Certainly, do not rely on league tables and articles in the press for a true view of how a school is performing or how your child will fit in, either academically or socially. Go beyond the headlines, visit the school and be sure to ask as many questions as possible.
Firstly, look out for how enthusiastic a school is about teaching and developing a child both on the academic and pastoral side. There will be signs everywhere, from the meeting with the Head and the teachers doing the guided tour, to the children walking along the corridors. Are they motivated, energised, happy? Do they have purpose in their step? Look at wall displays to get a feel for how switched on a school is to engaging their charges. This will be more of a gut instinct than a measurable finding but it is useful to be awake to your first impression.
On the academic side, enquire about ‘value added’. For example, if a child starts at a school expecting B grades at 13+ Common Entrance and ends up achieving this expectation of B grades then no value has been added. There needs to be reassurance that your child will be guided to meet the end goal of success, in whatever shape or form that may come. For pre-tests, 11+ and 13+ Common Entrance, the expectation is set by the future school. Papers are usually marked internally and, frustratingly, unlike with GCSE and other national exams, an A grade from one school does not correlate directly with an A grade from another school. The question is, will your child be given the right tools for success at entrance to their school of choice? If there are gaps, can they be guided towards the best tutors for homework help for example? What happens in the holidays? Is their an online tutor available for overseas students wanting private lessons or does this need to be organised independently?
Look at how the school monitors progress to ensure a child is at least reaching their potential. It is definitely worth asking about class size and the policy on setting. Are forms streamed or left as mixed ability? If streamed, how relevant is this for discussion-based elements of the curriculum or creative activities like a form assembly? Are certain subjects more likely to have sets than others, for example Maths and Languages? Every school will have some reasoning behind their different policies so it is good to understand the detail.
Schools may use tracking systems to detect trends in progress both in individuals and across a year group. This is usually done through automated computer assessments. These are best seen as statistics to add to the mix rather than the Holy Grail in analysis.
Pressure is a key buzzword and worth flagging up. Some children will find they are burdened with seemingly endless piles of homework, whilst others will be asked to do the minimum. Both extremes present different challenges. Clearly, too much independent study can compromise time used for extra-curricula activities or just socialising and relaxing. Too little may mean elements of the syllabus are not reinforced sufficiently and retention over time is weaker as a result. Some schools will allow children to do their homework at school (usually then referred to as ‘prep’) and there would usually be someone to assist or at least monitor the group. If homework is taken home, ask how the school feels about parents or siblings helping out if a child gets stuck. Also, ask about their view of private lessons with a home tutor to supplement study, particularly at crunch times.
Ask about broadening a child’s mind through excursions to art galleries, museums and castles. Educational day trips should be expected but also dig for more extended trips, a French exchange, Geography field trip, Ski trip or Adventure challenge, possibly post exam. Of late, there has been a tendency to shy away from trips due to the endless risk assessments required and the need for both children and staff to sacrifice holiday time. Most schools appreciate that the benefits outweigh the inconvenience but look into the detail of what is on offer and for which year groups.
In Part 2, the spotlight will be on children with particular needs socially and academically. How do schools integrate and monitor these children so that they too succeed and thrive?