The right school can be closer than you think!

The ‘right’ school for your child is probably right around the corner, writes Rosemary O’Brien.

I’m at the gym, in the change rooms, after my weekly circuit-training session. Sam is there too – she does the same Thursday-evening session. She has a question for me. It’s a very common question, one I’m asked at parties, family gatherings, when I’m getting my car serviced, at book clubs and gyms and by casual acquaintances.

“You’re a teacher. Tell me – which primary school should I send Zachary to?”

Sam works in medical insurance, behind the front desk, and she has a four-year-old son and a little daughter, Chloe.

“What do you want for Zachary at school?” I ask. Sam considers the matter for a minute. “I want him to be happy,” she says. “I want him to like his teacher and keep up with the other kids. I want him to have friends and not be bullied. I want him to have a good education so that he can do well in life.”

She sounds like most of the mums and dads I’ve spoken to at information sessions over my 20 years of teaching Grade One. (There is the occasional parent with more-specific requirements: “My daughter is going to be a surgeon,” states one mother about her five year old – presumably so I’ll know to give the child the special attention she deserves. Another says, “My son is a very naughty boy, and he needs a teacher who’ll pull him into line.” Hmm.)

Everyone has something to say –the ‘school gate’ chatterers, relations and friends who swear by the school they chose for their own kids, the media, promotional material from the schools themselves – but a lot of the opinions are either biased or unfounded.

The issue is made more complex by the social aspirations of parents, and by the fact that many people have more disposable income than ever before and feel obliged to find the very ‘best’ school, even if it costs. And lots of parents are eager for their children to acquire an ‘edge’ over other kids – academic, social, sporting or artistic.

So how might Sam choose a school?

We live in the city, where there are lots of schools from which to choose. I know one woman who swears by the ‘dress standards’ method. She parks near a school in the afternoon and watches the students coming out. If they are all wearing neat uniforms, it must be a good school. I don’t agree. I think that just shows the school is good at making kids wear their uniforms – a school where appearances are very important. But it takes more than appearances.

When it comes to ‘edge’, real advantage for children comes from what parents do far more than from what schools do, and always will. Music in the house, conversation, creative and adventurous play opportunities, backyard cricket games, stories and board games and family holidays, open-mindedness and laughter, and commonsense parenting – these are the things that give children an edge.

No two schools are the same, but the differences are subtle and changing. Principals and teachers have the same range of competence as the rest of the community: a few inspired, the vast bulk of them competent to good, a few duds. Sam could learn a lot about a school by arranging a visit. Are the classrooms full of words and numbers, alphabets and charts? Is there evidence of lots of varied activities in progress – busy children, science tables, reading corners full of books, maths equipment, artwork? I believe in primary schools having a sense of ordered richness, and in most of them there is.

These days, schools are marketed – even State schools – and Sam needs to be aware of this. Words such as ‘caring’ and ‘excellence’ are glibly overused, and she would be unwise to be swayed by a glamorous, upbeat website or the list of programs and policies spread alluringly before her at information sessions; for example, anti-bullying policies. Most principals these days, when asked about bullying, say with impressive firmness, and as if their school is unique, “We have a zero-tolerance attitude towards bullying!” But this means nothing unless schools are acting upon it.

Sam is putting on her lip gloss, rubbing her lips together as she looks in the mirror. “My sister-in-law Julie says that the primary school in her suburb is excellent. It’s a half-hour drive away from our place, but they teach philosophy, and they have a great Grade One teacher. She’s been there for years.”

“Well, Sam,” I reply, “it’s a bit of a lucky dip, you know. Teachers and principals transfer or retire. You can never tell for sure who your child’s teacher will be. Maybe, according to the grapevine, Mrs Smith/Brown/Singh at this primary school is the world’s best/kindest/most creative/most experienced Grade One teacher, so you enrol Zachary there even though it’s a 30-minute drive away. Then, over the Christmas holidays, Mrs Smith/Brown/Singh decides to retire and move away to be nearer to her grandchildren! All your planning has come to nothing, but you’ve bought the uniforms and signed the papers, so Zachary goes there anyway.

“But in the school just around the corner from your place, the Grade One teacher might turn out to be newly graduated, full of energy, skill, love and enthusiasm, and your child might totally adore her and have the best possible introduction to schooling.”

I think it can be a mistake to drive children across the city every day to a school that offers unique programs: yoga, philosophy, immersion Russian or a spectacular ‘gifted and talented’ class. A school that works hard at applying the basic curriculum in imaginative ways might be a better bet. One that is at the heart of its community will develop its own unique features: an art show, a school food garden, a local-history project.

I pack my bag, have a drink of water and pick up my trainers, and I tell Sam the conclusion I’ve come to after years of observation and thought. “Sam, the best I can say to you is, make it easy for yourself and Zachary. Send him to the school nearest to where you live. You’ll save yourself untold hours delivering him and picking him up – not just from school: they’ll be going to birthday parties and sleepovers at their friends’ houses.

“Soon some of the friends’ parents will become your good friends. You’ll meet lots of people like you, with your problems and concerns, who’ve chosen to live in the same area as you. Think babysitting club, car pool, emergency pick-up, group holidays…

“And can you imagine how much less traffic there would be on the roads if every child could walk to school? The benefits for the environment would be enormous: the environment that our children and grandchildren will inherit. Choosing a school or a teacher is a lucky dip anyway, so make it easy for yourself.”

Illustrations by Penny Lovelock