questions to ask at secondary school visits

Applying for secondary schools and the questions to ask

Now N’s in year 6 and school’s back, it means it’s time to think about applying for secondary schools. We’ve got until the end of October to apply – in our case it’s 4 schools we can put down, although there’s only really 2 that are options. And one of those has a ‘how the hell am I going to get him back from school during the working day’ as there wouldn’t be any transport options.   I’ve been pulling together all the questions to ask secondary schools before we apply.

You can find my useful questions to ask at primary school visits post if you’re at that stage.

Last year’s and this year’s year 7s may have had to start secondary school without even visiting the secondary school they’re starting at. Because I like to be organised, we’d done virtual open evenings for several schools, but it’s not the same as being able to walk around and get a feel for the place. Especially missing out the chance to speak to current students.  

I’m now on the look out for any open days to go to – N’s quite keen to actually visit the 2 schools that will be our top choices. A virtual event isn’t the same, and you don’t really get to ask questions that you would if you’re there in person. 

questions to ask at secondary school visits

Hard decisions about secondary schools

To make a decision about secondary schools isn’t as easy as primary school. Ours was obvious. Realistically, N will probably just go to the catchment secondary school. It’s where I went, and where the OH and his brother and sister went, and where all the nephews have gone. It’s middle of the road, and we know he’ll get a place there. 

But they can’t guarantee transport – we’ll have to pay even if they do have spaces, because it’s not our nearest school. The rule of not guaranteeing transport to catchment schools because they might not be the nearest school is ridiculous. If he went to the nearest school, it’s all of 0.5km nearer, he probably wouldn’t get a place, and it’s in town. In our case, all the rural villages feed into the village secondary school in the area. So there should be transport supplied, even if we’re paying for it.

The other main option is just over the border in another village. The school’s result are a touch better, but lots of children from our school go there because it’s half the size of the catchment school. Going from a primary with under 100 children, to a school with 1600 in is a jump too far for many parents. But there’s no transport there from our nearest village in the morning, they have an early finish, and while there is meant to be a bus that goes via the village on the way home, all previous children from the village going there have relied on lifts. 

We know we’ll be bottom of the criteria for this school, with N’s birth year being a baby boom year, but most people seem to think they end up letting in more children if needed. Given N’s gone through primary with his year group over capacity, I don’t really want him to have another 5+ years with more children being crammed in than should be.

So I’ve got a lot of questions, and have also been trawling the school websites to try and work out the answers.  With the catchment school, I’ve got other parents and children to ask their views, and might have to ask some parents about the other school too.

Questions to ask when choosing secondary schools

How does transition from primary school work? Do they get moving up days in Year 6 to meet other children going, and get a feel for the place.

Is there a buddy system for year 7s? If so, how are children matched, what are the expectations for this?

Are you doing summer school for new year 7s? During Covid times, this year some schools did anywhere from a year to a week of summer school for children to go in over the holidays, meet the teachers and other new year 7s. Is this likely to continue – think about when your holidays will be to avoid clashes.

How much of the summer challenges are you expecting new year 7s to complete?  I’d never seen this before, but some schools provide ‘work’ challenges over the summer. It could be to keep children using their brains over the holidays, but also for the purpose of assessing how children cope with working for themselves.

What communication methods are used, and what frequency with parents?  Moving to primary school will be a shock for me as we get a lot of good communication from our primary. I’m expecting this to drop right off for secondary. But how do they communicate to parents?  How much of it comes via the child, or via newsletters or website.

How are children streamed and which subjects? How is this assessed throughout school life? Do they take SATs results, do assessments on starting.  If children progress faster, or struggle, is there the opportunity to move them up or down as needed. 

How does the house/team system work?  Is there a buddy system, how involved do children get in their houses, or is everything based more around tutor groups within their own year.

How are children split into tutor groups? Is there a chance they may stay with children from their primary school?  Some schools ask parents or teachers from primary to suggest friendships that might want to stay together.

How is behaviour managed? What anti-bullying procedures are in place? Ask for examples of how the victim is protected, what’s the process to ensure there aren’t repeat incidences.

What discipline is used in school? 

What SENCO support is there through the school? 

For children who struggle with certain subjects, what additional support is available to get them up to speed? 

How strict is the uniform policy? Do you have to buy everything on the uniform list, or are there items that are on there but aren’t really necessary (especially on sportswear – some schools have football boots, or specific additional sports jackets or rugby tops as well as the core t shirt and shorts. But then they’re never used. If you have strong feelings about uniform policies being too strict, maybe you’d want to avoid a school that’s really strict about uniforms. 

How much flexibility is there around GCSE choices if subjects clash? What happens if children really struggle or hate subjects in one option category (e.g languages), can they do a different subject, or do they have no choice. Can children take extra GCSEs or are they restricted to a certain number?

When do children start their GCSEs? Are they studied across 3 years or the more traditional 2 years?

Are there alternative qualification options other than GCSEs available like the Baccalaureate? If so, how does that impact other non core subjects?

How many children stay on here to do A Levels? What grades do they need to stay on for A Levels? If there is a 6th form, maybe think about what’s on offer there if children want to progress further staying at the same school.

How often are children assessed and how? Informal assessment, or annual formal exams.

How much homework is there, how is it set?  Most nowadays is online, so think about making sure you’ve got suitable broadband and equipment with a year to go until your child starts.

What support is there for gifted children? Is there a programme, how are they supported? Can they take exams early?

What extra curricular activities are there? Lunch times and after school. If your child loves music, is there a thriving musical offer with lessons, instrumental groups, performance opportunities?

What sports options are there?  My son really doesn’t want to play contact rugby, but the secondary he’ll likely go to has 2 half terms of rugby on their syllabus for year 7s and 8s. Boys seem to pull the short straw in having limited sports they can play in PE and Games. It’s usually football and rugby, maybe athletics or cricket in summer. But can they get to play other sports later in the school, or are there sports clubs that cover more minor sports.  Does the school have sports teams, play fixtures against other schools. How do they give all children the chance to play sports even if they’re not the best players?

How does after school transport work around after school activities? What happens if a child misses their school bus?

How inclusive is the school? Do they have a positive policy, How do they communicate this to students?

How does the lunch system work? Where do children eat if they have packed lunches, or have school lunches but clubs are on. Most schools nowadays have cashless canteens. 

Do you have awards or a merit system? How does it work to keep it fair?  How does the school encourage all children to achieve.

How quickly are you able to pick up any issues?  Either with personal or educational problems.

What do children do when it’s wet at breaktimes?

What provision of equipment or books for children is there? Do they have to share or do parents buy books? Are there set calculators that should be used?

How do teachers get the best out of all children?  Especially the middle ground children who don’t get the extra focus?

How large are classes?

How many teachers are new in the last 2 years? What’s the average teaching time at this school? 

How much involvement is there from the academy trust? 

If you’ve done school visits or applications, how did you find them?

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  1. Large boy is in year 5 so we’ve got a year before we need to make decisions and fill in forms. You’ve suggested some excellent questions that hadn’t crossed my mind though, I’ll file away the email notification for this post so we can come back to it next year. Good luck working out all the logistics for N.

    1. It does feel like such a hard decision. I think it would be so much easier if more were going to the catchment school. We’d have just applied there with no issues. But knowing that there could potentially just be N and one other child going, I’d hate for all his friends to go off to another school together, and he’ll have missed out the chance to be there with them for their next school era.

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