The next couple of months will, for a number of parents, present the challenge of having to make choices about the school they wish their children to attend. This year pupils and parents have the added complication of only being able to access schools on a limited basis as a result of the global pandemic and the restrictions we’re all subject to. This has impacted on schools’ ability to undertake open evening events as they normal would.
When choosing a school for my own son last year, as a Principal I anticipated that this would be easy, I’d know what I’d look for and be able to judge a school quickly and effectively and would know exactly what to ask. This couldn’t have been further from the truth and I’ve found that I’ve had to disassociate myself from the finer details about systems and structures in order to focus on the important question; which is the right school for my child to develop both academically and holistically?
My vision for Penketh High School is very much rooted in what I’d like an education to represent for my own children and so is ultimately what I was looking for in a school. One that will develop my child academically, will support their wider holistic development and provide them with good life chances, a strong platform for the next stage of their lives.
There has been a great deal of change to the educational landscape in recent years with the introduction of new measures to judge schools including the progress 8 measure, a new grading system, revised specifications and a greater academic focus. This has added a level of uncertainty for parents. I’m sure it’s frustrating for parents that there are no outcomes for 2020 following the cancellation of examinations this year. This makes it difficult to establish how your chosen schools are performing more recently.
There are, of course, other areas in which you can source information that might help make decisions on whether a school is right for your child and Ofsted reports are a good starting point. These can provide information on the quality of teaching and learning, the behaviour of pupils and other areas of school life. Ofsted reports that haven’t been undertaken relatively recently might not reflect the current position as schools can and do change quite quickly.
To draw on my own experience at Penketh High School, our Ofsted inspection earlier this year resulted in the school receiving a “Good” judgement and a report that we’re proud of. The report detailing the inspection findings really does encapsulate the rapid and sustained improvement at the school since 2017 as a result of transformational work by staff centred around a culture that has increased the learning focus, an improved the climate for learning and higher expectations of our outstanding young people. Of course, this is reflective of the trajectory of that our school is on, but this wasn’t reflected in reports that were published before we undertook the running of the school in 2017.
It’s important to give serious thought and consideration to where the school will be in five years rather than now, is the school on an upward trajectory and does the vision for the school align with what I think is right for my child? Pupils joining our school three years ago have been part of our rapid journey of improvement which has brought about significantly improved examination results and a culture of higher expectations and standards. Our Ofsted report this year and the recent news that Government Initiatives IQ have recognised Penketh High School as a 100 Top Performing and Improving School 2020 validates that our school is a significantly different place compared to the school we committed to improving in September 2017, one that hadn’t been previously judged as providing a good provision for pupils since 2007. So a school’s capacity to improve, the vision and the trajectory is an important factor to consider.
It’s always useful to know if a school is part of a Multi-Academy Trust (MAT), in other words part of a group of schools/academies that work together as part of a wider organisation. If possible identifying the context and vision of the Trust is useful, for example how many schools are part of the trust, the type of schools and how it works to improve the educational experience of all of its learners. It is also important to identify if the Trust understands the local context and is positively impacting on its academies.
Penketh High, for example, is part of The Challenge Academy Trust (TCAT), the first in the country to be truly cross phase, that is to say the academies within the trust represent education at all levels from Primary though to sixth-form. TCAT is a Warrington based MAT comprising of two primary schools (with another two in the process of joining), five secondary schools and Priestley College. The academies are like-minded institutions who work closely together and aspire to provide the very best educational and wider opportunities for young people in Warrington. Being located in Warrington means we’re able to collaborate effectively and collectively drive improvement. The impact of this union has been tangible with improving outcomes across the Trust.
If we’re being brutally honest, open events are a bit of a show, an opportunity for schools to showcase their best aspects – and why not! We’re immensely proud of our schools and we want to showcase these aspects to visitors. Whilst this doesn’t diminish the value of these events for finding out more information, getting a feel for the school and meeting key staff, where possible I’d always follow these events up with a tour of the school if these are offered; or smaller group interactions.
This year tours have probably become more important because open evening events have not allowed for families to physically visit school sites. We’ve been inundated with requests for tours this year and whilst we know this will partly be because of increased interest at the school following our rapid improvements; we also know that the lack of a physical open evening has made a school tour a priority for families. Tours should offer the opportunity to take a look around the school but they should also give parents and pupils the chance to ask any questions they may have following the open evening event. These are often more personalised visits conducted in small groups. They’ll give you a chance to see the school, meet staff and draw conclusions from more individual dialogue. This is very important as it will allow you to consider if the core values of the school resonate with your own.
Based on our experience this year I would strongly advise that you act quick to book school tours. We’ve put on extra dates this year because all of our tour slots were taken up within the first few days of release and this really does demonstrate how much of a priority tours have become for parents in the current climate.
From our perspective it’s incredibly important that we work closely with our families and prospective parents to ensure that you make the decision that it right for your child. It’s important we give you as much information as possible to support you to make what is an incredibly important decision.