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Choosing a secondary school

Charlotte Phillips, education consultant at The Good Schools Guide, talks us through this daunting decision for many parents…

Working out which secondary school will be right for your child isn’t easy. When so many around here are highly regarded by locals (a very few not so much) –  it can simply add to the stress. In a sea of excellence, how can parents possibly know what ‘the best’ school is? Canny parents save time – and worry – by knowing what information matters (and what doesn’t) and how to get hold of it.

Don’t lose sight of reality

Popular schools, whether state or fee paying, are often hugely oversubscribed. With only a finite number of places on offer, there’s a balance to be struck between aspiration and the cold, hard reality of the admissions mechanics. If your child is one of a thousand others in search of a year 7 place, a tiny detail can have a huge impact. Living a few metres out of catchment area for a popular maintained secondary school or achieving a fractionally lower score in an entrance exam for a private establishment could be all it takes to miss out.

Don’t rely on word of mouth

Dinner party desperation – courtesy of other parents’ views on schools – isn’t yet a recognised syndrome (though it probably should be). Yes, word of mouth comments can be brilliantly helpful – but always supplement it with your own research and drill down into any top-line figures you’re given.

Ofsted’s recently revamped data dashboard makes comparing state schools a doddle. Particularly useful is the way you can see not just how well pupils are doing but their journey there.

Brilliant children who end up with brilliant GCSEs show that a school is doing its job. Students who start off middling and end up with stellar results is testimony to a school’s commitment to helping everyone achieve their maximum potential.

Outsource the information gathering to the experts

If you want more information about a particular school, ask an expert. The Good Schools Guide reviews many good state and independent schools in this neck of the woods. All are recommended by parents. If a school you have your eye on isn’t here, you may want to ask why.

Be wowed – in moderation

When you visit a school prepare to be wowed. With every picture telling a thousand words, schools like to say it with a swimming pool or multi-million pound performing arts centre. But check what exactly the reality is – like who gets the chance to use the fab facilities. If they’re restricted to a small elite of top achievers, what happens to the also rans?

Don’t miss the application deadlines

With state schools, start with your local authority’s website for information such as schools’ contact details, open day dates and application forms.

For schools that wholly, or partly, manage the admissions process themselves (includes independent and selective or faith-based maintained schools), their own websites are the place to start.

Registrations for the admissions test at Tiffin Girls’ School close at noon on September 3. Miss the deadline and – with very few exceptions – that’s it for 2019 entry. And committed worshippers applying to highly rated faith-based schools (including Sir Richard Reynolds in Richmond and Ursuline in Wimbledon) need to complete a supplementary form as part of the admissions process to have the best chance of being offered a place.

Fee-paying schools tend to administer their own assessments. Such is the demand that one school – Wimbledon High – has brought in a two-stage process, with reasoning tests for everyone in November and only successful candidates invited back for the second stage assessment in January.

There’s no such thing as ‘the best school’ – only the one that’s right for your child

The one thing you should never dismiss is the type of child you have. Some children thrive on competition, others are unnerved by it. Some schools specialise in sports, music, drama or technology. If that’s the big draw, go for it. But be honest with yourself.  Transforming a child with a yen for a small, low-key atmosphere into a happy extrovert who thrives on corridor horse play and a cast of thousands isn’t an option. Go for a school that’s going to make your child happy – not you.

The Good Schools Guide is the UK’s leading independent source of education information and advice. www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk 0800 368 7694.