Choosing the right school for your child
Barnaby Lenon is a highly-respected education professional. He helped to set up the London Academy of Excellence free school, and is a Board Member of the exam regulator Ofqual and a Trustee of the New Schools Network. He was previously the Headmaster of Harrow School. This is the first in a three part series that helps parents to understand how they can best navigate the school system.
Choosing the right school for your child can often seem one of the most daunting tasks imaginable for a parent. However, there are some ways to make sure that the schools you are looking at will give your child the education they deserve.
1) Primary School
For primary schools, the first step is to go to the DfE’s school performance checker (https://www.compare-school-performance.service.gov.uk/), and put in the name of any school you are interested in, as well as looking at their Ofsted report on the Ofsted website (https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/) or on the school’s own website.
You can immediately see how well the school does at Key Stage 2 (the tests normally taken at age 11) and progress made since Key Stage 1 (taken at age 6 usually). The meaning of these two sets of data has to be interpreted carefully, because a school that puts a lot of effort into Key Stage 1 will likely find that the “Progress Since Key Stage 1” score is depressed. Also, a school in a middle class area would expect to get significantly better results at key stage 2 than a school in a working class area.
Nevertheless, this is useful data for Primary parents.
2) Secondary School
Firstly, as for primary schools, go to the DfE’s school performance checker, and also look up the school’s last Ofsted report on the Ofsted website or on the school’s website (or, for an independent school, the ISI’s website). This should clearly state all the strengths and weaknesses of the school, although an Ofsted report which is more than two years’ old should be treated with caution.
The DfE’s performance checker is particularly useful at this level. GCSE progress measures look at the average GCSE grade achieved by each child compared to all those other children in England who scored a similar Key Stage 2 SATs score when they were aged 11. Progress 8 is the main such measure from 2016 – the progress in a basket of eight GCSEs. A score of zero means the school achieved the same amount of progress as the average school; higher than that is good.
The reason the progress score is so important is that the raw GCSE results (what proportion got a grade A or what proportion got a grade C etc.) are very much influenced by the ability of the pupils on entry. Some schools admit a much higher proportion of able or high-achieving pupils than others. Progress measures are therefore a better measure of the quality of a school’s teaching than raw results.
Here is an example:
- I go into the DfE’s online school performance checker.
- I put in the name of a school: “Chelsea Academy.” I look for “Progress 8 score.” The score in 2016 is +0.38. This is a good result which puts the school in the top 30% in the country. On average pupils got 0.38 of a GCSE grade higher than the average of all other pupils in England with similar key stage 2 results.
- Next I look at “Similar schools.” The table shows how Chelsea Academy’s performance compares with all schools whose pupils had a similar achievement profile at key stage 2. On a list of 55 schools it comes 15th based on the proportion of children gaining five GCSEs graded A* to C including English and maths. Quite good.
3) Sixth form
These same methods can also be used when looking to change school for sixth form, as A-Level value added measures are also given. So, as above, I look up Chelsea Academy, 16-19, A-Level performance, value added score. The score is 0.05. This shows how much progress students made between GCSEs and A-Levels. The score is shown as a number of A-Level grade(s) above or below the national average level of progress for students of similar prior ability. 0.05 is a positive score, albeit not a high one. This tells me that the A-Level results are quite good. 0.3 would be excellent.
It is also worth noting that some schools get good results at A-Level because they demand very good GCSE grades if a student wishes to take A-Levels in the first place, and also because a large proportion of the students are asked to leave at the end of Year 12, half way through the A-Level course. So the A-Level results of any school need to be looked at in this light. It is not hard to find out the GCSE requirements for entry to a school sixth form (they tend to range from five C grades to five or six A grades, and should be stated on the school’s website); to find out about the proportion who leave after Year 12 you can either ask the school or look at a recent Ofsted inspection report.
You also need to ask the school to show you the destination data for their pupils who left at the age of 18. Which universities did they go to? Does the school provide extra lessons for those who might apply to Oxford, Cambridge or medical school?
4) Extra-Curricular Activities
You may well be interested in worthwhile activities which occur outside the classroom such as sport, drama and music. It is not enough that a school simply offers these things. You need to determine, by asking current pupils and their parents, how good they are. How many sports teams go out on a Saturday, for example? Is there a school orchestra? How often does it perform? Ditto the choir.
A weaker school will offer these activities but they will be thin on the ground. There will be one football team. There will be two plays a year. A strong school will have 10 football teams and six plays a year.
There are of course other actions that should be undertaken when choosing a school – visits, for example, and asking other parents – but these are ways to quickly work out which school in your area might be the best one for your child.