Choosing a secondary school for your child can be one of the most difficult decisions that you ever take as a parent. When you add in the possibility that the choice may be taken out of your hands by the results of the 11 plus test, the decision can become even more daunting. If you start early enough in planning for your child’s future you will find it easier to make informed decisions and prevent as much stress as possible for you and your child.

If you are in one of the larger grammar school areas you may have a choice of several grammar schools and you will need to choose between them.

In some areas, the alternatives to a grammar school education are not very attractive but if your child does not qualify for a grammar school, you will need to hunt down the best alternative. We often hear of parents who say that the “only alternative” to a grammar school is a local, poor quality comprehensive school. Thankfully that is not the case across much of the country, but you do need to do your research thoroughly by looking across a reasonably wide area.

This is our suggested process for making the right decision for your child’s education, regardless of the outcome of the 11+.

Draw up a long list of schools

  • Depending on where you live, the range of schools available to you may be obvious, but it is still worth looking at all the schools in your area again. The generally recommended “maximum journey time” that is used as a benchmark by educational authorities is 90 minutes for secondary school children and, whilst such a long journey would not be acceptable to many parents or children, you may find that it opens up opportunities that you were not previously aware of, such as schools in another county or Local Authority (LA).
  • Include all the options at this stage – the options if your child is successful in the 11+, and the alternatives if it doesn’t work out with the 11+ tests.
  • Find out where other, older, local children attend school. That may reveal options that you were not previously aware of.
  • Ask around among other parents to find out which options they are considering for their children. That can often reveal a school that you weren’t previously aware was a possibility for your child.
  • Do not exclude independent fee-paying schools from your long list at this stage because many of them offer scholarships for academically bright children or for sporting or musically talented children, and bursaries for children from low-income families. Also our experience is that, if a child fails to qualify for a grammar school via the 11+, many parents who had previously thought that they could never afford school fees find themselves turning to the independent sector to prevent their child attending a failing or poor state school. Inevitably that may involve enormous financial sacrifices for the whole family, but when the decision actually arrives in the shape of an 11+ non-qualification letter the situation becomes very real, and you may find yourself wishing that you had at least considered an independent school as a fallback.

Do your research

Start by doing an initial trawl through all the schools on your list, on the internet.

  • Look at the school’s own website – there are links to all 164 English Grammar Schools on our 11 Plus Regions section to help you. Note any specialisms that the school may have that would make it suitable for your child. Get a feel for the ethos of the school, if you can (many school websites feel remarkably similar after a while!) and browse any newsletters on the site and the school calendar if it is published online. They will give you a better feel for the everyday activities of the school, recent academic achievements of note, extra-curricular activities and school trips. Not all schools have the time or resources to maintain a sparkling website, and others post much of the information on an intranet that is visible only to staff, students and parents, so do not draw too many conclusions from the site itself. Just absorb anything useful that you can from it.
  • Check the school’s Admission Policy to see if there is a realistic chance of your child gaining a place. You can find more information about that process on this section of our website.
  • Find out what subjects are offered and how popular these are. Find out what languages are offered, both European languages and others. Check sixth-form options: if your child wishes to become a PE teacher, but there is no A Level option in PE, it may not be the right school.
  • If the school publishes its Admissions Policy on the website, read it closely. It may seem to be double-Dutch at first, but our guide to Demystifying Admissions Policies should help you understand the rules and regulations.
  • Look at all the OFSTED reports for each school – not just the most recent one. Most schools will have at least two reports about them posted by now. The summary may tell you all that you need to know about the school, but the full report may give you a greater insight in some cases. Look at where improvements have been made and check for areas where standards may be declining. The OFSTED Site is not particularly easy to navigate when you first approach it, but the best way to get the information you need is via their “search” facility on the Inspection Reports page. Simply select Secondary Schools and then enter your postcode and the distance from home that you want to search for, up to 20 miles. You will then have a complete list of all the reports on schools that are within the specified range. If you want to search for a school beyond that range you can use this page to search geographically by region and then by Local Authority, or just search by school name. You can arrange the reports by School Name simply by clicking on the blue header. Look at where improvements have been made and check for areas where standards may be declining.
  • Check the league tables for all of the schools on your list. You can view state school and independent school league tables here, but remember that some independent schools have opted out of appearing in league tables, but do not use league tables as your bible in selecting a school! Good results come from many attributes in a school – the Head teacher, the Governing body, the senior management team and so on. Schools can, and do, rise and fall quite dramatically in the league tables within only a year or two simply because there has been a significant change to one of those elements.
  • Look at leavers’ destinations if the information is published. How do they compare with the future you envisage for your child?
  • If your child has Special Educational Needs (SEN) check the school’s SEN policies and overall approach.
  • In many areas you may be able to turn to School Choice Advisers. The School Choice service is provided by local authorities. Their advisers provide independent advice to parents, in particular to help those who might find the admissions process from primary to secondary school difficult.
  • It can be very enlightening to ask the local newsagent for their views on the children they encounter from local schools!
  • Search our ElevenPlusExams Forum for your area for views on the school, and ask any questions that you may have.

Evaluate your child

You may feel that you know your child very well already, and find it strange that we suggest this step. However, it is easy to make assumptions about your child and the right school for them, and it is worth taking a step back to look at your child through fresh eyes. We hear of many parents who find that their final decision on schooling is very different from their original presumption.

  • Think about their current school: What do they seem to enjoy or dislike about it? What problems at school have you had to deal with over the years? These may give you an indication of the type of school that might be most appropriate for your child.
  • Look at your child’s academic strengths: Which schools on your “long list” provide specialist facilities that will cater for your child’s strengths?
  • Look at your child from a social perspective. How important is it for your child to be with children of the opposite sex? Does that suggest that a single-sex school may not be the right option? Or would it be too much of a distraction to have girls or boys at their school once your child is a teenager? If you do choose a single-sex school, how will your child have social opportunities to mix with the opposite sex outside school?
  • Where will all your child’s friends be going to school? Although it is not necessarily a key factor in your decision making, it may help your child to have one or two friendly faces around them in the first few weeks at “big school”. This may be more important for a very shy child.
  • Consider very carefully the distance from home to school from a social point of view. If your child attends a school that is many miles from home, they are likely to make friends who also live a considerable distance away. They will either be socially isolated, or you will be condemned to running a taxi service for them for years to come.

Draw up a shortlist of schools

You should now aim to have a list of up to six to eight schools, at most, that you feel might be appropriate for your child and you now need to begin to rank them in order of preference.

The best way to rank the schools at this stage is to visit them, ideally as early as Year 4, and without your child in the first instance. All schools will hold Open Days or Evenings, usually during the early part of the autumn term, but some will hold Open Days at other times in the year. Open Days are a convenient way for the school to showcase themselves to large numbers of people, but you will get a much better feel for a school by visiting it during normal working hours. Most schools are happy to show prospective parents around during school hours, although some very over-subscribed schools may not be quite so keen to do so.

If your child has Special Educational Needs that are particularly acute it is well worth asking for an appointment with the SENCO (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinator) to discuss how the school would be able to support your child. Schools can differ considerably in this respect.

Discuss the options with your child

Discuss the schools on your shortlist with your child and then arrange to take them on a visit to each of the schools. Your child may have no particularly strong feelings about any of the schools to begin with, but one of the most frequent questions about choosing a school to come up on our 11 Plus Discussion Forum is when a child and their parent disagree about which school is the right one for the child. The child is usually being influenced by their peer group and playground chatter about which schools everyone is attending. The child will almost always be looking at the choice from a social perspective, while the parent’s priority is invariably the quality of education that a school will provide. If your child has a marked preference for a school, try to discover where that preference has come from and what lies behind it. It is usually best not to confront a strongly held conviction about a school head-on, because that may only make your child more determined. Instead, try to “sell” the advantages of the alternative schools to them, such as the quality of the facilities and education. It is also worth checking with other parents exactly which schools they are leaning towards, because they may not be the same as the ones being mentioned in playground chatter either!

Decide on the rank order for your application form – the CAF

Once you have gone through all of this you need to decide on the order of preference for the various schools. There is more detail here about the process of completing the Common Application FormPlease note that independent schools should not be entered on the CAF at any time or in any area.