Choosing a school from a lay perspective

3 Jan

I           A Parental Dilemma

In autumn 2013, an employee at my newsagent, who is of Sri Lankan origin, was fretting about the choice of primary school for his child who was three-years old.   He had gathered that Ofsted had judged his neighbourhood state (community) school as “requiring improvement”.  Unsurprisingly, he was keen to find another further afield, but every one of them appeared to be over-subscribed.  It was unlikely that the local authority would offer his son a place at a school other than the one which he did not want.  He asked my opinion.

I happened to know the school rather well as I worked with the governors.  However, I advised him to go with his wife and visit the school to see what it was offering the children.  As he was shy, retiring and from another country with an educational system a world away from ours, he felt lost.  He did visit but placed much more weight on what I said.

Not wanting to mince my words, I said that how good a school is will be unique to every child.  What may be good for one child may not suit another.  Further, a pupil may have a fantastic experience and progress leaps and bounds one year with a class teacher and do diabolically the next, because of the unfortunate quality of learning he experiences at the hands of the next class teacher.   The leadership does its best to promote high standards of education across the school but occasionally, it’s a game of roulette.

However, I informed him that the governors and staff at this particular school had been working assiduously over the previous year and certainly since Ofsted had given the institution a notice to improve.   Staff members not pulling their weight had made their exit and new, high quality teachers, including some from Teach First, had been recruited to take their places.  The school was also in the process of growing from two to four forms of entry and had spanking new buildings to assist with that expansion.

The choice of school, I added, had to be his.  But whatever he did, it was important that he or his wife or both of them take an interest in the child’s development at the school of choice.

The government and media constantly place education in the marketplace.   Parents view schools differently.   Goods that are defective can be returned and replaced with others.   Schools which are defective cannot be replaced that easily.   Besides, once a child begins at one school, it is not in her/his interest, when problems arise, to be placed somewhere else where the youngster is bereft of friends and familiar faces.   There is a semi-permanence of schools not found in the supermarkets or departmental stores.

Accordingly, parents are subjected to agonising and nagging concerns when choosing schools for their charges.   Headteachers and governors are keen to make it that much easier for them to do so but can hardly be blamed if they set their schools up as shining examples and, consequently, mark down other institutions consciously or unconsciously.   Parents are very much on their own in this respect.

II          Criteria for making judgements

“So what do savvy parents do when selecting a school?” headteachers and governors often ask.

The first two sources of information they inevitably mine are test/exam results and the latest Ofsted report.  The data are easily found on the internet.   At primary level, the government set a minimum benchmark below on pupil achievement in 2013/14.  Altogether, at least 65% of children at the end of Key Stage 2 were expected to attain level 4 and above in both, English and mathematics.  At the end of Key Stage 4, a school’s floor standard was for 40% of pupils to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, including GCSEs or International GCSEs in both, English and mathematics.

Staying with test and exam results, parents are keen to see where schools are in the league tables.   In the halcyon days, public (i.e. private) schools were ahead of the pack.   Much less so now with state schools breathing down their necks. Grinling Gibbons Primary School in Deptford, London, the highest performing state primary school in the country vis-à-vis SATs results, did better in Reading and English Grammar than the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys Preparatory School in Elstree – the school that topped the independent league table. (The fees at Haberdashers’ range from £12,561 to £16,662 a year.)   At Grinling Gibbons, where 40.5% of pupils are on free school meals and 48.3% have English as another language (EAL), education is free at the point of delivery.

How well a school has done during the last Ofsted inspection would be a second criterion that parents use.   If a school has been judged good or outstanding, there is more likelihood that it will be the one of choice.  If it has been given a “requires improvement” or “in special measures grading”, it becomes much less desirable.

In helping parents to decide, governors and headteachers could organise open days for school visits.  Parents could then spend time looking at the displays of work in the classrooms and around the school and enquiring about the range of extra-curricular activities, including music, drama and sport, and the quality of pastoral care.

Governors and headteachers could make it possible for those who wish to see the school during a normal school day.  A powerful way in which this could be organised is if the senior-most pupils in the school show these parents around.  Viewing the school through the eyes of the pupils makes the experience that much more authentic.   Children are powerful ambassadors for the school.  And for the parents being shown around, children are often the mothers and the fathers from whom the adults learn.

Finally, before wise parents choose a school for their children they watch and assess how the headteacher operates and interacts with pupils, parents and staff.   Does the headteacher know the names of staff – and the pupils?   How does she/he treat them and vice versa.  Is the atmosphere permeated with fear and/or disrespect or dignity and civility?

The headteacher and/or governors could also give parents the opportunity of asking questions, which frequently focus on the quality of the curriculum being offered – including the hidden curriculum.   Parents will want to establish whether the school merely concentrates on examination results or provides a curriculum which is well-rounded and prepares children for life beyond the school gates.

And what of the father of the child of Sri Lankan origin?  The other day, when I bought my newspaper from him, he had a smile that could eat a banana sideways when I asked him how his child was doing.   His response was overwhelmingly positive.  He was delighted with the progress his child was making and relieved that his wife and he had chosen well.

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