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Choosing A Secondary/High School

You can get information about local schools from your local authority and sometimes you can find school prospectuses in your local library. You don’t have to send your child to a local school. But it is important to think about how your child will get to school, particularly if he/she will be travelling alone.

Details of schools can be found on the Directgov website and the achievement and attainment tables (often called ‘league’ tables) produced by the DCSF are available at Many schools have their own website. You can also telephone any school that you’re interested in and ask them to send you a prospectus.

You can see OFSTED reports at but you do need to combine these with visits to the school and other research. There is a great deal that the reports can’t tell you that might be relevant to your child. Some local authorities hold a schools’ fair where you can meet staff and pupils from each state school in the area and pick up prospectuses.

Your child’s teacher may have suggestions about which secondary schools would suit him/her best and it might be worth talking to the teacher at an early stage, particularly if you have built up a good working relationship. The school might organise a secondary school transfer meeting to give you information about open days, how the admission process works and to allow you to meet parents and students who have previously gone through the process.

Other parents, especially those with older children, may have valuable information such as what kinds of scholarships are available, which schools specialise in a particular subject and will take students based on their abilities in that area, which tutors are best at preparing children for which exams, etc. Getting an idea of where other parents are hoping to send their children might also give you valuable insights into local schools.

Your child may also want to go to the same school as his/her friends from primary school. It’s useful to network as much as you can. Find out what other parents and local newspapers are saying about local schools. Do you and your child want a single-sex school? How important is your faith to you both?

You can see how children from a particular school behave at the beginning or end of the school day by being there and watching. You can learn a great deal.
Your child will want to go to and from school alone at some stage. What transport is available? Will your child have friends living nearby? His/her social life will change in secondary school and you might want to invite his/her friends (and their parents) home. Will that be possible? You may also feel better if your child can travel to school with a friend.

You might also want to find out whether the school encourages parents to get involved. Is there an active Parent Teacher Association (PTA)? Perhaps you could talk to members or maybe there’s information on the school’s website. The school’s OFSTED report will also have a section that gives the views of parents. This may be more detailed in some reports than in others.

Visiting schools

Most schools will have open days/evenings in the autumn term (September to December). This is your chance to listen to what is said about the school and to ask your own questions. Find out about the dates early on from the school's website or by phoning so that you can plan which school you'll visit, and when.

You can also call the school to make an appointment to see the head teacher. You could even visit some schools the year before you have to make a choice since going to lots of schools can be physically and mentally tiring.

Visit the schools with your child. Talk to the head, teachers and other staff. What are your impressions of the building where your child will spend a great part of his/her day? Does the children’s work decorate the walls? Do children seem to be happy and positive? Do you and the school agree on what you expect from the school? Does the school offer all the curriculum subjects that your child wants to study? If your child has special talents or, indeed, particular difficulties, try to find out how the school might deal with them.

Find out about the curriculum subjects that are on offer. For instance, if your child is gifted in languages, does the school offer all the languages that he/she might want to study. What about the other subjects that he/she is interested in? Are there after-school clubs that cater for your child’s interests?

You’ll probably be shown around the school by current pupils. You can ask them about their opinion of the school and you can get a good impression of the school by how they respond. Remember, though, that schools are likely to choose their best pupils to show parents around.

Some of the schools that you visit may require an entrance examination if they select on the basis of ability. Other schools set entrance examinations for ‘banding’ purposes – so that they can ensure that they take children from a wide range of abilities. On open days, be sure to find out about the dates of examinations as well as any scholarships or bursaries that are on offer and how your child might qualify.

Find out how, exactly, you apply for a place in that school. Some schools, for instance, may want you to fill in their own application form and write an accompanying letter to the head teacher. Faith schools may require evidence of religious attendance. Make notes since you’ll probably visit a number of schools and it is easy to miss some key details.

How does the school offer places if there is too much demand (if it’s ‘over-subscribed’)? You’ll probably hear much talk about ‘catchment’ areas – how close you need to live to the school to be sure of a place. A note of caution: how catchment areas are measured can vary from local authority to local authority. They can also change from year to year depending on how many children apply to that school. Just because your next-door neighbour’s older child goes to a particular school doesn’t guarantee that your child will get in.

It is crucial to find out about the admissions criteria for each school to get a good idea of where you’re likely to get a place for your child. Criteria might include: distance from the school (sometimes measured in a straight line – ‘as the crow flies’ – sometimes by safest walking distance); a statement of special needs; whether your child has an older brother or sister at the school; etc.

Schools and local authorities must follow strict rules to make sure that admissions are managed fairly. You can find out more about the School Admissions Code at

Secondary school application

Your local authority will send you an admission form and information about the application process. This should also be available from your child’s primary school. There will be a deadline for applying and it is really important to stick to this. You will need to complete this form even if you are applying to schools outside your local authority area.

The admission form will give you at least 3 choices in order of preference and your application will be passed on to each school. You will receive only one offer of a place at a state school. If your child is selected for more than one of your chosen schools, your local authority will pass on to you only one offer – the one you ranked highest.

Deciding on an order of preference for your choices may be difficult since you’ll need to bear in mind the criteria of each individual school. Remember, too, that only your local authority is required by law to offer a school place to your child. If you don’t choose any school within your authority and you are refused a place at your other choices, then places at the better-performing schools in your area may well be filled.

You can also state, on the form, your preference for a single-sex or faith school.

You could make fewer than 3 choices but you’ll need to be sure that you’re not missing any opportunities. The process can be complex so you’ll need to do a lot of research and take as much advice as possible.

You should be told when offers of school places will be sent out. You may have a long wait to hear the result of your application. If your child isn’t offered a place in one of your chosen schools, you will probably feel extremely disappointed and your child will need a lot of support and encouragement because he/she may feel rejected. Your local authority will, eventually, offer you some options either within the authority or outside. You can also keep your child’s name on a waiting list for any school in case a vacancy arises.


The letter from your local authority will explain how you can appeal if you’re not satisfied with the decision made by any school. The authority also gives you a closing date for any appeal. The appeal will be made to an independent panel, not to the school or local authority. It must be made by the closing date.

You will need to explain to the panel why you believe that the school has made the wrong decision according to its admissions criteria. The school will explain why it did not offer you a place. The panel will decide whether the school’s decision was reasonable or whether your child has a good case for attending that particular school. You don’t have to go to the appeals panel alone: you can take a friend, adviser or even a solicitor. You can get information and help on the appeals process from organisations like the Advisory Centre for Education (0808 800 5793) or your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

Refugee and asylum seekers

If you are a refugee or asylum seeker, you will need to contact a school to register your child. The head teacher will probably want to talk to you to find out about your child and your family. You should be able to ask for an interpreter, if necessary, which might be provided by the school or Ethnic Minority Achievement Service (EMAS) or you can take one with you. It is normal for the school to want to meet with you since information you give them might help them to settle your child into school and you’ll be able to find out how the school works. Schools can sometimes give you advice about other services that you might need.

Take the opportunity to ask whatever you feel you need to know about how your child will be educated. Ask if you can see around the school to get a feel for what happens. If that school has no places, you can try another school. You can also put your child’s name on a waiting list for a place. Or else, you can appeal to an independent panel if you feel that the school’s decision is wrong.

The appeal will have to be in English.

The National Curriculum expects teachers to plan for the different learning and personal welfare needs of pupils from all backgrounds, including refugees. The Children Act 2004 and Every Child Matters: Change for Children – the Government’s strategy for organisations that provide services to children – outline the responsibility of schools to ensure the well-being and progress of all children, including refugees, by working together effectively with other agencies and services.

Organisations like the Refugee Council can give help and advice. The National Refugee Integration Forum website has useful information.

Gypsy/Roma/Traveller families

The local authority has a duty to ensure that education is available for all children of compulsory school age in their area whether permanent or temporary. Gypsy/Roma/Traveller families who live on temporary or unauthorised sites are included in this duty. Most local authorities provide specialist Traveller Education Support Services. You can get help when you move into a new area by contacting the local Traveller Education Support Service.

By law, the children of Gypsy/Traveller families should be admitted to schools on the same basis as any other child. You may be able to get help and advice from the Friends, Family and Travellers site and many local authority websites also have sections that provide information.

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