How to Choose the Right School (Because I Chose the Wrong One!)
Choosing the right school can be a minefield with so many things to consider and so many questions to ask and so many answers that need to be considered. We talk to a mum who has shared her experience with us!
My name is Kate Gadenne and I sent my kids to the wrong school.
This mistake has caused disruption and heartache for our family and could have been avoided, if only we knew at the outset how to work out whether a school was the right fit for us.
Like many parents, we were distracted by the showy stuff. The amazing language immersion programs, music programs or large numbers of high achieving graduates. We were bedazzled by test scores, Better Education rankings and glossy school brochures – the existence of a website or Facebook page evidence enough that communication with parents was important to the school.
We have learned that the aforementioned factors are great to check out, but are largely white noise clouding issues that really matter on a daily basis. So, in the search for a new school, I’ve devised a list of eight key questions based on what we have learned from our painful experience.
An important point before you read on. While it is extremely important to ask the following questions, there is no guarantee that you will get honest or thoughtful answers from a school, particularly one that is trying to present itself in a certain way. Therefore, it is essential that you ask whoever it is you are speaking with to elaborate on their answers by providing recent and detailed examples. If they cannot do this, you may wish to remain skeptical about their answers.
1. What mechanisms does the school have in place to communicate with parents?
This is an important consideration if you want to be empowered to “check in” with your child’s learning during periods when they need more support. At the new school I’d like to know:
- Is there a parent portal/parent specific webpages to keep parents informed about a child’s learning?
- Can parents login to the portal independently of students?
- Does the portal/parent site have information such as term outlines for each subject, homework tasks, assignment task sheets, and instructions for dealing with IT issues/downloading textbooks?
- Are clear term outlines provided in a consistent format for each subject every term?
2. How is homework managed at the school?
Many of us carry expectations around homework that are formed by our own experiences, so it is important that your expectations of homework are not in conflict with those practiced by a school. Because I value homework, I’m keen to know:
- How is homework set? Is it up to a child to write it in their diary or is it placed centrally online/emailed to students?
- How can parents check what homework has been issued to children?
- Do children have to formally submit homework to teachers, and if so, how?
- Do teachers mark and view homework routinely, and if not, what mechanisms are in place for them to understand how a child is performing BEFORE they get to an end of term exam?
- If homework is not completed or handed in, are parents notified and what are the consequences for the child?
- If children have been absent, what systems are in place for them to catch up on work if required? In those schools with parent portals, teachers often routinely provide class notes, homework and support materials. Does this happen at this school?
3. How are assignments managed at the school?
To avoid anxiety at assignment time and to make sure my children are clear about what is to be delivered and when, I’m keen to know how assignments are handled. In particular:
- Are assignments highlighted clearly in subject outlines at the beginning of term to enable children to plan their workload?
- Are assignment cover sheets issued clearly outlining the question/topic, expectations of what is required, marking criterion, etc.?
- If assignment requirements are changed, will a new cover sheet be issued?
4. What support is in place for children who are not performing well in a particular subject?
We all hope that our children will sail through school with straight As, but in reality, this rarely happens. There will be times when children will require some extra support.
So I’m keen to know:
- How does the school identify whether a child is having difficulty?
- How are difficulties communicated to parents?
- Are teachers amenable to working individually with children in the short term to resolve issues or are the only options after-school homework clubs or group tutoring sessions?
How do they advise parents to address academic or social difficulties?
5. How does the school support children with special needs?
While this may seem like an issue that only affects parents who have children with special needs (whether that be learning difficulties or giftedness), that assumption is incorrect. Many children with special needs are educated in mainstream classes. A school with a proactive inclusion agenda will provide effective supports to teachers to ensure that children with and without special needs work supportively alongside each other. As such, it is important to understand the support structures and options in place at your school.
- Is the school proactive in their management of children with special needs and how will the process work? Can you give me an example of how the school has recently worked through this issue with a family?
- Is the school supportive of teachers by providing access to professional development in this area, and by having trained teaching support staff?
- Can the school explain how they support students who are gifted, as well as those who are struggling?
- Are parents guided through the process and various supports available or does the school wait for prompting by parents?
- Is there a consistent point of contact to whom parents can refer if problems arise?
6. Are pastoral care sessions treated seriously?
As the curriculum does not provide for life-learning across all subjects, it is important for pastoral care lessons to support a student in a holistic sense. I’m keen to know:
- How many pastoral care sessions are there every week?
- Is there a timetable of what is discussed in each session?
- What are the overarching principles underpinning the pastoral care sessions, and do they include supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of students?
- Is there a focus on practical skills of real benefit such as study skills or time-management?
- Is there a set outcome for children to work toward to keep them focused?
7. How rigid is the uniform policy?
While a well-designed uniform may reduce competition and peer pressure, inflexible and impractical requirements around uniforms can cause problems. If your children face a long commute on foot or by bike, are uncomfortable in gender specific uniforms (in particular skirts), or feel the need to express their individuality, it is worth understanding whether the school has flexibility around its uniform.
- Is there a shorts and long pants option for girls as part of their everyday uniform (see girlsuniformagenda.org for why this matters)?
- Are children allowed to wear a sports uniform for the whole school day on days when they have PE or sports lessons, or must they change in and out of their formal uniform around the sports lesson?
- For children required to change, are adequate change-room facilities in place or is this done in toilets? Does this impact on class learning time?
- Will accommodation be made for children actively commuting a significant distance?
8. How does the P&C/P&F operate?
The way this body operates in a school can speak volumes about tolerance, inclusiveness and community spirit. I’m keen to know:
- Does the P&C/P&F circulate agendas widely early enough prior to each meeting to try to involve as many as possible in issues being discussed at the upcoming meeting?
- Is the P&C/P&F really about discussing broader issues of benefit to the school or is the focus mainly fundraising?
- Can you give me some examples of issues that have been discussed at the P&C/P&F that were complex and required discussion and consultation with a broader range of the school community?
My husband and I are off to tour a few schools armed with this list of questions, and the knowledge that we have the right to ask them and receive meaningful answers. We believe that where we send our children to school is very important, and by going in prepared and confident we are far more likely to make the right decision. I hope these questions give you a sense of confidence too.