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What to consider when choosing a senior school for your child

We pick the brains of the staff at Ipswich School about how to ensure you're making the right choices for your child's secondary education

You’re probably wondering how on earth your little one, who mere moments ago was taking their first steps into primary school, is suddenly so grown up that you’re having to think about their secondary education. Once you’ve come to terms with the fact that your child is nearly a teenager (yikes!), it’s time to think practically about how you can ensure they get the very best start when it comes to their senior schooling. After all, the right school will set them on the path to becoming a happy, fulfilled and high-achieving adult. No pressure then!

Ipswich School

Many parents will need to focus on catchment areas and admission criteria for the best local state and grammar schools as their child approaches the age of 10 or 11. If you’re considering an independent secondary school for your child though, depending on your area and how far you’re willing to go on the school run, there’s a lot more choice. Choice sounds great, but it can also be rather overwhelming. Before you bury yourself in a mountain of prospectuses, read on for some excellent advice from the team at Ipswich School that’ll help make the process of choosing a senior school for your child a breeze.

When do you need to start seriously looking at senior schools for your child?

The best time to look at a school is in the summer term of Year 5 or soon after the start of Year 6 in September,” says Laura Trainer, Admissions Manager. “Most schools in our area hold Year 7 entrance tests in November so it makes sense to have your top choices decided before then. We also hold an offer holder day after the assessments which can be an excellent way for your child to meet teachers and other pupils. It all helps to make them feel confident about moving to senior school.”

What sort of things should you be looking for in the curriculum of a senior school?

“It’s important that students gain a solid and broad foundation in STEM, Languages, Humanity and Arts subjects to give them the flexibility to meet the requirements of future employment,” says Tom Allen, Deputy Head Academic. “We believe that knowledge still plays an important role: how else are students able to know which questions to ask, or where to look for information?

“It’s useful to understand if the school prioritises choice or setting? You can’t have both in the timetable. We prioritise student choice, although, as a selective school we know that all of our students will be able to do well. Scale can also help: larger schools offer a broader range of subjects (we offer 27 A Level options!) and employ specialist subject teachers throughout the school – beware small Sixth Forms!

“Just as important, does the school’s approach to the curriculum encourage students to develop self-awareness, to enhance their digital literacy and to collaborate effectively with others? These are questions worth asking. Our regular Learning Scores reward these attributes and encourage pupils to take academic risks and to draw connections across disciplines.”

How much weight should you give to the co-curricular offerings? 

“We care about the whole child at Ipswich School and recognise that an education that allows a child to unlock their true potential is wholly desirable,” says Tracy Boyle, Director of Co-Curriculum. “A weekly comprehensive and varied co-curricular provision is hugely important. It provides opportunities for pupils to pursue existing passions, discover new interests and develop transferable skills such as communication skills and resilience which will enable them to thrive in their pursuits beyond their school days. 

“Whether they are on the sports field, on stage or in the concert hall, pupils learn to take risks in a supportive environment, how to recover from setbacks, how to collaborate in a team-setting and how to become effective leaders. It is undeniable that all employers seek these attributes. Visits and trips should be an essential part of any offering as learning outside the classroom contributes significantly to raising achievement – it is known to develop pupils’ capacity and motivation to learn.”

What facilities should be top of the list at senior school level?

“The simple answer here is that this is less important than the people,” says Nicholas Weaver, Headmaster. “We are blessed with some outstanding facilities – for example a state of the art Music School, excellent science labs and some of the best Sports facilities in the region, if not the country. But without the quality and care of the teachers and coaches who use those facilities, children will not flourish. So, yes, you do want to see a school which is investing in all areas, maintaining an up to date environment and moving with the times, but make sure that you focus on the staff who inhabit that environment too.”

How can you find out if a school’s values match yours?

“First of all look for them,” says Nicholas Weaver. “They should be well articulated on the school’s website. We have a clearly defined set of values and aims, which underpins everything we do at Ipswich School and we are proud that they represent who we are. Then, when you visit, look to see if the stated values feel right for the setting as you walk around. Are they clear in the conversations, not just reproduced parrot fashion, but implied by the description that you hear of a pupil’s life at the school. Finally, if you feel that the school lives its values, you will probably be already feeling that emotional connection with your own values. Most people know when these things match.”

What questions should parents be asking about the pastoral care and wellbeing offerings? 

“There are three main questions that matter here,” says Audrey Cura, Senior Deputy Head Pastoral:

  1. Who looks after my child on a daily basis, getting to know them and us as parents? At Ipswich School a child will have a tutor, a Head of Year and a Head of Section so there is always someone to turn to.
  2. What support systems are in place pastorally and academically for when things might get a bit off track for my child? It is important to have different, trusted people that you can turn to. As well as the tutors and Heads of Year and Section we have another layer of support which includes our School Nurse, Chaplain and Deputy Head. 
  3. And finally how does the school work with families to ensure good communications? At Ipswich School we make sure that both parents and children know exactly who to ask about any concerns. The same applies to good news – we like to hear about achievements out of school so we can celebrate as a community. A good school should have teachers that are approachable; we would much rather tackle any concerns early than see them develop into bigger issues.

Do you need to consider your child’s personality when it comes to the type of school/ size of the cohort?

“Whatever the personality of your child, super outgoing or quiet and shy, the best for all children is for them to be part of a safe, small group where they feel secure,” says Anna Caston, Head of Years 7-8 at Ipswich School. “But don’t assume this means they should be in a smaller school. Larger schools mean that there will be lots of different personality types within the year group and that makes it easier for individual children to find those that they connect with.

“What’s important is to understand how schools manage the year groups so that children feel secure. At Ipswich School, in Years 7-8, we have tutor groups of about 20 children, in which they remain for the first two years, with the same tutor and Head of Year. I always say not to worry about coming from a small primary school into a year group that is sometimes bigger than their whole school because they only need to concentrate on those 20 in their form to begin with.

“However, if your child enjoys sport or music or drama, at any level, then having a larger cohort is vital. Being able to have fixtures with A, B, C and D teams playing means everyone who wants to play will get a match, watching a play with a cast of 100 is quite something and hearing a full orchestra made up of schoolchildren or a choir of 80 is spine tingling. 

Whatever the personality of your child, they will need to feel safe but have the opportunity to meet a variety of people who they can make their friends for life.”

Any top tips for getting the most out of a tour/ open day at a prospective senior school?

“Talk to a good mix of pupils and the teachers,” says Saskia Jordan, Director of Admissions. “Pupils will give you honest and frank answers about everyday life at the school, and it should be readily apparent that they are happy and fulfilled.

“You should expect teachers to be passionate about their subject and inspiring to the children. At Ipswich School our teachers really enjoy explaining why their subject matters and how they bring it to life in the classroom; their passion for the subject and their enthusiasm for inspiring children should come across. 

“Work out in advance the areas that really matter to you and your child and make sure that you ask these questions. You might be curious about academic progress, but your child might be worried about friendship groups and getting lost. There really is no such thing as a silly question and if it’s important to you then it should matter to the school too.”

For more information about senior school admissions at Ipswich School, visit the website here.

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