Choosing the right school for your child is among a parent’s most important jobs.
In a world of school league tables dominated by Australian Tertiary Admissions Ranks (ATAR), you could be forgiven for thinking this single academic marker is all the information needed to choose the right school for your child.
Selecting a school on ATARs and the showy stuff is a mistake many parents make, only to regret their decision later on.
A child’s time at school should be among the best days of their life, not the worst. Choosing the right school is a high-pressure decision that, according to experts, should be based on much more than a cursory glance at a cluster of median ATARs.
Pressure cooker-type schools characterised by a high-stakes testing culture rarely equate to the ideal environment for most students.
But if parents cannot rely solely on a school’s academic credentials in deciding where their children will spend close to 2,500 days of their lives, what factors should they consider?
For some parents, the decision is easy, because their children will attend the local government school.
Others might want to widen their search to other public schools (which might have available spots beyond catering for local area needs) or the many Catholic and independent schools. All schools will have strengths and shortcomings.
Determining whether a school is close to perfect for your child requires a list of exactly what you want, in and out of a school.
You will need to consider obvious topics such as the school’s academic performance, the range of extracurricular activities on offer, and the way students are encouraged to learn.
The availability of wrap-around support services, including counselling and careers advice, is important.
So, too, is whether the school offers specialist programs in key learning areas such as music, performing arts or marine science, which may play to your child’s strengths.
You might also want to be clear on whether the school is co-educational or single sex, the type of student behaviour management practices being adopted, the level of encouragement for parent engagement, the extent of religious affiliations, and the quality of indoor and outdoor facilities.
There might also be some practical considerations such as fee structures and payment options, the size of the school and individual classrooms, travel time, and the dress code.
The criteria you select will end up being personal to your family and, most importantly, linked to your understanding of your child and their unique set of strengths, capabilities and needs.
There is also a more off-the-radar tactic that parents are increasingly using to find the right school.
While reputation and word-of-mouth advice are useful pointers, keep in mind that what you want in a school may not mirror the views of friends, family members, or business associates. Instead of making a judgement about a school from what you have heard from others, a more practical tactic that yields better insight is to go beyond both the goss(ip) and the gloss.
That means parking the reputation – both good and bad – along with open evenings, colourful websites, shiny brochures and magazines, and a charismatic principal, in favour of conducting the ultimate litmus test: immersing yourself in the school during a regular school day.
This is exactly what many parents don’t do when searching for the right school. Yet they would never buy a car without a test drive.
Parents cannot simply turn up at school and demand classroom access. You will need to make an appointment for an individualised tour or series of tours.
Once onsite, however, you will get a real sense of the school’s vibe. And if your school won’t afford you that opportunity, it will serve as an important piece of your overall assessment.
Visiting a school on a school day will provide information on many different fronts.
Do you feel welcome? Does there appear to be open, respectful communication between teachers and students? Do students feel genuinely engaged in their learning? How do those walking around the school behave? Are there real signs of warmth across the school community that means teachers are respected but not feared?
Once on campus, you can ask your own set of considered questions instead of trying to squeeze in the odd, awkward query in front of a crowd.
Questions as to the lines of communication when a problem arises, or whether there is much staff turnover. How are children extended? How are children with a disability supported? What are the school’s values, and is diversity merely tolerated or truly embraced?
Being a skilful matchmaker when it comes to finding the right school for your child is one of a parent’s most important jobs, often second only to the decision to have a child.
Finding the right school involves weighing up the academic performance alongside the school’s true culture and its ability to practice what it preaches.
If you still have doubts after visiting schools on your shortlist, you can always consider engaging an educational consultant or even a friend or family member who happens to be an educator. Their support might just help to take some stress out of making this critical decision.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA