In Depth

How to spot a good school: five things to look for

New study reveals that majority of parents reject schools closest to their homes in favour of higher-achieving ones

More than 60% of parents in the UK avoid sending their children to the closest secondary school to their home, according to a new study.

Researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Bristol found that a majority of families opt for a school that is further away, usually because it is higher achieving.

The BBC says the study is the “most detailed examination of choices of secondary school places in England, using more than 520,000 applications from 2014 to 2015”.

“Contrary to a widely held belief, only a minority of parents choose their local school as their first option,” the researchers said. 

Here’s what the experts say parents should look out for when picking a school:

Exam results

Education news website The School Run describes attainment levels as “probably the biggest deal-breaker for parents”.

The Good Schools Guide recommends that parents view Ofsted reports, exam results and performance data, and check whether a good percentage of children get higher grades.

Angeline Tyler, co-author of Choosing a Secondary School and Getting In, says: “Whether your child gets those ultimately or not, it will tell you that the teaching quality overall is good.”

Other students

The BBC suggests quizzing pupils selected to show families around on open days for prospective students.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, says that while “most of the hand-picked students will say nice things about the schools”, they may reveal more about the school if you “ask them if they've made progress from year to year”.

“All the data shows that when youngsters transfer from primary to secondary, their performance often dips,” he adds.

Although visiting school open days is a must, according to ParentKind, parents should also “make time for another visit on a normal school day so you get to see what it's like without the smokescreen of presentations and displays”.

The education charity says parents should ask themselves: “How do students and teachers interact in class? What's behaviour like at the end of a lesson and the end of the school day? Is there a welcoming and happy atmosphere?”


Last year, TES, formerly known as the Times Educational Supplement, surveyed thousands of primary school children about to enter secondary school to see which factors they placed the most importance on when looking for the right school.

The majority of children said that the teachers themselves, not their teaching, were the most important element of their school experience. Secondary pupils were recruited for the same task, placing “great and supportive teachers’ in second place”.

Extra-curricular activities

The most important factor for secondary pupils was “a range of extra-curricular activities”.

Parents should assess whether or not their children love trying new things and staying busy, in which case a school with “tons of extra-curricular activities might appeal”, The Huffington Post suggests.

The Daily Telegraph says activities “reach different children in ways that other aspects of school life might not, and help to complete a child’s educational experiences at school”, adding that “a successful programme of extra-curricular is indicative of a head having the combination of genuine passion and attention to detail that is vital for a school to be truly great”.


Neat and tidy classrooms are a must, as are other communal areas. But be sure to look beneath the surface if you want a better idea of a school’s facilities, say the experts.

It may seem rather odd, but one of the best ways to accurately gauge the quality of the school’s facilities may be to use the toilets, they say.

“Schools are bound to spotlight their smartest classrooms and best facilities,” Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, tells the BBC. “But this is no different from what we do when we show would-be vendors around our houses.

“But you can get beyond this by asking to have a tour, and asking to see, say, the toilets that pupils use. Toilets, in my experience, tell you a lot about a school's values.”


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