All to often I read people writing on Facebook ‘How do I know if a school is a good one?’, the question itself of course is a good one, but the answer is invariably ‘check the Ofsted report’ and at that point my blood begins to boil.
As a teacher, who has taught in mainstream schools and special schools, independent schools and state schools, primary schools and secondary schools – I can tell you hand on heart, that at best Ofsted reports are a partial story and at worst they are a falsehood. I have worked in incredible schools who have put each and every one of their pupils’ needs first, that Ofsted haven’t valued, and terrible ones who have received good or above ratings. The reality is, that no matter how hard they try to get a full picture, they can only ever see a tiny snapshot in time – a snapshot during which by the very nature of an inspection neither the teachers nor the pupils behave in the way that they normally would.
Now I’m not suggesting not to read the reports of the schools you are considering, on the contrary I would recommend it. They are a good starting point. But they are only that, read them – make notes of the parts you like and don’t like – then ask questions about them when you visit the school.
For me, far more valuable than any report, is the feeling you get when you walk round a school.
Does it feel like a happy place? Are the children and teachers smiling, not just at you but at each other? Are the staff interested in the intricacies of your child, or just looking at them as a number on a seat? Ultimately all children learn best when they are happy, the most important criteria you can use when selecting a school is, do I think my child will be happy here.
Schools like parents have different values; some focus on academics more than others, some are sportier than others, some are kinder than others. Ask questions, talk to the head, find out what the school stands for and cares about and make sure its values align with yours. If you love competitive sport, you might want to check the school’s method for choosing their teams – do they choose the best children in the year group or do they like to give each child in the year a chance? Are manners your thing? Take a look and see if students hold the doors for visitors, or stand when people enter the room. These are things no Ofsted report can tell you, but they are important and if you choose a school who view things the way you as a family do there is much less likelihood of difficulties later down the line.
Academic results are increasingly important, and are undoubtedly a way that schools are judged. But remember that they are only ever a partial story. Look at the results, but don’t dismiss a school because you don’t like what the results look like on paper. Talk to the school about why the results are as they are, it may be that the school has an excellent record of working with children with Special Needs which distort the overall picture or it may be that a school’s catchment area presents them which challenges outside their control. Likewise, if the results seem too good, questions need to be asked. How do they achieve these results? What kind of pressure is put on the children who don’t meet the grade? What happens if a child needs extra help?
There is a vast difference in sizes, from schools with 30 children to schools with 2000+. There isn’t a one size fits all here, it’s all about what’s right for your child. Is a smaller nurturing environment somewhere they’ll thrive? Or would they benefit more from the resources and opportunities available in a larger setting? There is no right and wrong answer, there are brilliant schools of all sizes, it’s just about you, your child and their needs.
Talk to staff at the school, not just the head but the teachers. Are they interested and approachable? If you had a problem are they the sort of people you feel you could talk to? Even more importantly, if your child had a problem are they the sort of people they could talk to? Again, to some degree, there’s no right or wrong here. We all have very different personalities, and what works for one family may not work for another. Talk, listen, and make the judgements that work for you.
Chat to other parents whose children attend the school, find out what they like about it, what they don’t like about it and whether they would choose the school again. They are there, experiencing the setting every day, and their opinions are valuable. That said, their child isn’t your child, their family situation isn’t yours. So listen carefully to what they say, but then as with everything else, form your own opinions based on your own child.
But How Do I Decide?
This is one decision I recommend making with your heart, if your child is comfortable and happy they will learn. If you are comfortable and happy with where you send them, you will be best placed to support their journey. So read those figures, take onboard the reports, but if your gut instruct tells you something different, follow it. Your child spends a long time at school; happiness matters.