25/05/2020 - 18:31

Choosing a school in a post COVID-19 environment

25/05/2020 - 18:31


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Choosing a school in a post COVID-19 environment

Choosing a school has always been a difficult choice for many parents. Public or private? Co-educational or single sex? Faith based or not? Mainstream or alternative? Added to these questions right now is the extra challenge of navigating an uncertain world during and post COVID-19. What is the best education to prepare children for an increasingly unknown future?

Few educators probably really believe that one size fits all or that one school is necessarily ‘better’ than the other in a general sense. However, there can be no doubt that certain schools can enhance outcomes for certain students. Parents are best placed to judge what is the most suitable option for their child, to help them reach their potential, in line with their needs and values.

What does COVID-19 mean for schools?

Right now, if you are considering schools for your children, you are in a unique position to take advantage of emerging opportunities – but you also need to weigh up new considerations and criteria.

Independent schools are not immune to the current financial crisis and there are already significant signs of stress emerging within the sector. A key consideration is the financial sustainability of the school, as many independent schools will lose enrolments because of job losses or financial insecurity. A school’s ability to retain staff or employ cost-cutting measures can impact on student outcomes. The wider co-curricular opportunities such as sport, music, drama, outdoor education and tours – often a point of difference in independent schools – must not be reduced once restrictions are lifted.  

For parents, at least, the COVID-19 crisis can have a silver lining as enrolment shortfalls create openings. It’s worth noting, though, that for those schools that are maintaining their quality staff and programmes, the demand from parents can also grow during this current climate. The recent online learning experience is an example where some schools have seen an increase in enrolment enquiries due to the dissatisfaction with what was being offered by other schools. There is no doubt that home schooling has been very challenging for some families!

The best schools have staff who give freely of their time to support students with their learning and co-curricular activities, at any time of the day and the evening. Further, the school should be an employer of choice, meaning they always have the highest calibre of applicants to choose from when hiring.

What about single sex versus co-education?

Let’s be clear, they both have their advantages. What’s central in decision making is what parents want for their child.

If development of children with the opposite sex is important, then for those families, co-education might be the best option. Having said that, single-sex schools that value their relationship with their sibling school can achieve much of that socialisation. The ‘best of both worlds’ should be the goal and will be where the highest performances in academic results, sports and the wider programmes will be found while being developed socially with students of the opposite sex. Boys and girls do learn differently; they respond to praise and constructive criticism differently. Teachers ultimately engage boys in a manner that forms respect and trust, which makes all the difference to their intrinsic motivation.

Developing confidence within children at the very time when there are so many more ways to be judged needs consideration. In the case of boys, the school must understand that they can be loud, competitive, silly and even take risks. Taking risks in an environment of learning means boys will make an attempt at the musical or dare to do his best in a chosen sport. In the lower secondary years especially, the school environment must allow students to develop personal confidence within themselves, which enables them to take these necessary risks that develop real character and certainty about who they want to be.  The earlier maturation of girls, and in particular their often far more articulate nature, leaves boys mute in many classes. In these early years, boys just need time to catch up and girls need time to get ahead! The best schools will provide a supportive and caring environment that allows students to explore all areas of discipline to the highest level possible, without fear of judgement from boys and girls alike.

What about the public system?

While there are many options for independent schooling that will take into account your priorities, values and budget, let’s not forget that we are fortunate in Western Australia to have access to very good public schools. Many offer excellent and affordable education for many families. For some, the size of public schools may be an issue, especially as student numbers continue to swell. However, with size can come more choice. Parents need to weigh up what’s important, and for families currently experiencing financial hardship, they must look at the local public school even if it isn’t their first choice. The extensive co-curricular activities offered in independent schools can be achieved with the right parental support and effort after hours, on weekends and during school holidays.

How to decide?

To understand a school, parents have to see it first-hand, ideally in small groups so that they can talk to staff and students. In this climate it can be hard to get onto campus to do that, and if this is the case, then it would be wise not to make a decision yet. While it’s important to listen to current and past parents’ advice about a school, that approach alone won’t always result in an informed choice.  A school’s values and, importantly, its culture of learning need to be understood to fully appreciate what might be gained. Schools are as much about the whole community and not just the student, and this is also something that can only be understood by being present on the school grounds.

This pandemic will ultimately ask of us all, “What’s important in life?” and “What do I really want for my child as they grow and prepare for their adult life ahead?” Finding a school that develops the whole person, holds values similar to your own, while challenging children to be the best version of themselves will best prepare them for the complex future of employment and life ahead.

Dean Dell’Oro began his career as an engineer with Exxon-Mobil and became the Headmaster of Hale School in April 2017 after 13 years at Geelong Grammar School.


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