Tuesday, 3 June 2014

How to choose the right school for your child

I had a good response to my last teacher/parent post '7 things I do as a parent because I am also a teacher' so I thought I’d go ahead with some of the other educational posts I had drafted.  

As it hits the time to submit school enrolment forms for 2015, today I’m looking at how to choose the right school for your child.

Imagine you are looking to buy a new jumper.  You’ve had a bit of a look around and you have seen one on-line that looks like what you want.  You’ve seen a few people wearing it and it is a popular and well-known brand.  When you get to the shop to try it on, it looks great on the rack, everything you hoped it would be.  With great anticipation you take it to the change room, keen to try it on.  You pull it over your head and look in the mirror and….it’s not quite right.  It’s a bit tight around the neck and a little itchy all over.  But it looks good, and you were so sure it was the going to be the right one, that you decide to buy it anyway.  It will stretch and get softer with a wash, right?  

So you take it home and wash it.  But you didn’t read the fine print and it is hand wash only, so now it’s not only tight around the neck and itchy, it’s also out of shape.  The jumper you thought was perfect is now a source of frustration and irritability.

Now substitute that jumper for your child’s school.  Picking the wrong school is (a bit!) like picking the wrong jumper.  On first impressions, it may  appear to tick all of the boxes, but if it doesn’t fit just right and you don’t check the fine print you may end up with a whole set of frustrations that can’t be solved by simply pushing it to the back of the cupboard!

When trying to select a school it can be difficult to see past the marketing and PR tools.  Schools are competing for students and they are all great at promoting their facilities, new technology, extra-curricular activities and smiling students in newspaper ads to get you excited about their school.  While these things are important, there are other significant things you need to consider before selecting the right school for you and your child.

1.                    Talk to everyone about the schools you are considering.

Don’t just talk to parents with children at the schools you are considering, although this is important, but also to other people that interact with the school in the wider community.  If you know a shopkeeper or a bus driver that works in the area, mention the school and see what their response is.   They see students when they are ‘off-duty’ and often have valuable insights.  

My spin instructor takes a lot of local schools for fitness classes and openly talks about the differences she sees in teacher and student attitudes and behaviour.  This is the type of insight you could never get from an open day. When talking to people who have children attending the school, instead of asking ‘what do you like about the school?’ try ‘what would you change about the school?’ It will give you greater insights into the workings of the school.

2.                   Skip the Open Day and take a tour on a normal school day.

Open days are full of hand-picked students and static displays – every school looks great on open day (and if they don’t, then you really don’t want to enrol there!) Choose to take a tour on a working school day instead to get a much better feel for the way a school operates.  This way you can see how teachers interact with students, how calm the classrooms feel and you can look at the quality of work on display in classrooms.  

I also like to look at how the uniform is worn and what state the yard is in as I think it gives some indication about the level of respect and pride students have in their school.  You can also attend school events such as fetes or sports carnivals to get a feel for the school community.

3.       Meet the principal and ensure you like their style.

I don’t mean can they be your friend; I mean do you think they will make decisions that are compatible with your values and priorities?  The principal is the boss and ultimately they guide the culture, values, staffing and priorities in a school.   Many principals participate in running school tours and this can be a great place to start a conversation.  

Imagine the principal as your boss; you don’t need to like them but you do need to respect them and have faith in their ability to steer the school community in the right direction.  If you are a bit on the hippy, relaxed end of the scale, a hard-core authoritarian principal is not going to be the right fit for you!


4.       Be okay with the NAPLAN and VCE results.

Because I’ve used the ‘N” word, this one will be controversial.  Objective, valid and reliable data is hard to come by in educational settings and so I don’t think that the NAPLAN can be ignored.  It shouldn’t be the other factor your base your decision on, but I don’t think it can be disregarded either.  Check that the school you are considering is not underperforming against the state average for numeracy and reading/writing.  

If you are looking at secondary schools, you need to also check the VCE results.  Ideally you would like their VCE average study score to be close the state average of 30 and to have at least 7% of study scores above 40.  You can check any school’s NAPLAN data at http://www.myschool.edu.au/ 

If that looks okay and everything else is stacking up, then you can move on.  If the data shows the school is underperforming, then I suggest you need to ask further questions of the school before you enrol your child. 

5.        Get a feel for the teachers

This can be more difficult to do, but research shows that the teacher in the classroom is the single biggest influence on the educational gains that your child will make.  Is there high staff turnover?  Do they employ graduate teachers?  Is there a sense of innovation among staff? Personally, I like to see a mix of experienced and younger staff.  I like teachers to feel challenged and not get too comfortable.  This is one time that open days can be useful. You can have a chat to a lot of staff and get a feel for levels of staff morale and motivation.

6.       Most importantly, make sure your values match the school’s values.

You need to be familiar and comfortable with the school’s policies.   For example, consider the uniform policy.  Most schools have some form of uniform policy; ranging from accepting any type of shoes or pants in a specified colour to requiring blazers, ties and monogrammed socks.  If you think uniform is not really necessary and can suppress your child’s right to express their individuality then you need to find a school with a uniform policy to match, otherwise it will be a constant source of conflict and frustration if your child receives detentions for uniform breaches.  Ditto if you think that a strict uniform policy is a sign of discipline and respect and a school’s more relaxed approach means you will be constantly frustrated when you see students in what you would describe as poor uniform.

Schools present very transparent policies and expectations to prospective parents.  When you enrol at a school you are accepting their policies lock, stock and barrel.  I am frequently surprised at the number of parents that enrol at a school and think that they can pick and choose which rules to follow and which to ignore.  Make sure you are comfortable with the school’s policies around uniform, piercings, hairstyles, jewellery, punctuality, absenteeism and participation in extra-curricular activities.  These are usually the areas that cause the greatest conflict.

When you have done all the looking and checking, hopefully you will walk out of the school excited about becoming part of the school community.  You definitely shouldn’t be pulling at the neck of your jumper or itching at all!  

My son walked out of our school tour and said ‘I love my new school!’  I’m looking forward to next year when my little man starts Prep,  I just hope he loves school as much as I did!

Tell me, how did you pick your school?

I'm sending this to Jess @


  1. Having done one round of high schools, what I say to people is go back as many times as you can. Visit lots of schools, even ones you aren't considering. The more you see, the better idea you get of what you are actually after. I also like the ones that give you open access to the kids (because once you get past the PR, the kids start giving you interesting insights into the kids - one school we went to had the kids mingle for the morning tea, rather than the Principal and teachers, and I learnt more about that school in that 30 mins than the official tour - and loved the school more). I'd also look at the kids in the playground - are they laughing and playing cards/footy whatever or are you seeing kids sitting by themselves etc.
    Is the school offering what the kids want, or what the parents want? Is the school telling you the bad things too or pretending they don't exist? Of the 10 schools I visited, 2 said this is what we do because the kids want it - if you ask, we'll try to find a way - the rest were 'this is what we do, fit in'. Interestingly, the 2 focused on the kids admitted their school wasn't for everyone and one school I hadn't considered but am watching closely for number 2 child, acknowledged the issue of teenagers not wanting to go to school (they have one of the higher attendance rates in the State - obviously it had been a problem in the past and now wasn't, but until then, I hadn't even thought about it). Talk to everyone about it, think of your child and their personality and just keep going back...

    1. Excellent advice Lydia, thank-you so much for adding such insight to the conversation. Your children are lucky you are so diligent, I have no doubt you will pick the right school for each of them.

  2. We chose our locally zoned school instead of a private one that we had lined up and I'm glad we did! The founding principal is still there and it has a great vibe about it. I'm with you in regards to taking a tour when it's not the Open Day and everyone is on their best behaviour. Great tips, that I hope I can refer to when we choose a high school! Em - also visiting as part of #teamIBOT

    1. Thanks Emily. We are also lucky that the state primary school at the end of the street ticks all of our boxes. However high schools in our area aren't so easy - unfortunately the achievement gap between public and private secondary schools is so much bigger!

  3. We chose our local public school and 2 terms in I am still fairly happy with it. More importantly my 5 year old is happy and learning and getting awards and has a great bunch of friends!!
    I have been trying to work on a post about our first first term experiences. Hopefully next week!!

    1. All we can ask for is happy and learning! I look forward to reading your review.

  4. Great advice Danielle! We have been going through all this with our eldest, who is set to start primary school next year. It is such a big decision & we want to cover all bases. We think we are almost there - but it helpful to read something like this to reassure us we are considering all the right things! :)

    1. If you are taking the time to consider options I am sure you will make the right choice. Thanks for reading the post, it is much appreciated.