A great school can make a world of difference to a child’s development but with so much choice available how can parents find the best option for their child and family circumstances? This step-by-step guide can help families think the matter through to get the best result.
Know what you want
While the curriculum is broadly similar throughout the country, schools vary widely in how they implement it. Most parents will have a view on how a school should approach teaching with considered opinions on everything from values and discipline to academic focus and extracurricular opportunities. Make a list of the qualities you associate with a good school to provide a basis for your search.
Explore all the options
There are not only more schools than ever before but also a greater diversity of school styles. What was once a day school or boarding / religious or secular calculation now involves far more variables. Alternative education models such as Steiner, Montessori and John Colet achieve outstanding academic results while adhering to distinct educational philosophies but there is significant scholastic variance within the mainstream too. Schools have disparate strengths and areas of focus as well as differing cultural and religious emphases. Be aware of all your options to avoid overlooking an excellent opportunity.
Determine your child’s needs
Even within the same family, children can have very different needs and learning styles. What suited the eldest perfectly might be all wrong for the youngest. A studied appraisal of your child’s personality, talents and intellectual acuity can provide a useful guide as to what kind of school would best suit them. Some questions to consider include:
- Would your child benefit from more, or less, structure?
- Is your child more likely to succeed in a co-ed or single sex setting?
- Are there any areas in which your child requires more attention?
- What kind of environment would best help your child to flourish academically and socially?
- How can your child’s talents be best supported?
- What is your child’s unique gift and how can it be fully realised?
Every decision is constrained by practical considerations. Determining your priorities and limitations can help narrow your search to a list of feasible options. Expense is an obvious issue. Work out what your are able and, more importantly, willing to pay for your child’s schooling. Faith and cultural values are of utmost importance to many families while a school’s location and expectations of parental involvement are also vital. Daily routines have the greatest impact on family life so it’s important to take Saturday sport, extracurricular activities and commuting into account when looking at a school. Fortunately, driving your child to school is not usually necessary with most major independent schools operating school bus services throughout the metropolitan area. Check school websites for transport information to ensure that your child can easily get to a school.
Look past the numbers
In considering these questions, you’ve probably formed a clear idea of what you’re looking for, now it’s a matter of finding it. The proliferation of schools data websites in recent years has made it relatively easy for parents to ascertain a school’s objective qualities, but the more difficult-to-assess subjective aspects are liable to be just as crucial in making a final decision. While NAPLAN scores, HSC results, student-teacher ratios and other statistics are all important indicators they only tell a part of the story. For the vast majority of students, success will depend on finding the right educational fit. An ideal starting point is to attend one of the many Independent Schools Expos held throughout the year. These popular events offer families an informal, pressure-free setting to meet with staff and students from a wide selection of Sydney’s top schools. For busy parents, the Expos are an unsurpassed opportunity to gain the greatest amount of firsthand knowledge in the least amount of time.
Get up close and personal
Once you’ve settled on a short list, the next step is to visit your nominated schools. By this point, most parents will have undertaken extensive online research and will be well-informed about a school’s reputation and academic achievements but nothing can give you a better sense of a school’s suitability for your child than interacting with it personally. Open nights highlight the best aspects of a school and can be a fun outing for the whole family but, if you have the time, a school hours visit is more likely to reveal how the atmosphere and ethos is experienced by students on a daily basis. A walk around the grounds at lunchtime can convey a great deal about a school’s institutional values and overall disposition of its student body. This is also a good time to inquire about the organisational details that underpin a school’s culture. Some issues parents may want to discuss with a prospective school include:
- Homework policies
- Behaviour expectations
- Discipline and standards
- Anti-bullying measures
- Professional development and support for teachers
- School community vitality
Finding the right fit
Finally; you’ve found a school that meets your criteria, your child is enrolled and you’re both looking forward to a great year. A new school will always involve a settling-in period but in the long term, US website GreatSchools.org advises parents to look out for these signs of a good fit between school and student:
- Your child is happy to go to school in the morning and returns energised and happy at the end of the day
- The pace of learning is right for your child: challenging but achievable
- Your can see your child’s development progressing with each year
- Your child feels appreciated at school
- Your child is meeting their academic potential
- Your child feels liked and accepted by their friendship group
- School work and friends are important, but not all-consuming, parts of your child’s life