Rather than relying on exam results, there are plenty of schools that think outside the box when it comes to their admissions process, as Sarah Ebner investigates

There are few things that cause parents more stress than secondary school admissions. It all seems so complicated and yet, at the same time, so important. No one wants to make the wrong decision.

Deciding on the right secondary school is only half the battle – the admission form (or forms) can just as easily wreak havoc on family life. It used to be so easy to choose a local authority school, but despite the existence of an official Admissions Code, many schools now have vastly different admissions criteria.

If you have gone through the torment of secondary school applications, you may be familiar with a list that prioritises those in care or being looked after (all schools must have this as top priority), perhaps those who have a brother or sister at the school already, who live nearby, are from a particular religion (for faith schools), who do well in an entrance exam (for selective schools such as grammar schools), or who went to a particular primary school (a ‘feeder school’).

Sometimes you need to look into this well ahead of time (for example, you may need to attend church services for many years for your child to be eligible) and recognise that criteria often change. The most important thing to remember is to always put your favoured schools in order of preference, even if you think your child might not get in, and to see if your child’s talents might help him get a place. Even state schools can have some unusual admissions procedures.

Why school admissions are not all about exams

Reed’s School offers a host of scholarship opportunities

Tabitha Cuddeford, 15, attends Mill Hill County High School in North London, which she really enjoys. It is a semi-selective school, which means that 90 of its 240 Year 7 pupils are admitted on geographical proximity. However, it also chooses 24 who are proficient in technology, 24 in music and 12 in dance. The tests (and this is a warning that you need to make sure you don’t leave everything until Year 6) take place at the end of Year 5, and last year 1,499 sat for technology, 363 auditioned for music, and 85 for dance.

Tabitha – who is taking her GCSEs, including dance this year, and wants to study drama – took part in an audition after hearing about the special places from her dance teacher.

‘A lot of people ask me about it because it’s not something a lot of schools do,’ she says. ‘I think it benefits the school, because it makes it so diverse.’

She still remembers her nerve-wracking audition, when she not only had to show off her dance skills, but also take part in an improvisation. ‘There was a lot of pressure,’ she admits. ‘When I found out I got in, I remember my mum and me screaming. We were so shocked.’

The Grey Coat Hospital School for Girls (the school attended by the daughter of Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary) is an example of a school that has some bewildering entry points. These include co-called ‘fair banding’, which sets tests for prospective pupils and then admits them in ‘bands’ of ability, and a language aptitude test (also held towards the end of Year 5). Up to 88 of the 151 places offered in Year 7 go to girls from practising Church of England families living in the area covered by the Dioceses of London and Southwark. Such families must have attended weekly services for the previous five years.

‘You just have to play the system,’ says Beth Noakes, the editor of the Good Schools Guide. ‘But it’s a battle and although there are moves to make it all fairer – with lotteries for example – it’s not proving that easy.’

When it comes to private schools, Katie Krais, who runs the educational consultancy Jaderberg Krais, says that admission is usually based on three things. ‘It’s how they did on the exam, how they did at the interview, and the report from their current primary school,’ she says. ‘But some schools will be looking for extra things that they can pick up at interview, and others will look seriously at the extra-curricular activities, the child’s background and hobbies. You sometimes get Headteachers saying they are specifically looking for a child who can play double-bass, for example, as they need that for the orchestra.’

It’s certainly true that, especially at the top schools, it is academic ability that is most important. However, it is not the only thing which may get your child in. For example, Reeds School in Surrey offers scholarships at 11+, 13+ and 16+, for academic, music, artistic, dramatic, technological, sporting and all-round ability. It also has unusual bursaries on offer, aimed at children of single parents.

City of London School is another example of an institution that offers scholarships for music ability (two instruments, Grade 5 level on at least one) as well as academic (at 10+, 11+ and 13+). It also offers sports scholarships, and the idea is that these will go to those boys who will contribute to the school in team games.

The number of scholarship places given, says the school’s Director of Admissions David Heminway, depends on the quality of applications, and it is sport which is the newest category to be included. ‘We felt that sportsmen should be rewarded,’ Mr Heminway says. ‘And as football is our major sport, going over two terms, we are particularly looking for good footballers.’

Why school admissions are not all about exams

Being good at football could be a way into a top school

Parents of boys who are interested in the sport (or music) option need to mention this on their original application form. If the child then passes the exam sufficiently to warrant an academic interview, they will be given a sports trial or music audition. Scholarships in these categories are worth between a sixth and a quarter of annual fees.

‘We are looking for a boy who has good eye-foot coordination and eye-hand co-ordination,’ says Mr Heminway. ‘He could be a good footballer and turn his hand towards other sports, but he will definitely be a team player rather than someone who hogs the ball and becomes big headed.’

However, Mr Heminway stresses that academic performance is key. ‘The bottom line is that we award places on academic merit,’ he says. ‘But it can help your application if you are a very good sportsman or musician.’

Watching your child grow up is never easy. Nor are the decisions you have to make along the way. The key, at least when it comes to schools, is to do your research early, visit any schools of interest and fill in all the admissions forms properly. Then you probably need to cross your fingers.
Sarah Ebner is the author of The Starting School Survival Guide: everything you need to know when your child starts primary school (published by White Ladder)