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I’ve been a mum for nearly 11 years.
It feels like my main career – but, way back in the distant recesses of time, I was a secondary Music teacher. I taught for three years, then did another three as Head of Department in a different school.
A brief experience, maybe, but enough to be pretty excited at the prospect of ‘visiting’ secondary schools with my eldest this Autumn. And I guess you’re here because you, too, are at this stage. Perhaps you’re wondering what to look for on secondary school open days, and what to ask.
OK, granted, this year’s open days will look a little different. Virtual Q&A sessions, video tours, online information…you might be feeling, as I am, just a little sad that you won’t get to physically walk round the space that may be inhabiting your child for the next 5+ years.
One of the ideas for looking around secondary schools that I see bandied about a lot is the supposed importance of visiting the toilets when you go and look round a school.
Friends, I hear your pain. Let’s just sit with our grief for a while. Allow the tears to flow for all you’ve lost. It may help to say it out loud: this year, we will not be able to see the place our child will pee for the next five years.
Alright, are we done now??
Because, listen – I know it’s good to understand the student experience – but when it comes down to it: a toilet is just a toilet. And COVID-19 has required schools to up their game as regards cleaning anyway, so please don’t worry that you won’t get to see the loos this year.
Once we’re allowed back in the buildings and you’re attending concerts, sports events and parents’ evenings, complete with loo trips, the novelty of secondary school personal hygiene facilities really will fade. And that’s a promise. Don’t say I never do anything for you.
What should I ask on my school open day?
There are a couple of BIG advantages, however, to attending a virtual open day, so let’s focus on those. (Although it may get long. Have you been to the loo before we start?)
Firstly, the virtual nature of the open days hopefully means that at least some of the material will stay up on the school’s website or social media channels. So you can take your time mulling over your choices. You can view virtual tours multiple times, when it’s convenient to you, and really ponder this decision, rather than have just an hour or two one evening and that’s it.
Secondly, I do feel that the way secondary school open days are being done this year will allow a greater focus on questions, rather than being impressed by facilities and resources.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s brilliant when secondary schools have huge sports fields, a fully-equipped theatre and state-of-the-art technology. But sometimes these things can mask what’s really going on: weak leadership, unmotivated staff, poor pastoral care. Just because there’s been a lot of financial investment doesn’t mean there’s been a lot of human investment.
Focusing on information rather than a flashy open day performance will serve us parents well, I reckon.
So, with that in mind, you may be wondering, What questions should I ask a secondary school? Here are my top questions:
1. Who will know my child well? Who will be my child’s first port-of-call, and who will be mine?
Secondary schools are biiiiiig places, especially compared to the primary you’re child will have transitioned from. And pastoral care is just as important at secondary school – perhaps even more so, as kids become independent and have a wider range of choices open to them.
In addition, you won’t be at the school gate like you were at primary school. You won’t have a daily relationship with your child’s teacher – and, in fact, your child will suddenly have many teachers, not just the one or two they’ve had in Year 6.
So make sure you get a clear answer about how the school structures its pastoral care. And get some details. How many will be in your child’s pastoral group or form? Will they all be from the same year group? How long will they spend with their form teacher each week?
Who should you call if you have a query? The answer to this question will often depend on what the query is, but typically subject-related questions go straight to the subject teacher, and pastoral issues to the form teacher or Head of Year/House.
2. In how many different groups will my child be taught?
One of the key questions you should ask a secondary school is how they arrange their teaching groups.
Many schools will keep Year 7 forms together for most curriculum subjects, assigning them into ability groups for English and Maths. But not all schools do things this way, and there are myriad different arrangements for grouping children, so make sure you ask this question.
Not only will the answer reassure you, but it will help to prepare your child for what life will be like at their new school, and how they will meet people and make friends.
In particular, for children who struggle with transition, it’d be good to know in advance that their teaching group will be changing throughout the school day, so that you and the staff can put the right strategies in place to manage emotions.
3. In non-COVID times, what opportunities are there for older and younger children to mix?
I think this is a really interesting question, and you may find that some schools are a bit dumbstruck!
But here’s the thing…secondary schools are big, we’ve covered that, and it really isn’t all that easy to mix different year groups, as there’s rarely a space big enough for them all to go. (And, at the moment, due to COVID, year groups AREN’T mixing at all.)
And yet BECAUSE of their size, it really does change a secondary school’s atmosphere if there are opportunities for younger and older kids to get together and form friendships across the year groups.
I used to see this a lot in my Music department, because many of the choirs and ensembles we ran were open to a wide age-range. It was inspiring for the younger students to have older ones to look up to, and brilliant for the older students to learn how to nurture and encourage the younger ones.
This is one of the reasons that I personally LOVE schools with sixth-forms. I know that these just don’t exist in some areas, so please don’t feel like your child will miss out if it’s not a possibility where you live. But, where there is a choice, I’d always personally choose a school with a sixth-form, as I think it ‘caps’ a school, by giving some really strong examples for younger children to emulate.
4. What is your school’s greatest area of development, and how are you working to improve it?
This is just such a brilliant question to ask ANY school!
Firstly, a good leadership will ALWAYS know their organisations weaknesses as well as their strengths, so the answer should be on the tip of their tongue.
And secondly, it gives you a heads-up as to what to expect. We will definitely compare the strengths of different schools, for sure – but it could become fairly important to compare the weaknesses, depending on what these turn out to be.
For example, if you were choosing between two schools that appeared to have similar strengths, comparing their weaknesses might help you make your decision. Perhaps you’d find that one school was struggling in an area that you felt was really important to get right – or that one school’s ‘weakness’ wasn’t really something you were personally too concerned about.
5. Where will your school be in five years’ time?
In five years’ time, your child will be starting Year 11, their final GCSE year. It’s an important year, so you don’t want their education to be messed up!
Your child will be at this school for at least five years, and these are pretty significant years developmentally, so you really want to try and avoid choosing a school that is on a downward trajectory. And while there are no guarantees, asking this question will help you work out what the leadership are doing and planning for the future.
It’s also worth remembering that secondary schools are heavy beasts when it comes to improvement and development.
Primary schools can be turned around very quickly (as we’ve experienced with our primary school which was in special measures shortly before our eldest started) – but secondaries can’t. Just think of the huge numbers of staff they have, the vast amount of physical space, the multitude of systems and processes and timetables to consider. Changing a school culture is hard work when it comes to a secondary school of 1000 kids or more.
Asking this question, therefore, should give you some insight into what a school is aiming for, even if that improvement looks slow on a daily basis.
What are good questions to ask a high school?
You might wonder why, in answer to “What questions should I ask a secondary school?”, I haven’t mentioned results, grades or destinations of school leavers.
It’s not because I don’t think these things are important. It’s simply because this information will usually be easy to obtain without having to ask about it. In fact, most schools will be desperate to circulate their results amongst prospective parents.
On the whole, it’s fair to say that I’m always going to be more concerned about a school’s pastoral work than academic work. (What good are top grades if your mental health is poor and you can’t actually get a fulfilling job with those grades?)
But we’re talking secondary school, GCSEs and probably A-Levels here. At this stage, it IS important for your child to be somewhere that will get the best out of them academically, as well as pastorally.
So definitely look at the data, the stats and the grades. And do ask if what you’re seeing is unclear. I just know that we need to probe a little deeper than surface results, and I hope the questions I’ve provided here help you to do that.
Good luck as you look round schools this Autumn!
What questions would you add? Leave a comment – I’d love to know!
Know someone with a child starting primary school? Here are my Top 5 Questions for Primary Schools.
And here’s my guide to Choosing a School when your Child is Adopted/Fostered.