How to… choose a secondary school for 2020 (without losing your cool!)

If you are a parent or carer of a year 5 or 6 child wanting to hide under the covers thinking about choosing a secondary school - read our blog full of top tips to make choosing the right 'big' school for your child a less stressful experience

It comes around fast doesn’t it? Maybe too fast…

It really does feel like one minute you are taking them for their first day at primary school and then, all of a sudden, they seem to be in year 5 or 6 and you are having to start to think about secondary school options. And that feels like a MASSIVE decision to have to make.

We don’t have a time turner unfortunately, but we can offer you some tips on things to look for when you are choosing a secondary school which will hopefully make it less stressful.


Choosing which secondary school your child goes to is a big decision. A milestone for your child (and for you). There are LOTS of things to consider. Just to make it that bit more complicated, some of that decision may be literally taken out of your hands depending on catchment areas, the number of applications received by a school, or it may depend on performance in entrance exams.

Hopefully, this blog will help you focus on some key things to consider and help you choose a secondary school without losing your cool.

Let’s get started

No sooner are the children back at school then there is a flurry of secondary school open days through September/October. View all the dates, listed A-Z by school name

Applications have to be submitted by the 31st October 2019 - and that’s not far away - and this contributes to the feeling that the process is rushed, overwhelming at times, and can be quite emotional. 

We’ve asked some of our Coventry parents and carers for some tips to help you to choose a secondary school without losing your cool, hopefully making it a less stressful experience.

secondary school

Do your homework!

Make a list of the schools you may be interested in and check out the dates when they will be holding open days/evenings.

Every school will be stronger in some areas than others and it’s worth trying to visit a few so you can compare and contrast.

Check out the school admissions criteria as this may rule some options in or out.

and look at the catchment areas. Just because you may be out of catchment for a particular school does not necessarily preclude you from getting in, so they are still worth considering.

Did you know that not all schools have a catchment area? Some Voluntary Aided schools, such as faith schools, academies and free schools, do not use catchment areas in their admission rules, or they use catchments based on parishes instead. For details of this, you will need to check the individual school’s admission policy.

Check out how many places were allocated last year and from which part of the allocation policy- although each year is different, it is probably unlikely you will be allocated a place at a school if you live miles away from the catchment area if it has been oversubscribed within the catchment for instance (with the exception of looked after children)

Catchment areas are not such an issue for those children who are ‘looked after’ by the Local Authority. They have first preference in schools admissions, although the logistics of travelling to and from school and how young people can socialise outside of school with their peers still need to be considered.

If you want to compare what is on offer at private schools many now offer bursaries.

Ofsted website

The school’s Ofsted report may be of interest, but treat with a healthy dose of caution. Reports don’t reflect everything the school is doing and achieving. Be mindful of the date when the report was written as a report written some years ago may not be a reflection of what the school strengths and weaknesses are today. Changes of key staff and other factors mean that schools can change quite quickly. Also, are the strengths or weaknesses of the school identified in the report YOUR priorities for YOUR child? You will know the child best and what is most likely to motivate them in their learning,

It’s natural curiosity to want to look at the school league tables and compare school with school, but again, treat with caution. Go beyond the year-on-year headline figures and look instead at the value-added and expected progress figures for that year. These measures are based upon how well the school has improved children's learning as schools will have children with different start points and therefore this is far more indicative of what a school is doing to support learning and development.

Have a look at Parent View for schools. This shows what parents of children actually think about the school, including whether their children are happy there and if they would recommend it to others. Again, a note of caution here, parents aren’t obliged to complete the questionnaire, so you may just be seeing the view of those parents with really strong opinions- good or bad!

Does your child have any additional needs? See what experiences the school has had, the planning processes for support and the available resources.

Can the school demonstrate how they work with carers of ‘looked after’ children to implement Personal Education Plans (PEPs) and other additional support, including pastoral care and educational support.

teacher and students

Check out the school website. Does the school look like it communicates well with parents and students? Are the school policies and contact details clearly visible?

So, you’ve done the background research, what next?

Go and have a look for yourself!

Visiting a school yourself really is the most important thing. You can read as many reports and glossy brochures as you like, but finding out how you actually feel about a school is invaluable. Some people say choosing a school is a bit like choosing a house. You might ‘just know’ which school is right.

Get the open day dates in your diary! Some schools will only have one open day, others may have an additional one, but you don’t want to miss out.

Coventry child learning

Here’s 15 of our top tips of what to do, ask and look for when you go on a school open day:

Our very top tip:

If your child is in Year 5, then consider going to view the schools this year so you can visit and compare the following year. This gives you an opportunity to find out more about the school and talk to other parents and carers. It also gives you time to reflect, rather than the process being rushed. Do you still feel the same as your first visit or has something changed?

1. Be prepared. Consider what your child is interested in. Make a list of what is important to you and your child, whether that’s sports, drama, technology or traditional academic subjects. What ticks your boxes?

2. Take the most important person with you. After all, your child will spend a lot of time there over the next 5 years (or even more). Discuss the visit with them. How did they feel about the school, what did they like or not like and why? Consider making a list of ‘my favourite things were…’ and ‘I wasn’t sure about…’ as this might help you understand their anxieties and to find out more about some aspects of the school that you as the parent or carer hadn’t even considered to be an issue.

“T said he wasn’t sure about the school at all, but it turned out - eventually - that he was worried about crossing a road nearby to get to the school. Nothing to do with the school itself.”

Michelle, Coventry parent

3. Try to avoid small distractions. Lovely as they are, if possible, leave much younger siblings with a friend, relative or sitter so you can concentrate fully on the school visit!

“We took our 3-year old with us on our first school visit. He loved it, but it made it difficult to concentrate, take in everything and ask the questions we wanted to as we were so distracted trying to keep an eye on him!”

Jo, Coventry parent

4. Go armed with questions. Make them hard! Teaching staff will be all too happy to answer your questions. Don’t be afraid to grill the staff, it’s important to ask those tricky questions and the answers might surprise you! If something is important to you and your child, ask it - and if you forget to ask, email it!

5. Beware the hype! Most schools will produce a lovely glossy brochure and the headteacher will talk to parents and carers about why their school is simply THE best choice. When you get out into the corridors, speak to the student guides about their school. They tend to be incredibly honest! And, if you are feeling super sneaky, try to look in some of the classrooms that aren’t part of the tour. Are they the same standard as the other areas, or is there a reason why they have not been included? Ask why certain departments are not on the tour route.

science class

6. How did you feel about the teachers? Are they friendly, approachable and engaging? Are they knowledgeable? Do they seem proud of the school and engaged in the open day? How do they engage with the students? Did they talk to you, your child or both?

7. What’s the food like? The school canteen/eating areas are the social hubs of the school so are super important for students, but are often overlooked on open days. Take time out to check out these facilities and you might even get to try some of the food on offer - often better than you might remember!

8. What are the toilets like? We know this sounds odd but it can be ‘enlightening’! Some schools are very reticent about letting you see the state of them and others are happy to let you and this tells you a lot about 'behind the scenes' at a school, behind the glossy prospectus.

“My partner says you can tell how a business treats its staff by the state of the toilets, and we applied that principle when choosing a school too.”

Emma, Coventry parent

9. Do a double take! School open days/evenings will give a flavour of the environment, but do bear in mind that you are not seeing it in its ‘normal’ state, going about it’s day-to-day business. Many schools - though not all - will welcome visits during the day so it is worth arranging to go for another look. When you go back, try to speak to some students or teaching staff who were not at the open day and see what their opinions of the school are!

10. Logistics. Just how easy is it to get to and from the school? Is it walkable, is there a safe cycle route, is there public transport or would you drive them there? Bearing in mind that they may not want you to take them to school quite quickly! Is the school close to home to encourage friendships, independent travel with friends and out of school activities? If it's a concern for you it could be useful to check out the outside of the school when students arrive and leave. What is behaviour like? Is the transport well organised?

11. Word of mouth. Ask other parents what they thought of the school, maybe they have got older siblings in secondary school, what do they think? Are they happy with the school? This can be a useful indicator, but be mindful that all children are different and will experience and react to school differently.

“The most important question to consider for me, is will my child be happy at this school?” Andrew, parent of Year 6 pupil, Coventry.

12. Value-added. Consider what before-school, lunchtime and after-school clubs are available. Is there something that interests your child as an extracurricular activity?

13. Ask your child's primary teacher. What do the primary staff think of certain secondary schools? They may have some advice, especially if your child has special considerations, whether that be SEN-related, as a high achiever, or as a looked-after child.

14. Detective work. If you get the opportunity, perhaps before a second visit, sit in the reception area on a normal school day for 15 minutes. You’ll get a really good insight into the culture and ethos of the school. Is it clean and welcoming? Are people friendly? Does it feel comfortable?

15. Got younger siblings? Be prepared to do it all again! Siblings will have different needs from a school and it may well be that what's right for one may not be right for the other(s). It’s worth re-visiting schools again through the fresh eyes with each child.

“I wish I had restarted the process with my third child rather than just sending him to same school as his older brother and sister. His needs were totally different and the school simply didn’t suit him.” Elle, Coventry parent

Having a sibling at a school already often means that a younger child is more likely to be offered a place. However, it worth noting that some schools only take account of siblings of compulsory school age i.e. 16 in their admissions process, so older siblings who will attend years 12 or 13 from September 2020 will not be counted.

school classroom

So, what next?

The most important consideration of all is of course your child, and you are best placed to know what works for them. Ask yourself, are you confident your child will be treated and inspired appropriately according to their strengths? Match the school’s strengths to your child’s strengths. Who is going to make the final decision? Parents and carers will have different approaches to this, but it is good to be clear about this before- if you are parenting/ foster caring as a couple it is important that your child is aware of their role and any limitations in the decision making.

'Although I heard of other parents allowing their child to have the final say, my partner and I decided that actually we would make ultimately make the decision. We told our son that we'd all look together and then make a decision based on what we all thought, taking his views into consideration - luckily we all agreed and it has definitely been the right choice for us' Rachel, parent of year 8 and year 6 pupils 

Your child is about to make this seemingly huge transition from primary to secondary school. It is an important time for them (and you!) and they need your support - and your ears. Your child is an individual and it’s important to remember that what best suits one child will not  necessarily suit another, but thinking ahead is still worthwhile

"We only have a 2 year gap between our children, so when we were looking at schools for our eldest we kept the different needs and preferences for our younger child in mind, as ideally we wanted them to go to the same school for a number of reasons. We still did the open evenings and visits for our youngest as we felt it was important that they felt we had chosen for them to- and not just had to step in their older brother's footsteps. Obviously for some families different schools can also be the right choice' Rachel- parent of year 8 and year 6 pupils 

Your child may be initially swayed by schools where their friends are hoping to go. You can reassure them that they will make new friends in whichever school they go to, everyone starting Year 7 will be in the same boat.

“They may be worried about losing their friends, going to a new school and knowing nobody. You can discuss this and reassure them that they will make new friends and that also they can still keep in touch with old friends.” Diane, a Coventry mum

“I chose a school close to home to encourage friendships in the local area and to help with the transition to secondary school with familiar faces” Sally, Coventry Foster Carer

Some useful parting advice from Coventry mum Becky,

“Remember that it’s only a part of their lives and you as a parent are a bigger part. Make time for them once they have started, stop sorting the laundry and look at their timetable with them. Show an interest in what they are reading and learning. Make time to listen to them talk about the new friends they are making & enjoy sharing this time with them as in a few years they will be a grunting teenager. Make the most of this time to be beside them in their transition as they need you even though they may not show it and let them know you are burstingly proud of them every single day.”

Made your decision?

Then it’s time to apply. You can choose 3 schools and putting less does not give you any advantage (more likely to get your choice) and also means that you are more likely to get a school further away or one you don’t know if your first (only) choice you have stated is not offered. Applications need to be submitted by 31 October 2019. You can apply online.

On 1st March 2020 you will receive an email and/or letter, depending on your stated communication preference, detailing which school you have been allocated. There is no guarantee that you will get your first choice of school, if that is the case, then there is a waiting list system and an appeals process.

Still got questions? Coventry City Council has a dedicated Admissions and Benefits team to help.  Monday to Thursday: 8.30am–5.00pm, Friday: 8.30am-4.30pm


Tel: 024 7683 1613

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