June 19, 2024

Around this time every year thousands of families complete their secondary school choices. The lucky ones can send their 11 year olds to a good local school that, like a house purchase, just feels right. There’s lots of sound educational research showing that most kids do well when their parents support them in schools (and many do badly when their parents don’t.) Parents who make sure their kids read, do a bit of homework, talk with them occasionally and make sure that phones and games machines are nowhere near their bedrooms, these parents may enjoy the secondary school experience more than they had feared.

For those who are struggling to make the choice – and often this is limited by postcode and income – here’s my 3rd Choosing A Secondary School blog.

In East Hertfordshire some people will choose to send their children to private schools because they have more money than sense and/or they want their neighbours to know that they are better than them. My money is a measure of my worthiness and if I have struggled to pay then my sacrifice is my justification. 7% of children are in private schools, many in the low achieving hippy-rich mickey mouse institutions we have in the shires.

Many private schools are still entering children for iGCSEs rather than GCSEs. The Department for Education said that iGCSEs are sub-standard and not fit for purpose. There are no league tables, national curriculum, SATs or Ofsted inspections for private schools. Just give them your money; tell your friends.

In most areas of the country private schools rank no higher than state schools. I have taught and reared children who have done better in exams than every private school child in our nearest, snobbiest, £34,000 a year, most esteemed private school.

The slouching, silver-spooned Rees Mogg didn’t like the bedclothes at Eton so nanny came every week to change them for the 11 year old.

Some parents make a conscious, rational decision to get rid of their kids for as long as possible by sending them to boarding schools and paying up to £40,000 a year.  It’s like being in care without the stigma and children do mess with one’s social life. Young people’s prisons cost at least double per inmate and the food isn’t nearly as good. Private school will possibly teach your children the manners parents should have instilled but, as the short story writer Saki said, “if you truly want a boy to be vicious you have to send him to a good public school.”

So, on to more practical advice on how to choose a secondary school.

Go Local

I want to see local schools which welcome all children who can access the curriculum. I want everyone in our area to have a good school where their children can be safe, happy and successful; a school that unites people in a community, regardless of race, religion, gender or wealth.

Sort of, a school high on morality, community: an equal opportunity meritocracy.

If your child is in a local school they can walk in with their friends, attend before-school and after-school clubs, go for tea with their friends, make friends for life and just be normal. Much of what we offer children is the social interaction with other children and being ferried in and out by parents does not help anxious children develop confidence. Local families with a local school at the centre of their community.

Schools are better now

If you are choosing a new school for your children, please understand that the vast majority of our schools are much better than when you went to school yourself. Teachers are better teachers and lessons are fuller, better resourced, supported by online software and carefully planned.

Talk to People

Your neighbours and their children know a lot about their school.  It’s best not to accost stray children for interrogation as our CCTV and Safeguarding procedures are really good.

Selection by Religion

I have written many times about my concerns for faith schools. They are by design separatist and divisive and encourage social segregation. However, faith schools can now admit 100% Catholics, Jews or Muslims and will safely prevent your children coming into contact with people with different ideas on the meaning of life, relationships and gods.

I worry about the curriculum in all schools, with the drive in reverse gear to the artless, toneless mind-numbing rote learning, speed writing and endless test-practising menu characterised by largely irrelevant SATs in Year 6 and Year 11 GCSEs that measure very little. I was taught the Catholic view of many things, which included virgin birth, resurrection and the chastity of priests.

Take care with Ofsted

One of our local outstanding schools was last inspected 8 years ago – a school lifetime – staff, children, headteacher and governors have changed. I have previously reproduced research showing that many of our “outstanding” schools have the highest pupil scores on admission in Year 7. The correlation between Year 6 attainment of a school’s intake and Ofsted rating is stunning. It is statistically harder for mixed comprehensives to satisfy Ofsted than for a fat man on a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

I wonder if the point of secondary admissions is to stop the children most in need of a good education actually getting in to the best schools. And, inviting approbation and condemnation from my colleagues, some headteachers seem actively engaged in turning away these children.

Selection By Grammar School

Apparently (they got consultants in for this) if you select the kids doing best at tests at age 11 and put them in one school, that school will have the highest achievers in GCSE tables five years later. Stunning. Apparently, it is also hotter near the Equator.

However, real school achievement is the progress made by students in the time between joining the school at age 11 and leaving at age 16.  Progress 8 tells parents how well bright kids did and grammar schools are not always the best at this.

Rather than taking a small proportion of bright poor kids and sticking them in grudgingly benevolent grammar schools let’s put massive resourcing into the schools in poorer areas. Get the best teachers with higher salaries and subsidised housing and create the infrastructure and local economy to employ the high achieving youngsters. Admire and emulate virtually all of Scandinavia.

Or we could select all the academically able kids and put them in schools with thatched roofs. Then, when they achieve good GCSEs we can call for the spread of thatched roofs throughout the country.

Comprehensives Selecting Too

If the school has a test – usually looking for musical or linguistic ability is that your good school? How can comprehensives select their students?

If a school, “tries hard with kids with special needs but is not very good at it,” is that a sign of excellence?  Look out for the schools that tell parents that the school is jolly good with exceptionally bright children.

Schools defend themselves:

Why should schools admit kids who need a little extra help, children who should flourish in an outstanding school, if there is a risk that Ofsted will criticise, league tables condemn and parents choose elsewhere?

NHS hospitals could prosper by turning away sick people as unsuitable.

Some of the “outstanding” schools find educating children who need a little help the equivalent of climbing mountains in ankle length skirts, which brings us to,

Selection By School Uniform

For some parents the uniform rules can be a tremendous signal of a school’s worth: if it is unfashionable and expensive and can only be bought in one shop there’s your good school? I was speaking with a parent whose son’s blazer cost £130, and very pretty it was too. They may be acting illegally but who’s going to tell? I bet his blazer has never been a goalpost.

Selection by Income

Some schools expect an annual “voluntary contribution” from parents – a useful message for families struggling to survive on low incomes at a time when wages have fallen behind prices. I know of a school where the USA football trip – already out of many budgets – demanded that each player’s family bought a £1000 Quiz Night table. Another school requires every student to have their own iPad. Helps keep out the riff raff.

Beware Open Evenings

My imaginary, “How to be a Headteacher” course tutors us in how to describe our schools. On Open Evenings we are all unique, have a special ethos where moral values are important and teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do.(I love that bit) Emphasise that, “We teach a traditional academic curriculum and have the highest standards.” One must state, “We have many gifted and talented students,” and then the truisms, “We have the highest standards of behaviour,” and “We aim to help all students fulfil their potential?”

Can you imagine a Headteacher suggesting, “Our standards and expectations are low; we tolerate ill-discipline, kids are scruffy on purpose, our curriculum is useless; we don’t care if they progress or do well?” Quite obviously, the opposite of what we say at these events is unimaginable – “the law of the ridiculous reverse” (Simon Hoggart quoted in an excellent “Choosing a secondary school” article in The Guardian 23rd September 2014)

Emphasise Latin if you’ve got it. My daughter achieved a very good Vocational Latin grade that would endear her school to the pariah, Michael Gove.

As I approach my 20th Open Evening as a Headteacher I am aware that these events are proof that every science lesson contains explosions or volcanic actions and that PE teachers wear suits. One must never consider how many children, on how many occasions, contributed to the building of a wonderful car. The Headteacher, my friend, Kit Car Steve has retired; the car lives on.

The money a school has in its accounts was allocated to schools to educate children. Thousands of pounds are spent on glossy brochures, designer websites and superfluous adverts. Pose the children carefully by the nice tree; blonde girls with ponytails most prominently.

School facilities may well be very good but say, “state of the art,” “the envy of others” or even “the finest in the country,” and pray that no-one asks for the evidence. A few computers in a library can be state of the art to some of us older people.

Tour the School During the Day

Are the children happy, busy, silent, occupied, interested, active, co-operating? Is the school well resourced, warm, well heated, ventilated, safe? Ask about extra curricula matters, staff turnover, pastoral care and watch the interaction between staff and students and between the students themselves.

Choose your own criteria and be very upset by girls’ skirt length.


Tell schools your Level 6, gifted daughter plays violin for England and watch them fall over themselves to form a disorderly queue for her admission.

Dennis O’Sullivan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *