Choosing the right school for your child

The opportunity to choose which school your children go to is clearly a privilege and a luxury, but it can also be a minefield.

Choosing the right school for your child
Dr Selina Samuels Chief Learning Officer BA(Hons), LLB, PhD, MEd Tuesday, 23 July 2019

For some parents, this decision process starts at conception; for others, it’s a preoccupation better left for the final years of primary school. For many families, the local school is the right (and perhaps the only) choice. No matter which camp you fall into, most parents have given at least one moment of thought to what the “right” school might be for their child.

Most advice focuses on whether a single-sex or co-educational school will suit your child and your family. But you also need to consider whether you would prefer your child to be educated at a school with a particular faith or set of values. For some parents, exposure to religion through school, even if they do not observe it at home, isn’t a problem and might even be a benefit. For others, the choice of a single-sex or co-ed environment is less important than other features.

Your child may already be displaying clear signs of academic, sporting or musical ability, and this might influence your choices. If your child doesn’t show any particular predilections, it’s a good idea to look for schools that provide a range of activities and enough choice so that they can try things out. Even if they’re never going to be a musician, for example, it’s great if the school can provide the opportunity to sing in a choir or play an instrument. It may be the only chance they have to experience music in that way, and this will certainly enrich their lives.

Some children benefit most from staying in the same cohort throughout their schooling. That may mean the local primary school followed by the local secondary school.

Some of the below factors might also seem important when choosing a school, but in our experience, they’re also common missteps when considering the “right” environment for your child.

Making a legacy choice

It’s a wonderful idea to send your child to the same school that you or your partner went to, but remember that time changes everything — even the most solid of institutions. Your alma mater is now a different school from the one you went to (and if it isn’t, that’s a worry in itself). More importantly, your child is a different person. It may well be a very good school and one worth considering, but make that decision based on the school as it is now and on what you know about your child, not on your memories and lingering feelings of sentimentality. The same goes if you’re planning to reject the school based on your bad memories.

A matter of convenience

Yes, city traffic is a nightmare and workplaces are not always very flexible. But sadly, parental convenience isn’t actually a reliable indicator that your child will thrive in the same school as his or her sibling(s). Location and convenience might be a factor (having a calm parent is always better for a child than one displaying signs of pathological road rage), but perhaps it’s not enough to determine years of education.

The size of the grounds

Australians have the rather romantic conviction that all children need “somewhere to run around” during the school day. No one is denying the importance of physical activity and exercise, but we also need to recognise the many wonderful schools without extensive grounds here and all over the world. Most schools that don’t have sporting fields make sure that their students have access to appropriate facilities at local parks.

Expensive facilities

Don’t be seduced by an Olympic-sized pool or sporting arena. It’s not that important unless your child is a competitive swimmer – and if that’s the case, you’ve probably already organised a trainer and an appropriate club.

Although there’s nothing wrong with a school having beautiful facilities, it isn’t the primary reason for choosing one over another.

School community

The school community can often become the default social circle for parents, and there’s nothing wrong with this. In fact, it can be a godsend for families who have had to relocate. But don’t confuse your social life with that of your child. The fact that the parents you meet at the open day are really nice doesn’t mean that the school will give your child the opportunities, the support and the education that he or she needs. Similarly, while a recommendation from another parent can be very persuasive (the most effective ways that schools promote themselves is through word of mouth), you should still do your due diligence. What works for one child does not work for all.

Impressive open day displays

If every piece of student work displayed to the public is absolutely perfect, be concerned. It may be a sign that the focus of the school is on outcomes, rather than process. If only a selected group of students’ work is displayed because it will impress visitors, then you know that image is more important than celebrating the achievements of all students. There’s also a risk that the school promotes perfectionism. You want a learning environment for your child in which he feels safe enough to try, to fail, to try again and to learn from his mistakes.

It’s all about the principal

The principal of a school might well be amazing, but this doesn’t necessarily trickle down to the day-to-day classroom environment. You need to feel comfortable that the other teachers – deputy principal, year coordinator, classroom teachers – are all engaged, interested and capable. Equally, an unimpressive leadership team is not a reason to rule out the school as an option for your child.

Asking the right questions for the right decision:

  1. When you attend an interview or open day, is the main emphasis on the students (not the facilities)? Is there proper discussion about teaching and learning, academic support and extension, communication and collaboration skills, and the opportunities created for all students to challenge themselves? Are they encouraged to learn from their mistakes? Are they allowed to try?
  2. Are there structures in the school for the teachers’ learning and development? Is there any indication that they’re encouraged to be innovative in their teaching? Do they seem happy? Are you given the opportunity to speak to them, as well as to the principal and the deputy?
  3. If you have a chance to explore the school during a normal school day, what do you hear? Is there obedient silence or a purposeful buzz? Are students laughing, is there a lightness or heaviness in the air? Do you hear teachers talking to their students as equals? Are students involved in learning conversations? Or are they largely passive consumers of information?
  4. Finally, it’s important to involve your child in the process. What does she want in a school? It might be a good idea to help her articulate her top three criteria (only one can be “all my friends are going there”). Then she can help you rate each of the schools you need to weigh up on objective measures before you decide. You might be surprised by her observations and insight.

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Emma McMillan

BCA, Grad. Dip Ed.

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