Choosing a secondary school: 10 crucial questions to ask

Secondary school applications
When you're faced with finding the best secondary school for your child it can be easy to focus on schools' settling-in strategies for Year 7 pupils, but it's vital to look beyond these initial worries and seek answers to questions which will affect your child several years down the line. Moira Holden reports.

Prospective parents’ evenings at school tend to be focused on how a secondary school will ease your child’s transition from primary, but make sure you’re not caught out in later years when presented with their policies on important school issues.  Many schools vary in their approach, so here are 10 questions you need to ask up-front when touring schools and going to open days with your child.

  1. Do you use Key Stage 2 SATs results to stream or set in Year 7? Some primary schools put pupils in classes based solely on SATs results. Other schools use a combination of SATs, CATs (Cognitive Abilities Tests), which are carried out early in the new term, plus reports from primary schools.
  2. If you do use SATs, do you use the overall results or just one single subject? ‘My son’s new school used only his SATs maths result to stream him in classes,’ warned Marion, whose son is now 14. ‘It was his worst result, so he had to be in a middle class for all of his subjects when he would have been better suited to the English top stream.  I didn’t find out about it until he was half way through Year 7. I wish I’d asked about it at the prospective parents’ evening, but it never occurred to me.’
  3. Do you set or stream? The Department for Education defines setting as grouping pupils according to their ability in a particular subject, whereas streaming sees youngsters put into the same ability class for the majority of their subjects.
  4. How much is the school influenced by the EBacc? ‘Parents need to know what the curriculum is going to look like further up the school,’ says Simon Spencer, deputy head of the School of Education at Birmingham City University. ‘If the school wants to follow the English Baccalaureate, then there will be an emphasis on certain subjects. Other subjects popular with pupils and parents may not be available to the same extent, so parents need to ask how broad and balanced the curriculum is.’
  5. Do you have an early entry GCSE policy? Some schools won’t allow early entry because they feel youngsters will get higher grades when they are more mature. Catrina, who has a daughter, 13, said: ‘The school policy meant she had to complete one GCSE in Year 9. I thought she was too young and I think she could have got a higher grade if she’d taken it later.’
  6. Is the school a free school or an academy? ‘This is an important question because if a school falls into those categories it does not have to follow the National Curriculum,’ explains Simon Spencer.
  7. GCSE or IGCSE? The IGCSE (International GCSE) has traditionally been the exam taken in independent schools, but more state secondary schools are now turning to it. Check exam boards to find out.
  8. Do you have mixed ability classes at GCSE? Core subjects of maths, English and science tend to be set, but some youngsters find they are in mixed ability groups for subjects such as history and geography when GCSE courses begin in Year 10.
  9. How many pupils stay on into the Sixth Form? This is a good indicator of a school’s reputation for A-level teaching. If only a small percentage stays, then it could signal your child may have to go elsewhere to study their choice of A-level subjects.
  10. What grades do pupils need to get to be allowed to stay in the Sixth Form? Some secondary schools require a certain amount of GCSEs at a certain grade, but other schools don’t follow the same criteria. Check if a B grade at GCSE is sufficient to carry on the subject at A-level. 

Looking at school data? Parents want to see a wider set of criteria than that covered by exam league tables (allowing you to choose a school based on performance in science subjects, rather than an average that includes arts and PE, for example) says a report from the Open Public Services Network. To compare the GCSE curriculum in secondary schools throughout the country go to The Guardian's GCSE schools guide.