For many parents, choosing the right school for their child is a daunting and difficult task. Here, we show you how and where to start
Schools vary greatly in their emphasis, philosophy, activities, staffing and costs. It’s more than just a choice between private and public schooling as there are many factors to consider. We are fortunate in Australia that our education offerings are of a very high standard and we have a large range of options from which to choose.
Because you want to match the best school with the interests and abilities of your children, this often requires a considerable amount of footwork to visit schools to see the facilities on offer and to speak with staff and principals.
When judging schools, you should be persistent, well researched and have a clear understanding of the New South Wales education system — as well as the choices available — before making your final decision.
Ask your child
Your child will have opinions about what school he or she wants to attend and that may depend on particular areas of interest, subjects offered, perhaps a language and, more often than not, where friends are going.
Sending a child with little interest in academic studies to a school that prides itself on a high tertiary entrance rate could create problems. Talk to your child’s teachers and find out what they recommend. Most importantly, discuss the decision with your child and work with them — it is their future education.
The school’s values
The school environment will have a considerable influence on your child so you’ll want the values it promotes to be close to your own. You need to work out what you want from a school before asking what it has to offer.
Values don’t just mean moral and religious values. They also refer to a range of social issues such as the school’s attitude to affirmative action for girls, bullying and discipline policies, and the nutritional value of foods available at the school canteen.
There are also practical points to consider relating to your willingness to be involved in school-related activities. You need to decide if you have the time to be part of your child’s travel arrangements or if there are public transport options available. How much time and energy are you prepared to give to the school? Some schools expect a high level of parental involvement, others less.
If you have more than one child at secondary level, are their needs quite similar or are they likely to attend different schools? If going to different schools, demands on your time will be multiplied.
Do your homework
Choosing a School For Your Child is a great starting point for deciding on a secondary school. But there will be other sources of information for finding out what schools offer, including the internet, school visits, open days and discussions with teachers, principals or other appropriate staff. Even the community feeling about a particular school could be part of your research.
Make a shortlist of schools you consider suitable and then make appointments to speak with the most appropriate person at the school. This might be the registrar, the principal or the year-level coordinator.
Compile a checklist of features that are important to you and your child. This will help you gain the information you want from each school. You may want to include:
* The school’s aims and philosophies: A school needs to have a clear sense of purpose and should have its aims documented. Ask for a copy of the School Charter. How does it match your expectations? What values are implied? Is it based on any particular religious beliefs? Ask about how the school works to achieve its aims. Is there a commitment to educate each student completely?
* Individual care: Is there a commitment to assess and cater for the individual needs of each student? How is this achieved? How does the school cater for students needing remedial assistance? How does it satisfy the needs of the talented child?
* Curriculum: The trend in government schools is towards a broad curriculum that doesn’t limit students’ choices or interests, but schools still vary in how well they achieve this. Ask what electives are available and find out which subjects are compulsory in Years 7 to 10, and what is offered at HSC level. Are boys and girls treated differently in some parts of the curriculum or do they have equal access to all subjects?
* Student services and care: Does the school have programs for student welfare, personal development, Years 6 to 7 transition, school-to-work transition, work experience and careers guidance? Are there specialist staff members in these areas? What pastoral care facilities and programs are there? In what ways are students encouraged to mix across year levels?
* Discipline and behaviour: Are school rules clearly specified and communicated to students and parents alike? Ask for a copy of the school’s discipline policy. How does it discourage inappropriate behaviour and reinforce good behaviour?
* Academic performance: Some schools are justifiably proud of their high success rate in qualifying students to enter tertiary studies. But make sure you have the whole story. Are they referring to the percentage of Year 12 students who qualify or the percentage of Year 7 intake? Do they discourage students who are unlikely to be successful from finishing the HSC? Ask about the school’s promotions policy. On what basis are students promoted from one year level to the next? What percentage of students in the past have left school after Years 10 or 11? What percentage stays on to complete Year 12?
* Student assessment: How often are reports on student progress issued? Are they verbal, written or available online? On what basis are students assessed? How often are parent/teacher sessions held? What exams are undertaken and when are they held? Are they oral or written?
* Class sizes and structure: What are the maximum class sizes? Does this vary with the subject? On what basis are the students grouped within classes?
* The other students: These make up the community your child will become part of. Do they come from a narrow or broad range of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds? Is the school single-sex or co-educational? What is the relative proportion of boys and girls?
* Physical facilities: What facilities are available for specialised subjects such as music, computing, art, science and technology studies? What musical instruments are available to students and are there extra charges involved? How up to date are the materials in the library and what are library access policies? How much playground space is there and how is it used? What sporting facilities are available?
* Teachers: Are the teachers the type of role models you want for your child? What sort of teacher-student relationship is encouraged? What is the staff turnover rate? Do teachers spend extra time with students in activities such as sports coaching?
* Extracurricular activities: What activities are available to students outside the normal curriculum? What clubs are there? Is there a program of camps and school trips? Are they compulsory and what costs are involved?
* Homework: How much homework is given and what is expected at the various year levels?
* Parent participation: In what ways are parents involved in making decisions about school policies? Is there a parent association? What does it do? What kind of parental involvement does the school expect? Are parents invited to participate in classroom activities?
* Student participation in decision-making: Is there a student representative council (SRC) or similar body? Are students elected to decision-making bodies such as the school council and committees?
* Sport: What sports are available? What are the school’s aims and philosophies regarding sport? Does the school encourage competitiveness or participation? Do boys and girls have equal access to all sports? Are teams single-sex or mixed?
* Technology: What technologies are used in the school and in class, and how are they being used to increase student engagement and learning? Is the approach to technology integrated and rigorous, or does use of technology in class depend on the initiative of individual teachers?
* Costs: While Catholic schools generally charge modest fees, some other private schools have fees that amount to thousands of dollars annually. Government schools do not charge fees as such, but most do request school council levies or subject levies. In both private and government schools, ask about extra charges such as those for musical instruments, instruction and hire, camps and excursions, textbooks, uniforms and sports uniforms, sporting equipment and costs related to subject materials.
* Admissions policy: On what basis are students selected? Is there a waiting list?
* Uniforms: What is the uniform? Is it compulsory? Is there a sports uniform? Is there a uniform recycling system or second-hand uniform shop?
* Access to transport: How far from home is the school? What public transport is available? How long will the journey take?
* Documentation: Are all policies in writing and available to parents? Are there course outlines, a school prospectus, annual reports and regular newsletters? How does the school communicate with parents?
The “gut feeling”
While checklists are useful, it’s often a “gut feeling” that can let you know which school is the best for your child. If you can, visit the school at lunchtime, watch the children at play and observe interactions between staff and students. Note how the school is set up for classroom work. Are there rows of desks (suggesting a more traditional methodological approach) or clusters of tables to allow cooperative group work? Listen to the subtle messages your tour guide (registrar, assistant principal, principal) will give you, such as the history of the school, communication with parents, school priorities and future plans.