A map to the grail

6th October 2006 at 01:00
Heads and glaziers should read a new parents' guide to school selection

HOW TO CHOOSE A STATE SECONDARY SCHOOL. By Miranda Perry. Oleander Press Pounds 9.95

I wonder whether parents in Finland - sometimes held up as the world's best education system - ever buy books like this. Do they need advice on categories of schools, the intricacies of performance tables, the ever-changing inspection system, and how to interpret the dark subtexts of open evenings? Or do they, with charming old-fangledness, send their children to the nearest school, in the knowledge that the quality of education is high?

Nothing's so simple here: Miranda Perry's book has 25 pages on league tables alone. All the technical terms are explained here, reminding us what a cornucopia of apparent choice the English state school sector has become.

There are faith schools, middle schools, extended schools, specialist schools, feeder schools, grammar schools and academies. It's like being a child wandering wide-eyed past the Woolworths pick 'n' mix counter.

Miranda Perry, headteacher turned consultant, is full of sensible advice.

After a lengthy description of how performance tables work, she tips off savvy parents about the way some schools play the system with the "tactic"

(as she calls it) of using GNVQ qualifications to boost their A*-C ratings.

Touche. She gives advice on what to look out for at school open evenings, placing heavy emphasis on the impression given by the headteacher: "If the head is inspirational, that is a very good sign". (Note to self: be inspirational at next week's open evening.) Ms Perry slips parents the questions that will reveal how good a headteacher really is. Don't ask about bullying because you'll get a pre-packaged answer. No, ask: "How long does it take to mend a broken window at this school?" This will put the head off-guard, show whether pride is being taken in the school, and reveal the level of attention to detail. Cue more notes to self.

The book is packed with questions, hints, glossaries and checklists. It is comprehensive, inoffensive, and well-written, like a superior revision guide. Yet I feel sad that for many the process of choosing a school resembles the approach to exams in its sweating and fretting, with the underlying risk of turning up to find the exam hall doors are already closed.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI school, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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