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January 11, 2019
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Choosing a new school in Cambridge

Guest blogger and Cambridge education specialist Andrea Joyce – offers comprehensive advice and recommendations to help you choose a new school for your child.

There are so many factors to consider when choosing a new school, it feels a lot like making a very intricate meal that requires a particular combination of ingredients for it to be just right. I put the question of “what are the top factors you take into consideration when looking at a new school?” to my extensive group of friends with school age children and it was interesting to see the comments that came back:

“For me, the first impression makes some contribution. I will also consider what existing students think about the school. I always believe that it is difficult to find a ‘best’ one but finding a suitable one is important. Sometimes, the best thing may not be suitable for everyone. Therefore, evaluating the fitness between the school and myself will be the key factor.” Joyce from China.

“It’s the learning culture that was/is important to me. We believe very strongly that once they learn how to acquire knowledge, they can learn anything they put their mind to. Also I believe strongly that girls benefit from being in an all girls school; especially for STEM subjects in senior school.” Karyn.

“Good grades of course, well maintained and clean facilities, happy looking staff and pupils, leaver destinations, wide choice of subjects (or specific ones your child might be good at/interested in if they are a little older and have worked out their interests/strengths), opportunities for extra curricular activities, recommendations. But remember, schools can change very quickly with good and bad year groups, new and old teachers/heads…they aren’t a constant, so what you start with isn’t necessarily what you will end with. And school is only a small part of a child’s education!” Nicola.

“Location is a big thing for us, you have to be able to get the kids there, manage after school clubs etc as well as during school, if you have those commitments. Standard of school is hugely important too, if it is a terrible school I would go out of my way to get the kids elsewhere, even if that meant a location that wasn’t as convenient. Overall the kids have to be happy and achieving to a reasonable standard to make it a good school in my opinion.” Becky.

“I think my child’s preference is a necessity. Good pastoral support, class size, what subjects available at GCSE and A level, and results of these from previous years, is there a sixth form attached to the school. Distance – is there any provision for assistance with travel ie school bus, what extracurricular activities are available? Has the school been in special measures and have recommendations been applied and positive changes made? Are there strong governors available to support the head, tutors, other staff and last but by no means least parents and students. But the final choice would be that of my child.” Sonia.

“For me choosing our son’s secondary school has been a lot of debate and discussion due to meeting SEND needs. We talked about the local secondary school in which he would have to travel 8 miles on a bus, catch the right one etc. We chose a special secondary school which we are hoping he will get into. Our thoughts for choosing this school were will he fit it, what is the curriculum like, does it feel right, does he like it. How do they go the extra mile for supporting students with special educational needs?” Emma.

“The location is a factor, results to a degree, the feeling….just that feeling you get when you like somewhere. How the management are, their plans for the future and how the existing students are. Really for us, it boiled down to how my children would fit and if they would be happy there.” Helen from Melbourne.

The factors to consider when choosing a new school:

Taking into consideration all of these comments I think the primary factors to look at when choosing a new school could be summarised as:

  • Location, location, location
  • Transport availability or options
  • Exam results
  • Ofsted rating – ability to respond quickly to improvement recommendations
  • Feedback from current students and parents
  • Class size
  • Staff to student ratio
  • Strong pastoral support
  • Appropriate levels of support for SEND
  • Curriculum choices
  • Extracurricular activities available
  • Learning culture
  • Good facilities, clean and well maintained
  • Will your child/ren be happy there, does it have the right ‘feeling’?

One approach would be to list the schools you are interested in and then add a column for each of the points mentioned above, and anything else you consider important, so that you can directly compare and contrast the merits and disadvantages of each school. This process would make it easier to compile a short list of schools to visit. When visiting a large number of schools it’s quite possible that they will all start merging into one, so recording the details of your visits and your impressions of each school soon after each visit might prove useful. Observations regarding the staff, students and school management are worth including in your review. I would write up my initial impressions of the school, the staff, the students and the school management as soon after the visit as possible.

One of the first key decisions to make is the type of school you are looking for as the application process for schools in the UK differs depending on if you are looking at state schools, independent fee-paying schools or a private international school. Another consideration is if you want a school with a single-sex or coeducational system.

How the UK education system works:

If you are looking at state schools then it is important to note that the UK education system works on catchment areas – the geographical area served by a school. In Cambridgeshire, your home address will usually be in the catchment area of one primary school and one secondary school. Cambridgeshire County Council is a useful source of information regarding catchment areas and the process of applying to schools within the county. https://www.cambridgeshire.gov.uk/residents/children-and-families/schools-&-learning/apply-for-a-school-place/

This may feel quite different to the way education works in the country you are relocating from. Nick Waite, Head of Bellerbys College in Cambridge gave his insights into choosing a new school in the UK.

“The character of a school, just like your child, is unique and I would advise looking beyond its position in the league table and deeper than the information on the website to find a good match.  Seek recommendations from existing parents and wherever possible, visit the school. By meeting the staff and having a tour, you are given the opportunity to observe the school in session and can speak to existing students: they are the true measure of a school.  In particular, for those arriving from overseas, the school needs to be flexible. The education system in the UK will be different and the school will need to help your son or daughter to adapt.”

Supporting your child through the relocation process:

The awareness of a school of the need to support children who have just relocated to a new country is likely to be an important factor in the decision making process. We spoke to Anne Parker, co-author of ‘The Mobile Life; A new approach to moving anywhere’for her advice on choosing a school as part of the relocation process.  Anne has an expat background and a career as a trainer in international skills and cultural competency, she’s used her experience to co-author ‘The Mobile Life; A new approach to moving anywhere’ which describes, in practical terms, how you can plan and build a successful life for yourself (and your family) anywhere in the world. 

Anne had this to say about choosing a new school:

“When looking for a new school for your child ask what type of support and actions the school will put in place to help your child adapt to a new environment and culture. Many schools have a deep awareness of the big adjustment curve children go through as they move schools and countries and have processes in place to support both your child and you. Look at the type of activities your child already does, and see if there is the possibility of  doing this in their new school. Doing an existing activity/sport (which your child enjoys, is confident at and perhaps good at ) could be an important grounding point for them to rebuild their rhythm and keep a sense of identity in their new environment.”

Anne also offered this excellent advice for managing your child’s expectations through the relocation process:  “Talk to your child about the changes to come e.g. new friends, culture, surroundings, different food, rules, expectations and how it may feel challenging for a while. Knowing what to expect and that it is a normal process is important for your child to understand nothing is wrong and the school is still the right choice.”

For more information about Anne’s book check out the website http://www.themobilelife.eu/

Where to find the information you need:

Much information can be found by visiting a school’s website, reading their latest Ofsted report or doing a little online research. However, the ability to judge “the feeling” that Helen from Melbourne was talking about can only be gleaned from visiting a school in person. See our other blog on how to get the most out of open days: http://www.movetocambridge.co.uk/getting-the-most-out-of-school-and-university-open-days/

It is important to think about all the different ways you can interact with the school in advance. As well as open days many schools offer taster days, taster weeks and even summer school opportunities to allow students to get a feel for their school. Having an opportunity for your child to experience the reality of being a student at a school before fully committing to it could be an excellent way to ensure that the right choice has been made. 

“Move to Cambridge” has supported numerous families find the right new school for them. They have experience at navigating through application forms, supporting families on school visits and weighing up the pros and cons of each option.