An educated decision to choosing a school

Parents use all manner of criteria to choose the best school for their children, writes Lucinda Bertram.

It was one of the most stressful decisions of Leanne Jeffs’s life. “I think there is a lot of pressure on parents today to find ‘the right school’ for their children. It is a very daunting process when there are so many options and your decision will form the basis of their education for the next 13 years. All schools market themselves as the best choice for your child and pledge to offer something different that sets them above the rest,” says Jeffs, a mother of three. After exhaustively researching the schools in her area from when her daughter was six months old, Jeffs narrowed the list down to a handful and then began the process of attending open days, going on school tours and meeting the principals.

Many families have to make the difficult decision of which school to send their children to, not once, but several times throughout their children’s school years, sometimes because the family moves, and sometimes because they feel the school that they chose is no longer right for their child – or perhaps never was. Yet not everyone’s story is full of worry and waiting lists and second-guessing.

Bec Hewitt walked around the corner to the local public school and liked what she saw. “The school is an easy walk, it is small but does not lack facilities, the principal is proactive and energetic and I also loved the classroom teacher who is very experienced and an expert on literacy. Everything about the atmosphere felt right.” She enrolled her daughter on the spot.

There are some parents, like Hewitt, for whom the decision of ‘which school’ is obvious. The local government school meets their expectations, or their child is automatically enrolled at Mum’s or Dad’s old school. However, for many other parents, such as Jeffs, the decision is a drawn-out affair that is only made after several years of research and much angst. There are many useful resources that can help parents in their hunt for the right school.

No-one can tell your family what it is that you should value and what you should be looking for.

Past President of the Australian Primary Principals Association (1998-2015) (APPA) Leonie Trimper suggests that parents go on a fact-finding mission. “My first advice would be to identify the schools you are interested in and gather a wide range of information from a number of sources about these schools. Talk to friends, check the school’s website. Collect any brochures from the school. Make sure that your research is always based on sound evidence and not just on hearsay or neighbourhood stories.” A school’s literature will tell you about what they want to be, and not necessarily what happens in reality.

Allan Shaw, Principal of The Knox School (Melbourne) says, “It is worthwhile to carefully look for the differing emphases that each school exhibits”. No school’s brochure is going to state that football dominates its sports program to the detriment of other sports. However, a look at the school’s newsletters and website may point to this. Likewise, a school’s music programs will never be described as mediocre, but a look at the list of music groups and musical-instrument tuition that is on offer, as compared with other schools, may indicate the level of importance that a school attaches to music.

Executive secretary for the International Confederation of Principals Sherie Vertigan A.M suggests that parents first create a checklist of what’s important to them in a school. “I always encourage parents to think about what they value and what they want from a school prior to visiting any schools. What does their child require as a learner?” says Vertigan.

No-one can tell your family what it is that you should value and what you should be looking for. Jeffs describes choosing a school as a very personal decision. She recalls, “Factors I considered included the size of the school, whether or not it was a single-gender school, whether it was private or public, how many classes were in each year level, the number of students in each class, the student-to-teacher ratio in each class, the facilities, the curriculum, results and even the motto. In our family, we have three girls of different ages, with three distinct personalities and learning styles. We needed a school that would cater to all their needs.”

Location is always a key factor for parents when choosing schools

Robyn Armstrong, who moved from New Zealand to South Australia, knew what she was looking for in a school for her children. “What was important was a school with a reputation of a community ‘connection’, ready access to teachers and the principal, nurturing of students, mentoring of students, and a good reputation academically.” She concurs with Jeffs that finding a school that suits all children in one family can be challenging. On arriving in Australia, Armstrong enrolled her eldest daughter, Britt, at a different school from her younger daughters, believing that Britt would benefit from the university-style environment. The environment, although great for encouraging independent learning, was not conducive to making friends as a new arrival. Britt has since joined her sisters at their new school. However, Armstrong would be prepared to choose different schools for her daughters in the future if she thought it would be beneficial.

educated-decision-one2160Location is always a key factor for parents when choosing schools, although there are some families who are prepared to travel far to the school of their choice. Some schools even make that decision easier by operating buses that travel to and from the school through several suburbs, to encourage students to make the long commute. Armstrong believes, however, that close proximity is paramount. She explains, “Location was important because of my work commitments and the fact
that the girls are old enough to be at home for a bit after school if needed, and there was greater opportunity for them to have friends home after school if we lived close.” Living close to the school also makes participating in school events and volunteering that much simpler. This year, Leanne Jeffs bought a house five minutes from her daughters’ school so the family could be fully involved in the school community.

Leonie Trimper understands that some parents will also look at My School, the government website but warns parents of the limitations of this resource. “The My School website is one piece of the information jigsaw only, and parents should be very careful making a decision based solely on the information contained on the site. My first piece of advice for parents when they visit the My School website is to click on the More Information tab and read the ‘Information for parents’. Look at the site, read a school’s context statement and school profile, and then the NAPLAN results. A parent can also have a look at how a particular school is performing in comparison to similar schools. However, I need to stress that this is only a snapshot of one test on one day of the year. We know, for example, that if the same students sat for a similar test on a different day, the results could be different. So, to make a final decision based solely on the data on the My School website is not recommended. Even the information on the site recommends that parents seek further information from the school.”

Sheree Vertigan also cautions parents about how to use the data but believes it provides parents with an opportunity to ask more questions. “It is not in plain English and it is difficult to create an image of the schools from average scores for a grade or year cohort when the tests are not designed for that purpose. Parents might like to ask principals about their school’s data, and if the school’s performance seems low, what strategies and programs the school is using to address this.”

For a school to be considered by a family, the anecdotal information has to be positive.

Very influential factors for many parents in deciding which school their children should attend are the views of other parents and the general reputation of a school. Robyn Armstrong found this was fundamental in her research. “The most important resource for me was word of mouth. Then the website supported my understanding. Then the prompt written information from the school supported my decision further. I needed to hear comments from people first, and then the rest flowed through.” Allan Shaw says, “For a school to be considered by a family, the anecdotal information has to be positive. Anecdotal advice is worth listening to, especially if you hear the same or similar positive responses from a wide range of people. The wisdom of the crowd has some validity. However, no matter how accurate the wisdom of the crowd, the school you send your child to must be the right school for them.” Sheree Vertigan agrees that although word of mouth is important, it should be verified. “If you are new to the area, ask around, but be careful not to
make a judgement based on one opinion.”

Ask for a tour with the person in charge of the grade or the junior school/senior school

The most important part of researching a school is to visit the school. Shaw advises, “It is best to visit the school while it is in operation, with students in class. During the visit, ask questions (perhaps compiled beforehand, based upon your website research) and listen, watch and feel how the school operates. Are the students smiling, engaged and happy? Is there a quiet sense of engagement in learning? If you come across teaching staff, are they focused but relaxed? Do they interact well with the students? Is the person leading your tour or engaging with you professional, and do they know the school well? Do they speak with quiet pride and commitment about the school? Would your child fit in at this school and wish to be there, engaged and learning? In summary, your research should assist you in deciding if the school is a ‘good fit’ for your child.”

Vertigan suggests that parents ask for a tour with the person in charge of the grade or the junior school/senior school. “The willingness of the school team to provide a tour is a good indicator. Ask lots of questions and expect to receive respectful responses.”

Parents may also like to ask questions about facilities for children with special needs and what help is available if a child has learning difficulties. Even if your child does not require any special assistance, the answers the school provides will indicate the school’s level of resources, their attitudes and whether they support a culture of diversity.

Leonie Trimper believes that meeting the principal is a priority. “For many parents, it is the first meeting with the principal that will determine their impression of the school and whether they want their child to attend that school. A principal has the responsibility to set the tone of the school, develop a shared direction, set high expectations and ensure that they are maintained. Their role is to work with teachers to ensure that the teaching and learning in the school is at the highest possible level. It is the principal who has the overarching role in developing positive relations with the school community and beyond.” Leanne Jeffs says, “Hearing principals talk about their school, their vision, their passion and touring through the school classes, facilities and grounds was a great way to experience what each school had to offer”.

Finding the school of your dreams can quickly turn into a nightmare

However, finding the school of your dreams can quickly turn into a nightmare when you discover the waiting list is extremely long or your residential address is deemed out of the zone for the school, requiring you to make a special application. For this reason, it’s a good idea to begin your research several years prior to your child starting primary or secondary school.
Some families will even move house so that they are in the right zone for a particular school. Private schools are often happy to accept enrolments at the time of a child’s birth.

Trimper points out that if an early decision is required regarding schooling, it should be based more on the culture of the school than on the personnel. “It would be unwise for any family to enrol their child years before the child is due to start school based solely on the principal and teachers currently at the school. This could lead to disappointment when the child actually starts school because the principal and some staff may have left.

For parents to feel confident about making such an early decision, they should consider a variety of factors such as the school’s traditions, reputation, history, ethos, programs and support programs, priorities and so on. So even if there is a new principal and/or new staff when the child starts school, the family can still feel positive about their early decision.”

Principals and teachers are keen to emphasise that although choosing a school is an important part of your child’s educational journey, it really is only the beginning. Parents’ involvement in their child’s education is fundamental to success. It will only be the right school for your child if you are an active part of the educational process.

Shaw says, “Good schools operate in partnership with parents to assist in the development of the whole child. When parents and teachers work well together, the child blossoms at school.”

Any view or opinion you express about the school in front of your child will have a positive or negative influence on your child.

Trimper encourages parents to be involved in school in whatever way they can. “This involvement could range from joining the school council, to hearing reading, to working in the canteen, to taking an interest in the newsletter when it comes home. The home/school relationship is vital to a child’s learning and it is important the child sees their parents and the school working together. This will provide a positive example for the child and gives the message that this place called school is highly valued.

Any view or opinion you express about the school in front of your child will have a positive or negative influence on your child. If there is a concern at any stage, approach the teacher and discuss this concern. It is always important that parents follow through with any issues, but remain calm. There is a saying among some principals: ‘We won’t believe everything your child tells us about you if you don’t believe everything you hear about us’.”

Hopefully, all searches end in the right place. Leanne Jeffs’s children are very happy at their school and she is pleased she spent time and energy in thoroughly researching schools. “Their teachers know them, understand them and have a keen interest in ensuring and facilitating their learning ability,” she says. Bec Hewitt is also thrilled that her daughter is enjoying her first year of school. Although Hewitt’s decision was easy and came without the research and angst that others have in finding a school, it was no less important to her. She suggests that parents shouldn’t make the decision harder than it needs to be. “Of course I feel lucky. It’s like trying on wedding dresses and the first one is perfect and you love it. You could confuse yourself by trying on another 12 or you could trust your instincts. If everything you’ve been looking for is at the school around the corner, why stress yourself by looking at others?”

Illustrations by Natasja van Vlimmeren

First published by Childmags in 2010 and updated for the web.