Autumn marks the start of post-primary school visits for parents of children in their last years of primary education. League tables and ETI inspection reports only give part of the picture, so what should parents look for when they're choosing a school?
When should I start looking at post-primary schools?
You can't apply for a post-primary place until your child is in Year 7, but parents of Year 6 children are welcome to attend open days.
If there are grammar schools in your area, it's definitely worth looking at schools at the start of Year 6 so you can decide whether you want your child to sit the transfer test. Making that decision early on allows extra time for preparation, and if your preferred school is a non-selective, then your child won't need to sit the exam.
What do I need to know about the NI transfer tests?
The 11+ transfer test was abolished in 2008 but was immediately replaced by two private transfer tests – AQE and GL. You will need to check directly with the grammar schools which test results they accept. Most schools have a preference for one test, whereas a few will accept both. A list of the schools and their preferred tests can be found here. Primary Schools are not responsible for registering children for the test, nor are they allowed by the EA to prepare children for these tests, full responsibility for both lies with parents. Full details regarding registration can be found on both AQE and Post Primary Transfer Consortium (GL) websites.
Registration for both tests open in Spring until September, so having visited post-primary Open Days with your child when they are in Year 6 is very important.
More information is available here on both tests for parents, including details of the mark band grammar schools have accepted pupils on in previous years.
Which schools should I visit?
Depending on where you live, when you take into account distance and transport routes, the reality is there may not be very many schools to look at. Nearly all schools base their admission criteria on the distance between your home and the school, and priority is usually given to siblings, so do a bit of research first to find out what your options really are. You'll find an admission policy and prospectus on most school websites.
Once you've identified the schools in your area, then pick out those you'd like to look at. At this stage, don't rule any out based on reputation, but do think about whether you're going to consider grammar, non-selective, all-ability or independent schools.
What can I find out before the school visit?
Once you've narrowed down your search, there's plenty you can find out about a school from the comfort of home. Spend some time doing a bit of online research, checking out ETI reports, GCSE and A Level league tables, school websites and local forums.
It's important to bear in mind the selection process of the schools you're comparing. A non-selective school that's on the up is unlikely to score as highly as a grammar school that's coasting, but a motivated team of teachers could be just what your teenager needs. You'll find a prospectus on most schools' websites. This will give you an idea of which subjects the school specialises in so you can consider whether these match your child's interests and talents.
Word of mouth. If you want to get an idea of what parents with pupils at the school think, ask around at your child's primary school; there are probably children in their class with older siblings at the schools you're considering. Conversations on local social media groups and forums will give you an idea of what's going on at the school and how well the school and parents communicate. Bear in mind though, it's often only the very best and the very worst that are discussed, so read with caution.
How do I make the most of school open days?
There's no substitute for visiting the school yourself, so do go along to school open days. If the open day is held in the evening or weekend, make time for another visit on a normal school day so you get to see what it's like without the smokescreen of presentations and displays! What's the mix of children like? How do students and teachers interact in class? What's behaviour like at the end of a lesson and the end of the school day? Is there a welcoming and happy atmosphere? Which facilities does it look like they're investing in?
Take your child along with you so you can gauge their reaction to the school environment, do they feel comfortable there? How did the teachers and older students interact with them? It's about finding the right fit for your child.
Listen to Principal's talk
Go along to the principal's talk to get a feel for the school and it's leadership. What do they value? What is their vision for the school? Is the school taking a whole-child approach or is it more focused on academic achievement? How is the school progressing and how do children of different abilities get on? Take the opportunity to ask the principal a few questions about what matters most to you. For example, what strategies do they have in place for students that aren't achieving their potential? How do they look after the emotional needs of teenagers? Where do their students go on to when they leave? How does the school engage parents?
Chat with the students
Students often act as tour guides at open evenings. They may have been handpicked for the job, but still, teenagers are usually pretty upfront and honest with their opinions. Get them chatting as they show you around, ask them: What do you like most about the school? Which subjects are you taking? Which subjects have you made most progress in? Who are your favourite teachers? How do you find the workload? What support there is for students who are struggling? Which after school clubs do you enjoy? Who can you go to if you need help with a personal matter? If they're happy and confident the conversation will flow.
Talk to the teachers
Get a feel for how the teachers interact with parents as well as students. Do they reflect the same values as the principal? Are they enthusiastic about the school, students and their subject? How do they bring their subject to life especially for students whose interests may lie in other subject areas?
When you get home
Don't dive straight in and ask your child how they felt about the school, give it time to sink in and then have a conversation about what you saw and whether they felt comfortable there. Then ask yourself... Is this the right school for my child?
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