Revealed … the great schools test for parents. How to choose the right school?

10 June 2009
The Yorkshire Post
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IT’S one of the most important things that you, the parents, will ever do. Unfortunately, you are not the only ones involved in the choice that could have such a monumental impact on your child’s life.

Often it’s the local education authority or school itself that makes the final decision, and for many families the outcome is not the one they were hoping for. According to Francis Gilbert, they could have got the school of their choice if they’d planned their strategy well in advance and played the system right.

Gilbert, who’s been an English teacher in London secondary schools for the last 16 years, has written a book that aims to help parents and children to get what they want and need from the education system, from winning a place at a good school to helping children to settle in, understanding school reports, and even tackling bullying.

He travelled around the country, visiting different kinds of school and interviewing parents, teachers and education authorities. What he found, particularly outside London, did on the whole reassure him.

However, he felt that there was a need for parents to be more clued-up and organised about getting what they wanted from the system. Research showed that parents did not know what to expect from a school, and felt rather lost and excluded once their child actually went there.

"It can be very difficult for parents, especially if they live in an area where the schools are oversubscribed," he says. "I’ve spoken to a lot of mums and dads who’ve moved so that they can get their child into a good school, and many who’ve started going to church although they are atheists in order to get their child into a church school. It’s absurd."

It’s all very well to say this kind of voting with your mortgage or feigning of religious belief is absurd; it would happen a lot less if parents felt they could have faith in their local state school.

One Yorkshire mother described how she still crosses the street to avoid parents she know lied about their address, or changed homes with a relative in order to get their child into a "better" school. "We played a straight bat and failed, and there seemed to be no enforcement of the rules on false information, so cheats got what they wanted."

Put at its simplest, what does Gilbert think is a good school, apart from reasonable academic results, and all the touch-feely stuff about atmosphere and a caring environment?

"At primary level, it is basically a school where each teacher has a good relationship with pupils and teaches the whole curriculum in a co-ordinated way, so that it makes more sense. I came across quite a few dream schools where this is happening."

He advises parents to visit each school they are considering at least twice, at different times of the day and week, and to start their "campaign" a good couple of years before applications are made. In the year before your application, "shadow" another parent who’s going through the process ahead of you.

For secondary level, it can be a lot more difficult to assess what’s going on, Gilbert lays out a wide array of criteria by which parents should judge a school.

One of his cleverest suggestions is to chat-up junior members of staff and secretaries about staff turnover, problems of finding staff to stay in certain areas, not forgetting to ask all of them if they would send their child to this school.

"The burning issues for parents are ‘what is a good school and how do I get my child into that kind of school, and once they’re in a school, how do I help them to be happy?’ Parents told me that they feel kind of bamboozled about what’s really going on inside schools.

One of the best schools he visited was a secondary in the Welsh Valleys. "It had a fantastic atmosphere. It was very ordinary in lots of ways, and the kids were not all middle-class, by any means.

"They opened the door for you, and seemed considerate. The school had a real open-door policy, too, where they were happy for an outsider to go in and delve around into what they do."

One important clue as to the quality of a secondary school, says Gilbert, is whether pupils you talk to there have a sense of where they are going and what their targets are, no matter what their level.

If they are aware of what their personal targets are and have regular discussions with each teacher about how to attain their goals, the school is doing something very important properly.

"Parents don’t seem to know that every child is, under Government rules, entitled to an Individual Action Plan. These mean a lot of work for teachers, but are very worthwhile. Particularly if your child seems to be having difficulty in a subject, the IAA helps by setting out how they can improve and how progress will be monitored. Parents should ask about this, if they are not already aware of it."

Francis Gilbert’s previous book, Yob Nation, looked at the downside of street culture in Britain. With The New School Rules, he wanted to create something more positive.

"I feel that parents need to be forewarned and forearmed, and that I’m in a good position to do it without any kind of bias. You have to know about the questions to ask, the chicanery that can go on around school admissions, the massaging of statistics, and how to play your part in ironing out problems your child has at school. There’s a huge amount for a parent to learn."

Gilbert and his wife have a six-year-old son whom they decided in the end to send to a local independent school, feeling that the state primary he would have been allocated was nowhere near ideal.

He says he still believes, though, that "if you motivate your child, it doesn’t matter what school they go to".

The New School Rules – The Parents’ Guide to Getting The Best Education for Your Child by Francis Gilbert is published by Portrait on May 24. To order a copy for £12.99 plus £1.95 postage and packing, call The Yorkshire Post Bookshop free on 0800 0153232.or order online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk

Making Sense Of League Tables

• Check out English and maths scores: these are the most reliable statistics in the table. If a primary school is scoring below 50 per cent at Level 4 in English at Key Stage 2 (tests taken by 10/11-year-olds) then less than half the children are reading at the level expected for their age. Alarm bells should be ringing.
• Check out the A-C grades: in secondary school, it is very easy to get a G grade at GCSE, so the most meaningful data is the A-C category.
• Check the number of SEN (Special Educational Needs) pupils: If there are a lot of children with SEN, then this can tell you that the school has many pupils who are struggling to cope. However, if the school has a high number of SEN students and still achieves highly, then it is probably a very good school.
• Get a long-term perspective: look at a school’s results over a four or five-year period. Sometimes a school has had one fantastic year, but is generally mediocre. Looking at results of a few years, gives you an idea of the general trend
• Beware of dodgy statistics: be wary of "value-added" scores. They are worth taking into account, as they assess what has been added to a child’s achievement since joining the school, but ways of measuring these scores seem to change each year, and they can make poorly performing schools look good because pupils enter at such a low benchmark.
• Trawl the best websites: the most exhaustive site for explaining league tables is the government’s: www.dfes.gov.uk/performancetables/

Understanding OFSTED Reports
(Reports are accessible at www.ofsted.gov.uk)
• Beware of out-of-date information: if the report is more than two years old, it may not be reliable
• Pay particular attention to the section on the overall effectiveness of the school: this is where a judgment is made about the teaching and learning, the curriculum, behaviour of pupils, progress and achievement, the way it cares for pupils and their safety, the quality of the head and senior management team, and the social and personal development of pupils. Alarm bells should ring if core areas like English, maths or science are deemed to be "inadequate".
• Make sure you understand the grading system: inspectors arrive at grades 1-4 looking at different aspects of a school. They judge all the different components at a school then give an overall opinion. Be wary – a school may be great on health, curriculum and contribution of pupils but have poor discipline, and may still attain a good overall grading because of all the things it is doing right.
• Beware of a school which has been put into "special measures": the inspectors are considering closing this school down because its failings are so serious.
• Beware of political correctness: look at all the key points, but be aware that OFSTED can be either too kind or too harsh. Inspectors look at a whole range of factors, and it may be that the school has been praised in areas that you don’t particularly
value.
• Squeeze the juice out of the report: scan the report for vital clues, like the staff recruitment situation and turnover. What are the extras this school offers? Does it have specialists teaching maths and science? Look at the quality of teaching and learning, the ability to cater for children with special needs, and comments on pupils’ behaviour.
• Beware self-assessment: The latest fad of inspectors is the School Improvement Plan (SIP), in which schools assess themselves. Common sense tells you that these will not be entirely reliable. Look at the pupils’ opinion of the school: OFSTED now asks a wide cross-section of pupils for their views, far more than you can talk to on a couple of visits.
• Read OFSTED’S letters to pupils: Letters are sent to pupils after each inspection, putting into clear, simple language what inspectors really think.

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