Choosing which school deserves the chance to help your child learn the foundational skills to function in this complicated world is one of the biggest decisions you will make as a parent.
This is a deeply personal choice for you and your family and there’s probably not a perfect answer. You can, however, consider the below factors (which are numbered but not prioritised – you need to decide which is most important for you) and remember that you can change your choice later, supplement your child’s education with extra-curricular activities and tuition, and that they will probably still love you even if you choose a school with a uniform they don’t like.
Getting to and from school is going to be on your to-do list every single week day (and some weekends) for a matter of years. Choosing the school up the road because it will maximise family harmony on a daily basis is a perfectly valid approach. Some other aspects of location to consider are whether getting there will involve:
- regular road rage (this can seriously impact your child’s attitude to their whole educational experience)
- the opportunity for learning independence and responsibility on public transport or by walking
- too much, not enough or just enough exercise with a heavy backpack (they’re always heavy), and
- opportunities for you to pick them up or drop them off on your way to or from work
Every school comes with its costs. Private or independent school fees tend to be well-reported while public schools have far lower and fewer costs to families. Every family has to evaluate their financial situation and priorities so there are just two things for an educator to add to this aspect of your deliberations:
- Money cannot buy learning. It can buy resources and opportunities but it cannot buy dedication, experiences, professionalism, friendship or resilience.
- Financial stress causes tension within families, not just in parental relationships. When school costs cause financial strain, children feel and are impacted by the resentment, guilt and fear. If this is likely to be the case, or is currently happening, ask for help from the school or a financial counsellor, consider alternatives and reassure your child that they are your priority.
If religion is a factor in your life then it will already be a factor in your deliberations about choosing a school for your child. Equally, if religion is something you prefer not to include in your life then it will be a factor in choosing your child’s school. If you’re not sure how religion impacts schooling, look at the websites of the schools you’re considering and see how they articulate their religious approach. This might be expressed as their ‘vision’, ‘ethos’ or ‘faith’ and it will indicate the school’s values. Don’t forget that:
- you, your child and your family can be a part of any faith, non-faith or mix thereof and still go to any school in Australia. Being in a particular denomination of a faith doesn’t bar you from going to a school of a different denomination or faith, or to any public school, and
- you’re unlikely to change the religious character or rituals of any school you choose. If you object to public prayer, religious music or religious education classes, or are passionate about values or ideas that the school’s religion or denomination vocally opposes, you might be setting yourself, your family and your child up for years of resentment.
4. Family and Friends
Community is a crucial part of the schooling experience for the whole family and if you have a particular community that you want your child to join (or one you want to avoid) then that should be very helpful in making your decision. Existing friendships may also be a consideration for you (whether they’re your friends or your child’s). If you’re on the fence about sending your child to the same school as extended family, consider whether independence or onsite family support will be more beneficial for your child in the long run.
Schools are communities, so whether your child will have a friend in every class on day one or if the school is a sea of strangers, you and your child will have ample opportunities to make friends and participate in the school community.
Different schools have different priorities and reputations, and your child may already have interests that are strong enough to play a part in making this decision. Whether these goals are academic, sport-based, creative, performative, scientific or linguistic, if a school has a particular priority and strength, it will be clear from its website. Look at the photo gallery on their website and on their social media – the activities a school advertises socially are the ones that they value internally. If you find one that aligns with your child’s goals that could make this decision for you.
Closely aligned to the goals factor, the facilities a school has or has access to may be decisive or at least helpful. This isn’t a simple matter of quantity or quality. A public school next door to a public swimming pool may suit your child better than the private school with a multi-million dollar sporting complex in a different suburb.
7. Class sizes, ratios and socio-economic composition
The MySchool website can tell you how many students are enrolled in a school and the number of staff employed. This can be useful in telling you how many adults to children are on site but it doesn’t mean that all the adults are teachers or that class sizes are evenly distributed. It’s always best to check with the school if you’re concerned about class sizes, but also remember that there is no perfect class number or student to teacher ratio, so consider your child and whether they prefer larger or smaller groups.
Whether and how the socio-economic composition of a school impacts your decision is up to you, but if it does matter then the MySchool website can provide some information about all the schools you may be considering. It is important to look at the date the data was last updated as suburb demographics can change in just a few years, especially in capital cities.
8. Their vibe
While this is hardly a measurable factor, it is still deeply important. Your instincts about what kind of organisation you want to interact with on a daily basis are usually strong and rarely wrong. If you don’t like how a school is presenting itself or how the staff (administrative, educational or management) are approaching their interactions with you, look elsewhere. Some key indicators are whether they return your emails or phone calls promptly (and if not, why not), the tone of those communications and their website, the types of achievements they’re celebrating on social media and how they describe themselves in their vision statement, mission statement, ethos or school values.
9. Supplementary services
This can be anything from in-school tutoring or extension services to after school care, sports training, music lessons, language lessons and driving classes, and isn’t just a question of public or private. Plenty of schools, both public and private, have ongoing relationships with external providers, both onsite and offsite. Decisions about your child’s education are huge so if choosing the school can also pre-make decisions about tutoring, learning support, sports, music, languages or, eventually, driving instruction then that might be just the win you’re looking for.
10. NAPLAN or ATAR results
This is a tricky factor to weigh up, especially as educational commentators around the world cannot agree on the value of ranked testing in general or of its impact on daily classroom life.
Both NAPLAN and the ATAR are dependent on students’ individual strengths and experiences as compared with other students in their grade.
The logic is that if something happens that’s big enough to impact the whole country, then the system will still reflect the student’s relative skill compared to all the others. That means if every ATAR student in 2020 performed at half their capacity because of the global pandemic, their rankings against one another remain valid even if their marks differ substantially from those of the 2019 cohort.
How does this help you choose a school? NAPLAN or ATAR results may suggest a school’s academic vigour. However, they may also indicate a school’s focus on test preparation over holistic education. A very general guide is to give some weight to a school’s ATAR performance (since it’s got greater consequences for your child’s opportunities after school) and less weight to NAPLAN performance (as there are still far too many variables at play in the NAPLAN testing regime for its results to predict your child’s educational experience), and then do everything you can to support your child on their individual study journey, regardless of the school’s statistics.
There are many more factors to consider in choosing a school for your child that haven’t been touched on here, but remember that you can always change your mind, seek additional support and that there is no correct or perfect choice. Just show your child how you’re doing your best to make a good choice for them and your family – your example will set them up for success at whatever school you choose.