Open Season

As I stroll through the corridors of Tower Hamlets’ Sir John Cass secondary school, the atmosphere feels oddly calm. Gone are the days of avoiding flying missiles, hearing insults, and witnessing schoolyard fights. This school is an entirely different environment from the one I taught at back in the early 1990s. The place is clean as a whistle, with no litter in sight. Moreover, the school now boasts some of the most impressive academic results in the country, a far cry from the abysmal ones it had before.

Being a resident of East London, I am considering sending my son to Sir John Cass secondary school when he is old enough in a few years. The recently released Ofsted report has categorized the school as "outstanding," making it one of the most improved institutions in the United Kingdom. Attending the annual open morning, I hear the headteacher, Haydn Evans, describe the school’s faith-based approach and strong discipline.

The classrooms visually confirm the school’s focus on faith and discipline. As parents and I wander around the bright, new facilities, one smartly-suited parent jokes that many of his friends moved to the countryside in search of better schools – however, they wasted their time doing so. "This school seems far better than any of the ropey old comps in the suburbs!" he laughs.

Parents of Year 5 and 6 students are in the thick of the open day season. They look distraught, holding on to their children and notebooks tightly, like a treasure. It may amuse one to think they are repeating the mantra "We’re going on a school hunt, we’re going on a school hunt!" The parents’ eagerness is understandable, but the process might be bewildering. While most boroughs explain the intricate processes through primary school evenings, many parents remain puzzled. Only a few parents grasp the admissions rules for secondary schools, and fewer are quick to identify a good school, relying mostly on hearsays instead of well-researched facts.

Before schlepping around schools, it’s worth spending some time on the internet. You could visit, enter your postcode, and browse through your local schools, as well as check out Ofsted reports, which are indicators of a school’s success. The reports are more reliable than relying on raw data from league tables that fail to account for the kind of students the schools have.

While open days may accurately reflect a school’s attributes, some people view them as misleading. Huda al Bander, 19, a member of Edge Learner Forum, a unique London-based organization working to promote practical learning in schools, recommends parents visit during classroom sessions to observe how teachers interact with students, treating them with respect and offering individual attention. "A good school is one where you will see teachers not only talking to the whole class but also working one-to-one with the pupils, listening to their questions, and not putting them down," she says. Moreover, good schools cater to different learning styles, balancing theory with hands-on activities like dance, drama, art, music, and presentations.

Huda and her peers recommend that parents do not select a school solely based on their children’s social circle. They opine that friendships develop easily at a young age and are not worth compromising on the child’s education. Therefore, parents should choose a school based on its academic achievements, Ofsted rating, pupils’ behavior, and extra-curricular activities.

Many parents are confounded by the numerous types of secondary schools available, such as academies, high schools specialized in technology, faith schools, and more. Irrespective of school type, they all must be assessed on the same criteria, their academic track record, recent Ofsted report, pupils’ behavior and attitude, and extra-curricular options, thus making it easier for parents to make an informed decision.

While the final verdict rests with the parents, involving the child in a non-confrontational conversation about where they want to go to school is recommended. Parents need to keep the conversation positive and encouraging, avoiding negativity, and ensuring that their child’s aspirations and hopes align with theirs.

When attending an open evening for potential schools, it’s important to pay attention to the admissions section of the headteacher’s speech. If you’re unsure about any information given, ask the headteacher or someone else who has knowledge on the admissions criteria. This can save a lot of time and effort in the future, as you don’t want to apply for a school that your child cannot get into. The open evening may be the last chance to speak to someone knowledgeable about the criteria, so take advantage of this.

Once you have decided on your potential schools, ensure that you fill in the application forms accurately. Some schools, especially faith schools, require you to send two applications – one to the school and one to the local education authority. Other schools may require only one application through the local education authority. Verify this information at the open evening to avoid any confusion.

It’s also advisable to find out the best way to rank your chosen schools on the form. Some local authorities only offer one school place, and will grant parents their highest ranked school with space. If you list two schools as your top preferences, but your child doesn’t meet the criteria for either of them, they will be offered a spot at the third school if they meet the criteria. If this isn’t ideal, you can appeal the first two schools. However, if your child doesn’t meet the criteria for any school on your list, they will be offered a spot at the nearest school with available space, which is often an unpopular school that is far away.

Remember, at the end of the day, it is the parents who make the biggest difference in their child’s education. Even if your child goes to a school that wasn’t your first choice, providing them with support at home can help them excel. However, if you do manage to get your child into a good school, it can save you a lot of stress in the long run. If your child isn’t receiving quality education, you may need to fill in the gaps through private tutoring or teaching them yourself.

To make the most of the open day, there are some questions you should ask teachers and pupils. These include if the teachers would enroll their own children in the school, how the school caters to gifted and talented children, how they help children with learning difficulties, how they deal with bullies, and what the best and worst things about lessons are. When speaking to pupils, ask about their levels or grades in English, maths, and science, what they do to improve, how the children behave, what’s done about bullies, and what dinners and toilets are like.

Be cautious when relying on school league tables. Even this year’s tables have to be read with care due to issues with Sats. Don’t just look at the headline figures – examine the maths and English scores at GCSE. If a school gets under 50% A*-C grades in these subjects, it means more than half of the students aren’t meeting minimum standards. Check the values added scores to determine if a school is truly helping its students learn at a rapid pace. Lastly, get a copy of the Ofsted report to see how the school has been graded.


Special Educational Needs Assessment

Before enrolling your child in a school, it’s important to evaluate how well the school caters to students with special educational needs (SEN). One way to check this is by looking into the number of students on the SEN register and assessing the provisions set in place for them.

If more than 40% of the students are on the SEN register, it’s important to scrutinize the school carefully. This means that more than a third of the students are struggling with learning difficulties, and the school should have trained staff and specialized teachers who can attend to their needs effectively.

It’s also crucial to consider the facilities available for SEN students to improve their learning experience. Evaluating these aspects can provide a better understanding of how well a school caters to children with special educational needs.


  • calvinmerritt

    Calvin Merritt is an educational bloger who specializes in writing about educational topics. He has been writing for over a decade and has written for a variety of different platforms. His work has been featured on various websites and he has also been published in various magazines.