Review - Books - You're the one that I want

1st April 2011 at 01:00

Choosing a Secondary School and Getting In

Ange Tyler and Liz Lewis

Capital Talent


Popularity and reputation are important concepts when it comes to schools and, in my experience, teachers tend to be rather wary of both. Over-critical by nature, we underplay the achievements of our schools and are deeply suspicious of the success of others. But when it comes to parents, there is little doubt that popularity and reputation are key determiners in the choice of school for their children.

Too often the criteria for these choices are irrational, based more on hearsay and random assumptions than on a long, hard look at what a school can offer their child.

Choosing a Secondary School and Getting In aims to correct this by offering a systematic approach to making what for most parents is probably the biggest decision affecting their children's future. Let's be blunt about this: despite our apparent air of nonchalance, teachers care about the choice parents make. For parents to go around our school and then reject it can feel far more personal than it should do.

Choosing a Secondary School and Getting In is directly aimed at parents but offers useful insights and information to teachers by seeing things from a different perspective. While heads and senior managers have to deal with the school's image and self-presentation on an almost daily basis, class teaching tends to be all-absorbing, and "selling the school" is regarded as a management function. Here lies a dichotomy, because it is clearly the classroom or subject teacher, not the masters of spin, who will ultimately contribute most to the child's education.

Being aware of what parents might look for in a school, then, can only be to everyone's advantage if it affects practice, pulls more punters through the gate and enhances the school's standing in the community. Teachers might view popularity and reputation with suspicion, but for the well-being of the whole school they are not to be despised.

The guide comes in the form of a small booklet and a pull-out chart housed in a tin. Both chart and booklet are to be filled in by parents. The chart draws together all the information gleaned from the selection and admissions process. This is divided into six parts: Admissions; You and Your Child; Information from the School; Information about the School; The Visit; and Playing Your Part.

Most of the material in these sections will be pretty standard fare for teachers, although they may be surprised at the scrutiny to which their school mission statement is subjected. The language is apparently key. Words such as attainment, behaviour, consistency and routines are to be regarded with suspicion as they are associated with "schools who see good behaviour as an end in itself (often because they have trouble securing it)".

Greatly preferred are words such as achievement, community, enthusiasm, happiness and potential as these are associated with "schools who assume high standards of good behaviour but see that it flows from fair relationships, students feeling they belong and a sense of community". Or, presumably, schools that have senior leadership teams who are on the ball with their jargon and are savvy enough not to put parents off before they have even crossed the threshold.

However, the sections that follow are full of useful, sensible information and advice that guides parents towards making an appropriate choice for their child. Few teachers are likely to quibble much with the authors' comments on the importance of extra-curricular activities, the significance of value-added figures or the need for good homeschool communication.

More contentious, and somewhat more confusing, are their comments on Ofsted. "Satisfactory teaching is not a good sign" they state rather primly and "It is better to have a 'good' head in a 'satisfactory' school than a 'satisfactory' head in a 'good' school." Now there's one worth chewing over. It also sits rather oddly with a later warning that "Ofsted gets it wrong sometimes", which is not useful to parents as they are not in a position to judge.

And so to the crucial school visit. The authors are right to warn against being seduced by "pristine new premises" but their injunction not to "be put off by dilapidated buildings with leaking ceilings and draughty windows" and to look instead at "how much care is taken of what is there" is more questionable.

Personally, what I look at most closely when I go around another school are wall displays, children's behaviour and the interactions between pupils and teachers. I suspect I am not alone here - which is why this package, although aimed at parents, should be of interest to teachers as the people in control of these key determiners.


Ange Tyler and Liz Lewis are the directors of Capital Talent, an organisation formed in 2010 to offer parents, teachers, schools and local authorities a range of products and services, as well as consultancy. They have worked as school leaders in international, independent and grammar schools and as part of recovery teams in badly failing rural and inner-city schools. They recently shared a head of service role for a London borough.

The verdict: 810.

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