So Monkey is now in Year 5 (and Missy in Year 4) and we started the job of visiting secondary school open evenings in the area. Some people have expressed surprise at this but I am not alone.
The window of opportunity is narrow - applications open in September as the open evenings start, then close at the end of October. We've only just been to the last open evening although there are some next week. Had we been starting in Year 6, that would give us two weeks to make a final decision. If you want to arrange revisits, half term is last week of October so you only have a week to go back. A friend of mine is in this position - they only looked at a couple last year and is feeling the pressure a bit this year, no firm decision made and hurriedly trying to look at all the options and come to a conclusion.
Perhaps if you live in a town with only one choice of school, there might be no need to rush and you can do it all in Year 6. What I can't get over is the fact that although a school can look great from the outside, visiting it can be a completely different proposition and what if you don't like it when you do finally look? I know from when we looked at primary schools, the school I thought I'd love, I didn't. And one I thought I wouldn't, I loved. And that's what we chose. Our instincts proved right.
Where we live, there's an embarrassment of choice. In the district, we have 6 secondaries, all rated good or outstanding by Ofsted (I'll come back to Ofsted later). One is too far away, and two are faith schools, with one offering no chance of a place unless we had been regularly attending church since LAST year - yes, at the start of Year 4 - and could prove it. In the neighbouring town, there are 4 more, one outstanding, the rest good or heading that way. Three other neighbouring smaller areas have a school each and there are four others I could consider if I felt I needed to but are probably too far away. Oh my - that's seventeen! That's even before, as some are considering, private schools (which are not for us), or schools further afield - like a private school that became a free school last September.
Obviously, we have to consider if we have a chance of getting places, which is why the field is much narrower than all seventeen. There are so many faith schools here - I can rule out five immediately on that basis because we wouldn't meet the criteria and three more where we would have a chance but may not want to. Take away the ones we think are too far and we got down to five - two in the local town, two in the next and one other, all less a 5 mile journey from home.
The difficulty compared to primary is that dammit, the child has an opinion this time! The worry is that they will just try to choose the one that their friends go to. I understand that, I really do, but I know from talking to parents of older children, that although they don't realise this, they will probably have a totally different set of friends at 16 as they will at 11.
So, off we trekked to five open evenings. I've tried to keep Monkey on track and asked him to think about what he wants a school to be what the school would be like on a normal day, not when they are offering food in nearly every room. We went to one school where he ate sweets (lots), paella, shortbread, three different types of cheese, bockwurst, pain au chocolat (apparently seven bits, just to be sure), pretzel, stollen (two bits), croissant, orange squash, shortbread and lasagne. After tea!
I've tried to go with an open mind and have got better at planning our trips after our first when we unexpectedly arrived late due to traffic forcing a detour, listened to the speeches then only had about an hour to see round a large school (impossible, don't try it - allow at least 2-3 hours to see everything, especially if you want to hear the speeches). I'm very much into the "feel" of a place. This article, by a teacher, confirms I'm right to consider that. It's also why I don't just look at the schools at the top of the league tables or rated outstanding. Why? Although results tables are a guide, basing our choice next year solely on the results that will be published soon from summer 2014 doesn't seem right when Monkey will not be taking GCSEs until the summer of 2021, some seven years later. Schools can change a lot, for good or bad, in that time. And Ofsted? Well, I have my own views but it's hard to compare apples with apples when some were inspected recently and others not inspected for five years - again, a lot can happen in that time. It is just a snapshot of what the inspectors found on those two days. They are a guide but I won't let it put me off until I've seen it with my own eyes.
Getting a general feel for a place can be hard to do when there's a lot of people there at open evenings (and trust me, there can be LOADS; one was so popular, it created traffic jams) but we've been talking to the teachers, pupils and observing how the two appear to get on. We've also caught up with a few former pupils from the children's primary school when we've seen them to see how they're enjoying it.
The first school we went to see is our favourite. And you know what? We went to see an "outstanding" school last that I thought I'd like and I didn't like it that much, just like last time. Nor did the husband and neither did Missy, who has come to all but one. However, Monkey decided, having agreed with us, that the last might be his favourite after all! I think it was because there were an awful lot of people visiting who he knew. A lot of his friends are likely to choose there because of where they live. It's our nearest school but we are outside the priority area (for which read catchment) so our chances aren't as good.
We are planning a trip back to the first school (which we saw a month ago) to remind him what it was like, see it in the daytime and see the parts we missed on open evening. I'm certainly glad we are not doing this next year. Our second favourite looks like being a currently unfashionable school but was lovely, friendly and welcoming to visit. Monkey has also been there in the daytime on a school trip. We only went to the open evening because of this and were pleasantly surprised.
I think I'm coming to two conclusions - the first is to go to see schools, even if on paper they don't seem like the best choice and the second is to start at least a year early. If you're not happy after open evening season, you have time to cast the net wider before crunch time. Most schools are happy to show you around on a normal day. I'd ask why not if they don't.
And I've just thought of a third conclusion - you can definitely get open evening fatigue! I'm very glad they're all over but I least I have an idea of what's coming next year. I was going to say "know" but a lot can happen in that time.
PS If you are looking at grammar schools, you might want to start even earlier; some schools have open days in the summer term because of the need to take tests etc. At least check the school's website (and the local authority) for details so you don't miss out.