Step 2: Judging for yourself

Below are some common reasons often given by parents for wanting a school and why it is important for your child that you get the whole picture:

'Everyone says it is a good school.' Schools can get good and bad reputations unfairly and can change very quickly with changes in head or staff. What suits one parent of the school may not suit another.

'It had an excellent OFSTED Report.' The reports are important as a guide but they can become very quickly out of date as changes of staff, particularly that of the Headteacher, can significantly alter the performance of a school. You may note particularly the inspectors' views on how well the school supports children with individual needs, what emphasis is laid on speech, language and communication needs, and how pupils behave towards each other, as bullying is inevitably a concern when your child stammers.

'It does well in the league tables.' There are different views on the usefulness of these and the Headteachers' associations are concerned that parents should not rely on them, as there have been mistakes in assessment of children in national tests (SATS) and in recording information provided on achievement of pupils at 16 and 18 plus.

What are the league tables?

In these, secondary schools, state and independent are ranked by the percentage of pupils gaining at least five A* to C grades, including the key subjects of English and Mathematics. The tables also show the percentage of pupils at each school gaining at least five A* to C grades in any subject. The Tables list GCSEs and equivalent vocational exams taken at the same age, such as GNVQs, diplomas and BTECs.

In addition, the tables show the percentage of pupils making the necessary 'progress' between the age of 11 and 16 in English and Maths. At the end of primary school, pupils are expected to gain at least 'Level 4' in SATs tests and should gain at least a C in GCSEs at the end of secondary school. Those gaining a lower Level 3 in SATs should gain at least a D at GCSE. Pupils with a higher Level 5 in SATs should gain at least a B at GCSE.

State schools - the tables also show the 'contextual value-added' score. This shows the progress pupils make between the age of 11 and 16. It also takes account of other factors, such as pupils speaking English as a second language, children with special needs and those eligible for free meals. Roughly speaking, schools with scores higher than 1000 are performing above average, below 1000 is considered below average.

Independent schools - the tables for these can be misleading as they do not show the International GCSE, which is favoured in many schools. A highly academic and achieving school can feature badly in these tables if they take high numbers of IGCSEs, particularly in English and Maths.

'It has a uniform so the discipline must be good.' Uniforms and discipline don't always go together. Remember 'good discipline' means different things to different people.

'It is brand new and has lovely grounds.' Worn but well-loved older buildings can be just as welcoming. It's important to check if the building is well cared for, whatever its age, and can offer the facilities to support the curriculum, such as good Science and Technology specialist provision.

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