Every school should have a prospectus. It can be obtained by phoning the school directly, downloading from the website,  and they are usually given out at open evenings or visits. The school has a legal obligation to include information in its prospectus regarding provision for the disabled, but otherwise prospectuses can vary a great deal. This section aims to help parents decipher what the prospectus is really telling them about a school.

Quick Check

If you ask for a prospectus from a school and it is not sent to you, then this is a cause for concern. The office staff should be trained to take such requests seriously.

  • A school prospectus should be consistent and clear. It should not have duplication, or contradictory information. The prospectus should be devised with a clear sense of parents as audience. It is a cause for concern if the prospectus doubles as a guide for Year 7 students, for example.
  • The school and the prospectus should match each other. A good school is honest about the way it presents itself; it does not try and hide things. No school is going to include its serious weaknesses in the prospectus, nor should it. However, it should be genuine about what the school has to celebrate, and play to strengths, not distort reality. A highly finished, organised, impressive prospectus is meaningless, if the school is low impact, disorganised and unimpressive. Therefore, the impression you receive from the prospectus should be the same as the one you glean from the school itself.
  • Prospectuses vary from extremely high finish, glossy productions to photocopied black and white inserts in a folder. A glossy prospectus is not everything, but it does tell you that the school is concerned about its client group, and that is potentially a good sign. If a prospectus seems not to be trying very hard it suggests that complacency has set in, or that there is a lack of organisation and pride in the school. Whatever the finish, the document should reflect a culture of high expectations. A specialist technology college should certainly have a high quality finished prospectus, otherwise its credentials are immediately undermined.
  • It is a cause for concern if the prospectus describes school arrangements in vague terms, for example, ‘occasionally’, ‘mainly’, ‘often’. The right school for your child must be clear about its systems. It is no good finding out that the Languages Department runs a trip to Paris ‘often’ if that means every four years.You need to know whether the trip runs annually for this information to be valid.

Detailed Check

The information and photographs a school prospectus features should be up to date. If they are not, this suggests a lack of care, disorganisation, and possibly a lack of transparency about the school’s current condition.

  • Photographs of smiling children suggest that learning is meant to be enjoyable in the school. Photographs of children doing different things, and not just sitting in class, implies that the school celebrates a diversity of teaching approaches. Any photographs of impressive resources, like banks of computers should be viewed with caution, and their existence confirmed at first hand on a visit. If a school is multi-cultural and values this, it will try and represent diversity in the photographs it chooses.
  • The Head teacher will usually write a letter or an address to parents in the prospectus.This is the Head’s chance to present her priorities,and key words and themes can give you a clue as to what kind of school she runs and whether her priorities match yours.
  • For example: The Head might want to give a warm welcome in her address, emphasising that students are happy and the school is caring. It might be important to you that the head emphasises high standards in uniform, good manners, politeness and adherence to tradition. A Head might want to make a point of valuing lots of different skills that children may have, and give examples of what these might be, for example, ‘gifted academically…. good at sport….creative….’  If a Head teacher thinks that the school’s good discipline is a key to its success, then this is a place where she will mention it. However, of course this discipline must be seen at first hand on a school visit.  If the Head teacher’s address is difficult to follow, then this is a cause for concern.
  • A Head teacher should be skilled in written communication. 
  •  A Head teacher who invites you to come and visit, and spells out the process by which you can do this, shows an openness and confidence about her school.
  • A prospectus will commonly contain sections on ‘Ethos’ and ‘Values’ which are supplemented or alternated with titles such as ‘Aims’, ‘Entitlements’, ‘Vision’.  As written headings and lists, these are good to see but tell you relatively little. They are only worth anything if you see them at first hand on your visit. No school is going to write,‘Values – We only genuinely value the bright children,’ but this might be the case.
  • There will usually be a section on current facilities and future plans. However, the facilities should be validated by what you see at first hand. Make sure you find out on your visit whether the plans are provisional or definite.
  • It is a good sign if the prospectus includes a section on parents, as this shows that the school values the parent/school partnership, and wants to collaborate with parents effectively. This section should outline the school’s schedule and methods for contacting parents, for example, parents’evenings and reports.The prospectus should identify key people whom a parent would contact if they had a cause for concern. Many schools have a ‘home-school agreement’ which requires a parental signature. This might be mentioned in the prospectus. However, whilst sometimes meaningful, often this is a paper exercise which has little impact on a child’s career at the school.
  • If there is a separate section on discipline, it should be precise and user friendly. If a school has reproduced a policy which is clearly for another audience, for example teachers, then the information is of limited use.
  • The prospectus should tell you about what groupings a school uses for teaching students, whether they are taught in sets, streams or mixed ability groups. If the school organises students into any kind of ability groups, then the prospectus should describe a transparent process for the composition of these groups. If the selection process seems vague, then this is a cause for concern.
  • The prospectus should tell you if there are any specific teaching arrangements in different year groups; for example,some schools adopt a system in Year 7 which replicates the primary school day, and is supposed to ease the transition from primary to secondary school.
  • The prospectus should tell you about the subjects students will follow at Key Stages 3 and 4. The information should be laid out in such a way that you are clear what subjects are taught at each Key Stage. Even better, you should be given a clear sense of how much curriculum time is allocated to each subject area.
  •  After reading the prospectus, you should know if students have any choice over subjects studied at Key Stage 3 and how the options process takes place before Key Stage 4 courses begin. You should know which subjects are obligatory, which are optional, what range of subjects there is to choose from,and when and how students get to choose them. You should know what vocational and academic subjects are on offer. It is a cause for concern if there appears to be no clear options process. Choices for students should not change radically year on year. This suggests a lack of focus and vision or a school without efficient organisational systems. Or it could suggest a high staff turnover which precludes long term curriculum planning.
  • The prospectus should give you an idea of day to day life for your child at the school, either through a day’s timetable, or a description of how students spend their time. 
  •  The prospectus should tell you how tutor groups and the pastoral system are organised. It should make clear who is responsible for the pastoral system, for example, Heads of Year. 
  • Schools should include information about extra-curricular opportunities for students. Study support should always be included in this list. It is a good sign if a school provides some kind of extended provision, like a breakfast club or after school homework club. If a school is successful in a particular after school sports’ league, then this may be highlighted in the prospectus. It is a good sign if visits are celebrated in the prospectus. However, it is a cause for concern if trips are described which took place years ago, or that only happen occasionally.This suggests a lack of focus, resources or organisation.
  • The prospectus should give you information about school meals and how the school addresses the issue of healthy eating.
  • There will probably be a section on special educational needs (SEN). If this section includes reference to the school’s SEN policy, then you may want to verify it at first hand on a visit. What to look out for in the prospectus is an SEN section that acknowledges the variety of special educational needs there might be among the students, for example, social, emotional, and behavioural.
  • The prospectus should have a section on gifted and talented, or more able, students. It is a cause for concern if they are not mentioned, as there are high ability students in all cohorts who need an individualised programme with a high profile in the school.
  • There should be a section on school uniform, or dress code. For a school where adherence to  the uniform is important, then this will be spelt out in the prospectus. However, any uniform policy must be seen working at first hand.
  • The prospectus should mention homework, demonstrating that the school has a clear policy about what, when, and how much is set. It should explain why homework is valued, and how it impacts on school improvement. However, any description of the homework process should be checked out at an open evening or visit by looking at students’exercise books.
  • Schools will usually present information on attendance, often for the last three years. It is a cause for concern for the DfE if a school falls below 90% attendance. It is a healthy picture if the school has 93% or above attendance. The percentage of unauthorised absences, those not sanctioned by parents, should be below 1%. Schools should have systems to chase up absences, so that the only unauthorised absences are genuine truancy. Unauthorised absence which is above 1% is potentially a cause for concern and you should ask about this on your visit. You want to be reassured that truancy is not a major issue at the school. It is a good sign if attendance figures go up year on year. If figures have been below 90% in the past and they are above 90% for the current year, then the school is clearly working hard on improvement in this area. It is a cause for concern if attendance figures are decreasing year on year.
  • The prospectus may include a section on how Religious Education is taught in the school. A good prospectus may also mention spiritual and moral development. Unless this is a particular priority for you, this section is of particular interest only if the school has a religious nature.
  • Prospectuses will normally include a statement on sex education. The provision of sex education in a school is a legal requirement, and the information should vary little between schools.
  • The teaching of Citizenship and/or Personal, Social and Health Education, PSHE is compulsory and the information included should vary little.
  • The prospectus should inform you about careers’ guidance and work experience. An initiative called ‘Work Related Learning’ was introduced in 2004, and a school which has a strong vocational programme will seek to make something of it.
  • A prospectus might include extracts from the school’s most recent Ofsted report. It is important to look up the report and not rely wholly on short quotes, as the school will be selective about what it includes.
  • The prospectus will tell you whether or not the school has a 6th form.
  • A school will often include information on ‘Post 16’ or post ‘A’ Level destinations, outlining what the students go on to do once they have left. It is a good sign if over 80% of the students have gone on to further education. This shows that the school has instilled a desire for learning. If destinations are spread over vocational and academic areas, this shows that the school gives students a clear picture of the choice on offer, and that it values diversity among its students. If destinations are mainly academic institutions, this gives a message about the school’s ethos.  If there are more than five percent of students unemployed, this is a cause for concern.

A nice touch in a prospectus is: 

  •  The inclusion of a school newsletter. First of all, this shows that such a publication exists. Secondly, it gives you a flavour of the school’s day to day life, and shows that the school feels confident enough to share this with you.
  • The inclusion of some direct input from students, for example quotes or artwork.This shows an effort on the part of the school to value and include the student voice.
  • The inclusion of named people to contact if you have queries about particular issues. This shows the school is serious about having genuine communication with you.
  • The inclusion of any letters the school may have recently received from the DfE or LEA complimenting them on their improvement.

Logos and Mottos

The cover of the prospectus will often feature one or more logos. Some Head teachers are logo junkies, while others show little interest in them. Often, the organisations and awards the logos represent will have very little direct impact on your child.What logos often do is tell you what type of school it is, while others can give you an idea of particular areas of excellence. However, logos should match up with what you see in action at the school. If a school has, for example, a ‘Sports Mark Gold Award’, but their PE exam results are poor, and their sports’ facilities leave a lot to be desired, then the logo is meaningless. Examples of logos you might find:

  • Arts Mark – Arts Mark is awarded to schools which show a commitment to the full range of Arts: Music, Dance, Drama, Art and Design. Schools apply for the award, and there are three levels of attainment, ‘Arts Mark’, ‘Arts Mark – Silver’ and ‘Arts Mark – Gold’. 
  • Charter Mark – A school subscribes to be involved in the ‘Charter Mark’ process which ensures that organisations focus effectively on customer needs.
  • Excellence in Cities – ‘Excellence in Cities’ is a targeted programme of support for schools in deprived urban areas. Schools involved in this project will have initiatives such as the ‘aim higher’ programme,a ‘gifted and talented’scheme,and learning mentors.
  • Healthy Schools – A school has gone through a process where they have met criteria relating to personal, social and health education, for example, how PE is taught, how health issues are dealt with, how healthy eating is given a high profile. ‘Healthy Schools’ is a DfE initiative.
  • Investors In People – A standard granted to private businesses and public sector organisations which have committed themselves to the learning and professional development of their staff.
  • ICT Test Bed – The ICT Test Bed project gives schools access to high levels of ICT hardware and software and also provides the support required to maximise effective use. It is run by a now defunct government agency ‘BECTA’, the ‘British Educational Communications and Technology Agency’.
  • National Mentoring Network – An association of mentoring projects which offers support to members and promotes the benefits of the many types of mentoring schemes to schools and businesses.
  •  Specialist Schools – Each specialism has its own logo. A specialist school is often referred to as a college. Schools can be specialist in Arts, Business and Enterprise, Engineering, Humanities, Languages, Mathematics and Computing, Music, Science, Sports, and Technology.
  • Sport England – ‘Sport England’ is the body responsible for delivering the government’s sport objectives in schools. The school is involved in the ‘National Schools Competition Framework’ which promotes competitive sport in and between schools.

In addition, schools will often have their own logo, and also a motto or a vision statement. If a logo is a coat of arms and the motto in Latin, then either the school is one which has a long tradition, or it is trying to give that impression. A Latin motto might also imply an academic bias in the school. Some mottos can use language that is deliberately inclusive, and clearly is intended to emphasise that all  achievement is celebrated, for example, ‘We all succeed’, while others might emphasise selection, ‘What we do,we do better’. It is quite common for a school that is a specialist language college to have a motto in a foreign language.

Exam Results

A school should include in their prospectus Key Stage test results, and the results of GCSE, vocational qualifications, such as BTEC, Diploma and ‘A/S’ and ‘A’ Levels, if appropriate. These results will be for the most recent year, and there should be an analysis of relevant data for the last three or four years. Some important information for a parent is what the exam results reveal about adding value; how much the school has done to help students to achieve their potential. However, most schools do not give their ‘value added’ information with their exam results, instead they usually focus on raw percentages, so it is often a question of reading between the lines to judge a school’s success. It is important to check the match between the quality of the brochure and the quality of the results. For example, a brochure might be glossy and impressive, but the results disappointing. In this instance, the quality of the brochure will have no effect on your child’s experience at the school, but the quality of the results will. Normally schools include national averages with which to compare their own achievements. If a school scores higher than the national averages, then that is clearly encouraging. However, this is not the end of the story. One of the most important considerations is that there is year on year improvement. If a school has results that are consistently higher than the national average, but there is no year on year improvement, then there may be some issues for you to explore. By contrast, if a school is moving closer and closer to the national average year on year, or increasing their improvement upon it, then these are good signs. If schools do not include comparative data then the quality of their own examination analysis is questionable.

Key Stage 4 Examinations – GCSEs/BTECS

The table for the most recent GCSE results will usually have all the subjects down the left hand side, the grades along the top, the numbers of students who achieved each grade, and the total number of students who were entered for each subject down the far right column. Along the bottom column will be the total number of students who achieved each grade across all subject areas. If you receive the prospectus in the Autumn term, GCSE grades for the most recent cohort are often indicated to be provisional because the school might be challenging some of the results or awaiting definitive DfE figures.

The comparative data will include information such as the percentage of students who achieved five or more A*–C grades, including English and Maths, the number of students who achieved five or more A*–G grades, the number of students who achieved at least one GCSE and similar combinations. The comparative information can also be found in national Achievement and Assessment Tables.

At Key Stage 4, it is compulsory for all students to study English, Maths and Science, Information Technology, Religious Education, Citizenship and Physical Education. However, not all schools will enter students for exams in all these areas. Most schools will enter all of their students for English, English Literature, Maths and Science GCSEs. Some schools will enter their students for half award GCSEs, for example, in Religious Education, Citizenship, and Information Technology. Most schools will not enter all their students for Physical Education GCSE. Students will either be entered for dual award Science GCSE, which counts for two GCSEs, Science BTEC or three individual Science GCSEs (Physics, Chemistry and Biology). In some schools, other subjects will be compulsory for the whole year group, for example, a foreign language. Some schools enter all their students for the same BTEC, most commonly in ICT. Results in compulsory subjects may tell a different story to those in option subjects. For example, nearly all students will be entered for Maths GCSE, whether they are strong or struggle in this subject, and the results will reflect this. However, if students opt for a subject, it is usually because they have some aptitude or enthusiasm for it.Option cohorts are almost always smaller than compulsory cohorts, so it is more likely that results will be higher in option subjects.

Schools will usually include vocational results in the same table as their GCSE results. BTEC is the most common vocational qualification. Year 11 students will normally achieve two GCSE equivalent qualifications; the more successful equating to grades A*–C at GCSE, others being comparable to grades D–G.

With all GCSE data, national averages should accompany school totals. Always have a calculator with you when you are looking at the data in a prospectus.

Causes for Concern in GCSE/ Key Stage 4 Data :

  •  The data in the prospectus should be set out in a way that is accessible to a parent audience. If it is not even clear that the table is about GCSE results; if there are abbreviations that are impossible to understand; if there are numbers and percentages that have no context; then this is a cause for concern. The school should be making an effort to communicate effectively with its audience through its use of data. If it cannot make its data parent friendly, it is highly likely that in classrooms, it does not make its data student friendly either.
  • Most schools offer English Language, English Literature, Maths and Science as core GCSEs, which means all students take these subjects. Schools which do not offer English and English Literature, or offer a subject instead of English Literature for example, Media Studies, are reducing their students’ entitlement. Subjects should not be taught instead of English and English Literature, but as well as.
  • Across all the subjects, if there are more children who get ‘D’s than ‘C’s, then this suggests that the school could be failing students. Schools should be targeting students who are on the ‘C/D’ borderline and moving their grades up. One of the hardest things for a school to achieve, but one of the strongest signs of its success is to move students from ‘D’ to ‘C’.
  • Across all the subjects, if there are few students who achieve grades A* or A then this shows that the school does not serve its gifted and talented community well. It does not matter who the student cohort are, there will always be young people who are capable of ‘A’grades.
  • If the percentage of students (note – not the number) in the ‘A*–C’ columns in option subjects, for example, History or Geography is generally the same as, or lower than the core subjects ( English, Maths and Science) this is not a good sign.
  • If there is a subject area that has the majority of students on a ‘D’ grade or lower, then this subject could be a cause for concern. Most schools, no matter how good they are, will usually have one subject area where things may have gone wrong. Or, they have a subject area which attracts a disproportionate number of lower ability students. However, schools should not have more than two subject areas where most students achieve a ‘D’ or lower. If your child’s favourite subject is an area where students are potentially underachieving in this way, then you will need to investigate the reasons why before you choose the school.
  • In the comparative statistics showing the percentage of students achieving at least five or more ‘A*–C’ grades each year, there should not be a decrease over time. A downward trend suggests a school on a decline. Where there is no discernible trend either upwards or downwards, then this is a cause for concern, because it suggests that there is no effective strategy for improvement in place.
  • If the percentage of students achieving least one ‘A*–G’ grade each year, is not in the high 90s, then the school is not supporting its lowest ability students well enough. It might be concentrating on another group of students at the expense of those with lower academic ability.
  • If the percentage of five or more ‘A*–C’ grades is going up, but the percentage of students achieving five or more ‘A*–G’ grades is going down, then the school may be focusing on higher ability students at the expense of those with lower ability.
  • Some schools might not include a subject breakdown at GCSE level. This is not necessarily a cause for concern, but you should request this information before considering the school seriously.

Good Signs in GCSE/ Key Stage 4 Data:

  • It is a good sign if schools include a written explanation of their results. Paragraphs that explain particular achievements in different subject areas and individual achievements of students reveal a school that is serious about making their data comprehensible to parents.
  • If you look down the grade columns ‘C’ and ‘D’  and the numbers are for the most part greater in ‘C’ than they are in ‘D’, then it is likely that the school is good at helping students reach their potential. This pattern suggests the school has a high success rate at converting students who could be ‘D’ graders into ‘C’ graders.
  • If, in the majority of subject areas, more students get ‘B’s and ‘C’s than any other grade, then this shows that the school is probably very good at adding value and getting the most out of their students. It also means that the school does not just concentrate on getting ‘C’ grades to do well in the Achievement and Assessment Tables, but pushes students beyond the ‘C’ boundary and further upwards.
  • There should be consistency across the option subjects and consistency across the core. So the percentages (note – not the number) of students at each grade should be broadly similar across core subjects and roughly the same across option subjects. This shows that there are consistent whole school systems contributing to school improvement, and progress is not just happening in isolated pockets.
  • A spread of students across the ‘A*–E’ grade columns, without a bulge at ‘D’ or ‘E’, suggests that the school does its best for students of all abilities.
  • There should be A*s and As in all subject areas. This indicates that the school is appropriately challenging its gifted and talented students.
  • In the comparative statistics showing the percentage of students achieving five or more ‘A*–C’ grades each year, there should be an upward trend over time. Do not worry if the pattern is not totally consistent. A reduction of a few percentage points one year is not a cause for concern, but the trend should be upwards. This shows that it is an improving school.
  • In the statistics showing the percentage of students achieving at least one ‘A*–G’ grade each year, the percentage should be in the high 90s year on year.

GCSE/Key Stage 4 Data in Grammar Schools:

  • There should not be subject areas that have their highest number of students attaining a ‘D’ grade.
  • In the majority of subject areas, the biggest number of students should be attaining a ‘B’ grade.
  • There should be a large minority of students who achieve ‘A*’s and ‘A’s in all subject areas, because gifted and talented students are a large proportion of the student cohort.

‘AS/A’ Level/Key Stage 5 Data

Usually,‘A’ Level results are not parents’ top priority, when they are thinking about which secondary school to choose. However, results in the 6th form can give you some guide to the school overall

  • It is a cause for concern if the school uses statistics that are not comprehensible. For example, they might include the average point score without explaining what this tells the parent. This shows no attempt on the part of the school to give parents a clear picture of what is happening.
  • A year on year improvement in results is a good sign.
  • Results that show, in the majority of subjects, that most students get below a ‘C’ grade at ‘A’ Level are a cause for concern.This suggests that the school has a 6th form that is not actually for the benefit of the students, and/or that the students are underachieving, and might do better elsewhere.
  • If the majority of subjects have a bulk of students attaining ‘C’ grades or above at ‘A’ Level, then this suggests a healthy 6th form.

AS/’A’ Level/Key Stage 5 Data in Grammar Schools

  • There should be very few ‘E’s and ‘U’s in any subject area. If these grades occur, students could be being encouraged to do the wrong ‘A’ Levels or ‘A’ Level teaching in some subject areas may be weak.
  • A substantial minority of ‘A’grades in all subject areas indicates good teaching and appropriate challenge.

Key Stage 3 Data

There are  now no national SATs tests at Key Stage 3; instead, there are teacher assessments. Teacher assessments are the levels the teacher gives to students for the work they have done in class.

 In each subject, students received a level at Key Stage 3  from 2 to 8, while ‘N’ is awarded to students who failed to attain a level 2. At Key Stage 3, the nationally expected result for a child of 14 is level 5. Schools should include national average comparisons in their data.  

  • The percentage of students achieving level 5 or above should be broadly the same in English,Maths and Science. If it is not, this indicates that there could be a weak core subject area. It also suggests that whole school systems for ensuring improvement are not strong, and too much is left to the individual subject areas.
  • The majority of pupils should achieve a level 5 or above. This normally suggests that the school is adding appropriate value.
  • In all schools, at Key Stage 3 there should be a smattering of level 7s and 8s in the three core subject areas. If this is not the case, then the school is failing its gifted and talented students.

Key Stage 3 Data – Selective schools 

  • The number of students attaining level 4 in the three core  subject areas should be negligible. 
  •  The number of students attaining a level 6 should not be significantly less than those achieving a level 5.
  • There should be a large minority of students who achieve levels 7 and 8.
  • There should be no weak subject – English, Maths and Science should be achieving at approximately the same levels.

Case Study



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