputation for higher level teaching. If there is a mass exodus, then that would suggest that you may be looking for a sixth form option in a matter of years.
Some secondary schools require a baseline number of GCSE subjects and level of grades before allowing pupils to carry on into their sixth forms. Again, understanding early on what prospects there are for staying at the school into sixth form helps parents and pupils alike to plan ahead.
LAMDA drama qualifications, Computer Science and ICT, music exams, refereeing and coaching qualifications all help pupils find a broader pathway towards career opportunities. So, finding out what a school offers on top of its core academic qualifications can speak volumes.
As in primary schools, historically, many schools have struggled to achieve parity of achievement and career pathways between boys and girls in English and Maths or STEM subjects. Digging deeper into how the gender divide is tackled by the school can reveal much about a school’s ethos and its aspirations for all pupils to have equal access to all areas of the school curriculum.
It might feel an awkward question, but you have a right to know. Comparing a school’s answer against the latest Ofsted or ISI report will enable you to tell whether the school is working towards the suggested improvements and whether or not they take them seriously enough. Not only this, but the reply will also help you to establish how honest and transparent the members of staff are about the school’s real status.
Trying to determine a school’s whole school ethos can be hard on a school visit. There are so many questions to ask and worries to allay. So, make it simple, ask your guide to sum up the school in just three words, not only can you compare the three words with the school’s vision and values to check everyone is on the same page, but you can begin to build a picture of what it really feels like to work, and learn there.
Establishing the ratio of pupils to staff is vital in determining whether or not your child’s specific needs will be met. Understanding a little more about the qualifications and the experience of each member in that class is also key to understanding the class dynamics.
For many the decision to move to SEN provision from their previous primary or secondary school can be a difficult one and often the journey to that decision has been long and fraught with difficulty. Therefore, establishing how big a change it will be to transition to a specialised setting and how much interaction there will be with typical peers will help your child to prepare and adapt to any changes more quickly.
For many parents supporting their child to be independent is a key aspect of enabling their children to gain some control over the world around them and develop confidence in their abilities. Therefore, asking questions about how pupils navigate the practical elements of their school day may help parents ascertain the degree to which the school prioritises independence.
Many children with specialist needs may require access to therapies that ordinarily have been provided outside of school hours. Investigating what on-site therapies the school offers may make the school/home life balance all the more appealing.
Specialist schools are often geographically more spread out, so discovering more about school facilitated transport can be a game changer for families and parents wishing to enable their children to become more independent, especially when there are other siblings to bear in mind.
What happens when your child needs time out of the classroom or playground away from noise? What if they need to run off some steam? Asking the right questions about the school’s attitude to flexible learning helps to ascertain how the school accommodates the needs of all its learners.
At the heart of quality teaching and learning is how a school is able to make learning accessible and challenging for every child in the class. No matter what the starting point of the children in the class, small group work and effective use of teachers and TAs is vital to establishing whether sufficient support and stretch is available to children of all abilities.
Finding out what kind of strategies teachers and support staff employ to motivate high standards of behaviour and attainment goes to the heart of how ambitious a special needs school is. Asking questions about the school’s high expectations and how they correlate with academic and extra-curricular results can parents understand more about how their child may progress in a special needs setting.
A school residential trip carries with it so many opportunities for developing life skills, confidence, independence and building friendship groups, so what options are open to your primary or secondary child are worth investigating.
Choosing to move to a specialist school carries with it so many anxieties about the other pupils your child will encounter and how the range of their needs will be met alongside those of your own child. Therefore, asking questions about how each of these needs are met, differentiated, and supported as a whole class, across years groups or in smaller, more targeted groups is important.
Understanding pupil / teacher ratios from the outset is really important. Schools should only exceed the statutory limit of 30 pupils per teacher, per class from Foundation Stage to Year 4 if they have the appropriate permission from the Education Authority.
At secondary school, practical subjects such as Sciences, Art, PE and DT should have a ratio of 1 teacher to 20 pupils.
The prospect of losing kit or books is a stressful part of starting a new school. Finding out whether your child will have a secure locker and where they will get changed for sport can alleviate some of these concerns early on.
Asking to visit the school canteen and identifying how clearly labelled meals are or what potential for cross contamination exists, can massively reduce child and parent anxiety. If your child has any allergies or dietary requirements, asking to speak to the member of the catering team responsible can really boost confidence in a school’s meal provision.
It is surprising to discover that some schools still opt for traditionally gender exclusive sports. Many schools offer rugby to boys, but not to girls and others offer tennis to girls and not to boys. Discovering whether or not girls and boys are offered the same sporting opportunities helps to shine a light on their inclusivity policy.
Schools that invest heavily in ICT equipment, despite budgetary constraints, are prioritising preparing pupils to be computer literate and ready to find a career in the real world.
Although many schools have computers or laptops within classrooms now, getting a feel for the level of technology on site and the way in which it is incorporated across the curriculum is indicative of a whole school attitude to tech’.
This question should help you get a feel for the structure of the school day. Whether pupils meet tutors, house parents or attend chapel each morning, helps you prepare your child for the beginning of each day and presents you with opportunities to engage with staff if you have particular concerns.
Believe us, you will want to know! No matter how old they are, with so many clubs, lessons and activities on offer, belongings do get left behind. Knowing where to go to find missing items can help to reduce anxiety and save you money!
Whether it is a primary or secondary school, establishing who and where pupils can go to if they are struggling either academically, physically or mentally is so important. Understanding who provides this learning, pastoral or medical support and how well signposted this facility is, can reassure parents and pupils alike.
We’re not joking! It is very common for children to avoid going to the bathroom all day if the facilities are dirty and unwelcoming, so popping your head around the door to check on their state can save a lot of discomfort.
Schools are busy places, and the level of noise can sometimes be overwhelming. Asking to view the library, tutor or breakout rooms, and discovering when these quieter places are accessible, will help you gauge the degree of awareness a school has about overwhelm.