Choosing a school: Seven tips parents should know

It's a question that can leave many parents in a nervous sweat - how do you pick a school for your child?

Term 3 begins next week and as parents rush to enroll their children in primary and secondary schools for 2015, here are seven crucial things you need to know about a prospective school.

1. What is the school really like when you’re not there?

Official tours and open days are fine but many principals will present the rosiest possible picture of their school. Chris Bonnor, former principal and co-author of What makes a good school?, suggests parents also try to visit during a normal day to experience a school’s culture and atmosphere.

“Parents have to understand that schools are real places. You’ve got 800 human beings. Some do get into trouble. Some litter the playground. You can’t go into a school with rose-coloured glasses,” he says.

Parents should also be guided by their instinct when visiting a school, Bonnor says.

“It’s the feeling that’s really important even though you can’t define it or measure it.”

2. Are the teachers happy there?

This can be tricky because teachers might be reluctant to criticise their employers. But Victoria University education professor Stephen Lamb says school newsletters can be quite revealing about school staff.

“You get a sense of the number of staff who are coming and going,” he says.

Lamb believes parents should try to find out whether teachers feel connected to the school and its goals.

Motivated teachers will continue searching for new material and ideas they can use in the classroom even if they can easily recycle lessons from previous years.

Lamb says parents can ask school principals how much teachers freshen up their lessons each year.

3. How much will this really cost?

Parents Victoria, which represents parents of students in state schools and supports free education, says it is worth asking how much a school charges in voluntary contributions.

There might also be extra costs ranging from camps and excursions to uniforms and digital tools such as iPads.

Independent Schools Victoria chief executive Michelle Green says parents should consider what they can afford now and in coming years.

“Choice of a school might also depend on carefully comparing school fees, supported by family budget savings by cutting back on other expenses, a new car or overseas holiday trips for example,” she says.

4. Get the advice of the school’s experts - the students

Asking other parents about their assessment of a school might be misleading, according to Chris Bonnor.

“They’re not going to buy the product and badmouth it,” he says. “That leaves us with an interest group of experts called the kids. Kids are really honest.”

Bonnor suggests asking them to be specific about what they like and loathe about their school. Asking which parts of their day they enjoy or dread the most is a good place to start.

5. How steady are the school’s enrolments?

A neighbourhood’s demographics and school reputations can have a major effect on enrolments.

Declining enrolments can also affect funding. An independent school with falling enrolments will most likely generate less money through fees. State schools receive government funding per student.

Victoria University’s Stephen Lamb says parents should ask why and how much their prospective school’s enrolments have changed over time.

“If a school has halved over a relatively short period of time that has huge implications for resources,” he says.

But steady or increasing student numbers can reflect a well-liked and successful school.

6. Does the school have a parents association?   

These associations provide a chance for parents and guardians to influence welfare and “general education policy”, according to Parents Victoria.

The group’s executive officer, Gail McHardy, says parents and school staff are partners in children’s education.

“By interacting with the school and other parents, parent association members gain a firsthand understanding of how schools operate and the rhythm of school life,” she says.

7. What kind of training does the school provide to its teachers?

Teachers should be learning and improving alongside their students, Learning First think-tank chief executive Ben Jensen says.

Sitting through a day-long workshop once a year won’t cut it. Jensen says parents should ask prospective schools how often teachers observe each others’ classes. He says fortnightly classroom observations are highly beneficial.

“If we get more and more parents asking for these sorts of things that’s when school choice will start to have an impact on teaching and learning,” Jensen says.

But principals also need to explain the school’s attitude to teacher professional development in clear and direct language to parents.

“I generally find if people use too much hyperbole they may not know what they’re talking about,” Jensen says.  

But what happens when the school is just not right for your child? Here are some reasons why you might want to find another school.

A friendship circle that is unmotivated and disruptive can have a major influence on your child’s results and attitude to school work. Changing schools could improve the situation if all other avenues have failed.

Sometimes schools might withdraw particular subjects because of a lack of numbers or the resources required. If your child is adamant about taking a subject that’s no longer offered at the school, moving to one that does might be the only choice.

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