5 Things to Consider when Picking a Secondary School

 

The Autumn term of when your child enters year 6 is full of both pride and worry. Your chest swells with the pride of your little bundle of joy entering the last year of primary school, preparing for secondary school; inside your heart sinks as you face the daunting task of picking a school which will eventually give your child the best start in life.

It is important to wade through all of the available promotional media that will inevitably become available to you. This ritual will provide you with some really important basic facts about the schools that you are considering. As a qualified teacher and a parent, which means that I have experienced this process from both ends,  it is important for me to provide you with more important points of consideration which contribute to that desired outcome.

  1. League Tables are Statistics. I know, you are probably thinking here, why is she repeating the obvious to me. The reason is that many put a great deal of faith in the placing of schools in the league. I always wonder in this case why we do not think about the ways in which cohorts may change over the years. In essence, if an intake is comprised of students who are exceptionally studious in any one year, that school may perform exceptionally well in the exam statistics that seal their place in the league.

The leagues upon which we rely are in fact past performance and we really should not place over reliance on the past dictating the future. Many schools would berate me for saying that but in reality, when we teach students how to interpret statistics, we make this very point over and over again. We also give marks in examinations for recognising this limitation. If our children are taught this limitation maybe it is not beyond the realms of imagination that parents should recognise it too.

The variable factors are huge; teachers deemed outstanding may change, government strategies may change, school policies may change, the composition of the year’s cohort may change.

2.The Mixed Ability Classroom may be as powerful as the Streamed classroom. We often have our fears calmed by the idea that our child attends a school that  operates in streams or sets. This is deemed to be in some way superior to the mixed ability classroom. Okay, I can see how this can happen and I wouldn’t even tell you not to get excited by this fact. The opportunity for your child to be in a lesson with students of equal ability is fabulous, and especially when they are in the higher ability sets. What Is not immediately clear  here however is how setting handles the very important matter of different learning styles. Having a similar level of ability does not mean having the same cognition in the classroom.

I always recall being back at school, in the A Level classes that I was part of. I was quiet and would take endless notes but would not answer very much within the classroom setting. As a result of this, my teachers made the rather massive assumption that I didn’t understand much and that I would not be successful in the exams. The truth of the matter was that I had then, and still have a very hands on, independent style of learning. I enjoy the thrill of investigation and formulating arguments that could be tested. Oh, I should say, I was very successful in my examinations, largely due to the foresight of a couple of good substitute teachers who came in to the school.

Some would say, much has changed in the last 20 years but I would question this. As school budgets become squeezed, the pressure is on to achieve as much as previously achieved with less resources.

What is the overall result of the squeeze? It would be fair to argue that across most of London and perhaps beyond, the main stream classroom may produce similar or even better results than the carefully setted. To a large extent there is more acceptance of differences and good teachers plan carefully for this.

3.Personalised Learning. Is the establishment sufficiently resourced to truly cater for your child’s potential career? Thinking back to point 1 above, which takes priority? The need for the school to achieve its ‘rightful’ place in the league or, the future career aspirations of your child, after all, many these days are considering alternative routes which provide more hands on experience.

This presents that quandary that we all hate. Do we push our child towards a school which is very academic and will push for those top grades? It is a difficult question really because in all honesty, the world is somewhat driven this way and we question whether we are doing our job as a parent if we don’t encourage our child to join the ranks of these ‘elite’. For many, this could prove more damaging than we realise.

The truth is that many establishments use the term personalised learning to cover learning or lessons matched to levels of ability. This is hardly personalised. It does not attempt to accommodate the career or future aspirations of the student. It is limited due to budgetary constraints.

One of the largest complaints I ever have in the year 11 classrom is the ‘all this school wants are my grades, they don’t care about me’. Of course I always reassure and calm those complaints but I can see where they might originate. If we say that we provide personalised learning, maybe we should try to make this more visible to the students. It is amazing what they will produce when they understand that it is for their benefit first and foremost

.4.How Orchestrated is Open? I shouldn’t divulge this really but its only fair. When I chose my daughter’s secondary school, I avoided those open evenings like the plague. Of course I would, as I said, I am a teacher. For the most part, as teachers, we are seeking to present our school in its best light. Well why wouldn’t we, we love our jobs and it is easy to present our subject areas well. What I was perhaps less comfortable with is the meetings to give the prescribed answers to questions and the careful picking of students to conduct tours. People make very important decisions based on this production.

If possible, I would always suggest trying to visit outside the open days. If you think about it, when picking a nursery, we always pick those that do not have set times at which they will let you in. In my opinion, a good school with a good learning ethos should not have limits on when visits can take place. Of course there will need to be staff available to take visitors around but this should not stop lessons proceeding.

I guess the moral here is that if you wish to visit during an open event,  use it as an opportunity to look at resources; don’t focus on teachers, students or such hairline matters. Look at the level of ICT use within classrooms, the level of books stocked in the library and the sports facilities. If you want to see the normal state of the school, a separate visit is the way forwards. You could always go and see existing parents whilst they are picking up their kids too, makes for some interesting conversations.

5.Your baby is an individual who may not always speak up for the next few years. They are often torn between recognising their strengths and receiving extra work (good at the subject and therefore able to handle more) or, not declaring their strengths and remaining bored and frustrated in the classroom. The ultimate choice has to be one which is made keeping the student wishes in mind but also factoring in your wealth of life experience. There are many factors which are truly variable in this choice, schools are often financially squeezed, teachers within schools have ever increasing workloads and, as much as they will love your baby, they really have a limit to the time that they can reasonably provide. Sometimes there may not be enough time in a day to recognise the frustration of your child and to plan resources that may relieve that boredom. Sometimes that boredom may be incorrectly identified as moody, withdrawn or naughty.

We also have to recognise that the little darlings as teenagers will try to minimise their workload as much as possible, even when they have the ability. It is that right to a free childhood argument. That works, what is necessary is building a true understanding of the educational needs of the student and building a learning program around this.

What is most important is that ultimately there is a partnership between the student, the parents and the educators (whatever form that this may take).

I hope that this helps but I am happy to answer any queries that may arise from this or during your search. I can be contacted directly on

07539 481 671 or by email jacquigold@freedomroadcollege.org.uk

Freedom Road College has been developed as a necessary enhancement to the school experience. We provide students with the opportunity to explore and improve their potential. We invest time and resources in showing students the importance of learning for a successful future . We value all schools and aim to work with them and parents to guide students towards their absolute pinnacle. Our programs are from Codey Learns (Early years)through to Key Stage 4 and beyond. www.freedomroadcollege.org.uk / 07539 481 671

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Day 4, Lets Set the Scene

For the next few days, I want to include a couple of chapters of my latest book. It sets the scene really as to why I have made the decision to begin this journey because in reality, even though the events are now many years ago, some scars never heal. To a certain degree, the story shaped my life and had to be written in a way that protects my children. I learned to forgive but can never forget. Strength, Belief and Faith has driven me through. Here is part 1.

The Importance of Happiness to the Learning Process

If we accept then, that children have a period in time in which they learn difficult skills quite quickly where their worlds are unobstructed and in general happy, then it is pertinent as a starting point in our journey towards passing our exams, qualifications or training (or whatever we are seeking to do) to consider happiness as a function of cognition. In other words, is there a link between our happiness and the degree to which we learn efficiently?

When the Challenges Begin

Like any well-oiled machine, the brain can only really handle a certain level of challenge before it will begin to struggle. The thing to realise is, that the extent of the struggle and the level of damage that it can achieve is directly related to the way in which we handle it. Although it is hard to accept, we actually have to own the challenge and begin to make decisions about where it should be channelled. What it is is, taking responsibility. Looking back at the earlier analogy concerning children and the way that they learn so well, it may be argued that this is so for them because they do not have to take responsibility. Most of us look back romantically at those seasons in the sun, when everything just happened.

Sandy remembers those days with a smile, things just looked so simple. The only thing that spoiled the picture was the changes that she was increasingly becoming aware of within the family home. Maybe they were already there but just not apparent to her whilst she was younger. Now, she was becoming aware of the abuse that her father meted out to her mother on an ongoing basis. Her mother was such a sweet lady to her children and worked hard to give them a life that she had not had prior to coming to England. From the outside, the community thought her father was a great father too, working hard and bringing in money to maintain his family. But they did not see those times when things were not done just how he wanted them done. Even if it was one of the children that had made the mistake, he would hit her mother and this lead to a fierce protective streak that she maintains to this day. Although her mother tried hard to mask it for the children, the atmosphere within the house was changing to one of fear, the happiness appeared to be ebbing away. It was a stream that no-one was able to stop.

Sandy was very quiet in her thoughts concerning this, she explained it in a way which demonstrated the actual lifetime effects of stress and how it could have led to quite disastrous consequences for her life. When thinking about the love that she has for her mother, she resents the fact that her earliest memories are those of her father hitting her mother and, sitting in her mother’s bedroom as she changed and seeing the bruises on her. The rage inside was there for such a long time and she recognises that this led to her withdrawal from her childhood life. She took on a new role which was to stick near to her mother so that she was never alone to take a beating. Sandy doesn’t know what she was going to do but inside her, that was all that she could, to protect her mother. The result was that she was now not so focussed on learning new things but on managing adult responsibility. For a brain which is not developed enough to process responsibility, this set her firmly on a road towards a life which was filled with actions which do not match the intended response. Her education during her primary years suffered although as a highly intelligent child naturally, thankfully the damage was not insurmountable. This is something that she remains thankful for today.

 

From a physiological viewpoint, happiness has been linked to increased activity in the brains left prefrontal lobe, as well as a decreased amount of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream. The result of this may be smiling and laughing. . Happiness is distinguished from sadness by greater activity in the frontal cortex of the brain (Lane et Al 1997). This has the effect of positive emotional responses. Some of the most well-known are alertness, sociability (arising from levels of Serotonin) and euphoria, (arising from levels of Endorphins)

 These are what may be termed physical manifestations but they may fade in time. In general, maintaining happiness may be about understanding the neurochemicals that operate as receptors in the brains cells. This has received much attention in recent years and may lead to the obvious statement that the best times for learning are the childhood years when the levels of cortisol in the bloodstream should be naturally low in any case. I know that this is not always the case and there are some awful cases of children who are unwell or disabled and do have problems which make them unhappy but for our purposes, we are trying to establish a causal link so that the journey towards passing may begin.

In order to start then, we need to get back to that happy place where anything is possible and to do this, in reality, we need to train our brain to only hold onto those issues that are important and to a large extent, let the other matters go. This is not always as easy as it sounds but it is a very very important issue and one which I would ask that you address properly before going onto step two. It is easy to say, ‘I am fine’, without actually meaning it. It is often just a way of not having to think about it at a time when there are so many things to think about. I warn you here though that sometimes, there are not as many things to think about as we are led to believe by our brain. A stressor of any time can lead to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. There are various physical responses which have been identified in studies but the one which we will look at is that of increased mental activity (Guyton 1977).

Some would say, surely that is a good thing. Increased mental activity means that the brain is working harder right? No, not necessarily, it could mean that your well-oiled brain is being told that it needs to take in so many things that it can’t sort out what to do. Learning shuts down right then and there. This would explain why so many examination students stop work quite close to exams and get out the games console. This would explain why, when life takes over, we don’t review our financial decisions to find ways of transforming our lives. When in that happy place, the brain takes over in a more ordered fashion enabling us to learn.

This is great because by talking, some things can finally be let go. Thank you for listening x