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Pay a virtual visit

It's impossible to find out everything you need to know about a school, says Bill Hicks. But you can discover a lot from its website

You don't judge a book by its cover, so who but a fool would choose a school by its website? But with the majority of secondary, and half of primary schools now online, it would be churlish, if not downright perverse, to ignore the virtual evidence when you're thinking about where to teach.

School sites can be useful in the initial sifting process, when you've drawn up a long list of possible job ads. An hour or two spent checking the sites of schools in your chosen locality could save you much fruitless footwork later on.

Some schools advertise vacancies there and even allow online applications. But I guess it will be a while before they allow virtual interviews, so you're going to have to visit the real school at some point.

You'll be surprised how much you can glean, in both positive and negative senses. Often it's the least sophisticated sites that ring all the right bells and tell you the most.

There are several distinct approaches to school website design. At opposite ends of the spectrum are those who use their websites as online prospectuses and those who see them as an extension of the curriculum and pupils' self-expression.

You usually find the purest expression of the first on independent school sites. For boarding schools needing a steady supply of overseas pupils, the website is a serious marketing tool. If you expect a parent to cough up pound;20,000 plus per year, your site needs to look - well, as though you haven't pinched on the html. An embossed appearance, a decent coat of arms, a Latin motto and nice view of a stately pile set in wooded countryside seem to be the sine qua non of this type of site.

Within the state sector, there's a pronounced divide between primary and secondary schools. Although fewer primaries have websites, the best of them are among the most inspiring. These are the ones that allow staff and pupils to experiment with online publishing.

Secondaries, forced into competing for pupils with neighbours, have been moving towards the website as online brochure model. Which is not to say that there are not dozens of superb secondary sites. Several are internationally renowned for the quality of their curriculum resources.

It's just that they all have to ram home just how damn good they are. That's why you'll see sites with fancy animations on the home page and floating slogans about the quest for excellence.

Generally, I'd beware of too much of this cod-corporate stuff. But always remember - this is only the website, not the school. And they're doing it because they have to.

So here you are, hovering at the virtual gates. It's quite likely you'll be offered a "virtual tour" of the school. Take it, and please don't be disheartened by those digital photos of dreary 1960s premises, the scuffed school sign, the grey skies - most schools do look like that, most of the time.

Don't be put off if there aren't many children visible. According to government guidelines, there should not be. It's been a couple of years since it first dawned that well-illustrated school sites could be attractive places for paedophiles.

Next, check if there's any reference to who designed and made the site. If it was done in-house, with full or at least partial participation of students, award extra points.

Somewhere on or near the home page, you're likely to find a statement of the school's philosophy - usually the head's introductory message. This provides your first satisfying slab of text for critical deconstruction. Expect worthy sloganeering and over-use of words like "excellence", "aspire", "challenge". Such words are almost compulsory.

You'll be lucky to come across a head who is confident enough to include among the school's virtues that pupils are encouraged to develop the ability "to manage setbacks".

Or frank enough to admit, as does one north London school, that, "Knowing racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination exist, we promote justice, fairness and equalityI".

If you find the equivalent of these, double whatever points you have already awarded the site. Then look for news about the school.

Here you might find local paper reports of sporting or academic triumphs, accounts of trips and exchanges, etc. Most schools will tell you about recent Ofsted reports, exam successes, and league table positions - if there is good news to tell.

Here, too, you might find those delightful items which can provide piercing insights into the life of a school. For example: Does anyone own an electric toaster that they would be willing to give to the kitchen? Lorraine would like to be able to offer toasted snacks more often and this would save her a lot of time.

Or: Despite a wet afternoon the Christmas craft fair raised pound;221.01. Thank you to everyone who sent in itemsgifts and all those who attended.

Well-developed secondary sites should have areas for each department, although you'll probably find that some section heads are better than others at keeping their pages up to date.

Again, resist any hasty judgements - and remember it's much easier for art amp; design departments than maths teachers to provide attractive web pages.

You might well catch the scent of inter-departmental rivalries. If the ICT department hogs two-thirds of the web space, with lots of images of pristine computer suites, while MFL, maths and geography pages are all "under construction"... well, you get the message.

All that remains is to look up the contact details and the address. A map would be good, too. Can't find it? Deduct points.

Add up the scores, deduct the total from 1,000, and whatever that figure is, forget it. It ain't real. Now, you've just got to go and see, feel and smell those schools for yourself.

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