Education isn’t necessarily a matter of ‘getting what you pay for’
When we sent our first child off to school, private education wasn’t an option. It hadn’t occurred to me to shop around. So our oldest child simply went across the road to the local government school.
Like many good State schools, this school had a lot to offer, including an excellent program for children with individual differences – for talented children and children with learning difficulties. Above all, the convenience factor of watching our child walk out the door and across a supervised school crossing was a blessing with a new baby and a toddler at home. And friends all lived within walking distance.
A household move and another choice made on the basis of locality taught this slow learner that there are schools and there are schools. I learned the hard way that convenience factors can be outweighed by the stress of an ill fit between children and schools.
Our two sons were removed from school and home educated for the remainder of their primary education. Our daughters started school at home. The community became a classroom where our children engaged in rich cross-aged, cross-cultural learning experiences in real life situations. Social skills were enhanced by mixing within a variety of clubs and groups and our children became adept at networking and seeking mentors – valuable life skills.
As parents we require knowledge, perseverance and energy to make informed choices about our children’s education. It is important to understand the education system clearly, as well as the options available before making the final decision. By gathering information, researching and evaluating your options, you will be better equipped to investigate the rich smorgasbord of schools available.
What are your options?
Choices for schooling may include the local state school or a state school some distance away which may offer a special service that seems more appropriate to your child’s needs. You may opt for private education which can vary from an elite, traditional perspective, a church based philosophy or perhaps a system such as Montessori or Rudolph Steiner to alternative or community schools.
Alternatively, you may decide to educate your child without school attendance. In remote areas, home based learning is a well established tradition but in the suburbs where neighbourhood schools abound, there are families choosing home education for a variety of reasons. Legal requirements for this option vary from state to state.
How to Choose the Right School
We all want to give our children the best opportunities that are available, but it pays to remember that whatever school we choose, or however limited our options are by finances, convenience or locality, the greatest influence on the final outcome will be the home and family. If the cost of an elite education includes severely stressed parents who are run off their feet trying to earn enough to cover school fees, your little one is probably going to feel too stressed himself to benefit.
Start shopping for schools long before your child is due to start school. You can find out about schools and what they offer by contacting individual schools and asking for a prospectus or handbook. You can also get a ‘feel’ for schools by attending Open Days and talking to teachers and families. Try to find out why they feel the way they do.
Be discerning about community opinion. School’s reputations change slowly, so a popular school may be trading off a reputation gained years ago which may or may not be still justified. Another school may be doing everything right but still be suffering from a previous ‘bad name’.
When you have narrowed down your options, make an appointment to visit and talk to the appropriate person at the school. This may be the Registrar or a designated teacher. However, before you take up your time and the school’s consider what you want from a school BEFORE you ask what a school has to offer.
What Are You Looking For?
Before checking out individual schools, it’s important to seriously consider your child’s needs as well as your own expectations and values. If you find it difficult to be objective about your own child, talking to preschool teachers might help you decide what sort of school environment your child would respond to best.
You may have a definite preference for large or small schools, or the same or a similar school to the one you attended. Other factors such as religion, discipline or diversity may be a key factor in your decision.
The school environment will have a considerable influence on your child, so it is reasonable to expect the values promoted to at least approximate your own. Values don’t just mean moral and religious values. They can also refer to a range of social issues, or even something as mundane as the nutrition available at the school canteen. If it’s important to you, its not mundane.
There are also practical aspects to consider. How much involvement do you want in school related activities? Some schools expect a high level of parent involvement, others less. What about location and the proximity of public transport? Is car pooling an option? Is childcare a concern? After school care is being offered by an increasing number of state and private schools. Many private schools also offer long daycare for preschoolers. If you have other younger children, this may be a reasonable option.
Compile a checklist of features which are important to you and your child. Then think about the questions you need to ask to gain the information you need. You may want to include:
The School’s aims and philosophies. A school needs to have a clear sense of purpose and should have its aims documented. Ask for a copy of the school charter.
- How does it match your expectations?
- What values are implied?
- Are they based on particular religious beliefs
- Ask how the school works to achieve its aims.
- Is there a commitment to educate each student completely?
If you are attracted to a particular schooling system, ask how this is interpreted by the school and applied to everyday activities. At any school – state, private, religious or alternative – the staff and their united commitment to a philosophy will make a difference to the school environment.
Individual care. Is there a commitment to assess and cater for the individual needs of each student? How is this achieved? How does the school cater for students needing remedial assistance? How does it satisfy the needs of the talented child?
Discipline and behaviour. Are school rules clearly specified and communicated to children and parents alike? Ask for a copy of the school’s discipline policy. How does it discourage inappropriate behaviour and reinforce good behaviour?
Class sizes and structure. What are the maximum class sizes? Does this vary with the subject? On what basis are the students grouped within classes?
The other students. These make up the community your child will become part of. Do they come from a narrow or broad range of cultural and socio-economic backgrounds?
Physical facilities. What facilities are available for specialised subjects such as music, computing, art, science and technology studies? What musical instruments are available to students and are there extra charges involved? How up-to-date are the materials in the library and what are library access policies? How much playground space is there and how is it used? What sporting facilities are available?
Teachers. Are the teachers the kind of role models you want for your child? In general, do teacher-student relationships seem comfortable and relaxed? What is the staff turnover rate? Do the teachers spend extra time with students in such activities as sports coaching? Do they seem to have high expectations of themselves and their students?
Extra-curricular activities. What activities are available to students outside the normal curriculum? What clubs are there? Is there a program of camps and school trips? Are they compulsory and what costs are involved?
Homework. How much and what kind is expected at the various year levels?
Parent participation. In what ways are parents involved in making decisions about school policies? Is there a parent association? What does it do? What kind of parental involvement does the school expect? Are parents invited to participate in classroom activities?
Costs. While Catholic schools generally charge modest fees, some other private schools have fees that amount to thousands of dollars annually. Government schools do not charge fees as such, but most do request money in the form of school council levies or subject levies. In both private and government schools, ask about the extra charges involved, such as musical instrument instruction and hire, camps and excursions, uniforms and sports uniforms, sporting equipment. And, if you are considering elite private education, you may need to budget for almost double the fees, especially in the senior years, to cater for the extras such as overseas excursions.
Admissions policy. On what basis are students selected? Is there a waiting list? If you are planning to move your child to a private school in senior levels, be aware that some primary schools are selected ‘feeder’ schools and also that private schools have varying entry levels during the later primary grades. A number of private schools offer preschool classes. To guarantee entry, your child may need to commence at kindergarten level.
Uniforms. Is there a school uniform? Is it compulsory for all year levels? Is there a sports uniform? Is there a uniform recycling system?
Documentation. Are all policies in writing and available to parents? Are there course outlines, a school prospectus, annual reports, regular newsletters? How does the school communicate with parents?
Involve your child
Above all, include your child in the decision making process. Listen to any concerns children express and acknowledge their feelings. Then, when you have chosen a school and enrolled your child, celebrate together to give a positive start to the new direction to both your lives.
Good School Checklist
- Is there a sense of purpose, challenge and achievement?
- Do the children and the teachers seem happy?
- Is there a balanced, comprehensive curriculum?
- Are the children learning how to learn?
- Is there a genuine warmth between pupils and teachers?
- Does the school cater for children’s individual differences?
- What specialist staff – librarian, physical education, music, art computer teachers – does the school have?
- How are parents involved in the school?
- Are the school grounds neat and safe? Is playground equipment adequate and well maintained?
- Do classrooms offer an inviting environment? Is there a sense of beauty and order? Is children’s work displayed with pride?
Government schools are available to all children with zoning a thing of the past. Government schools are accountable to the Education Department in their State, who set down guidelines in curriculum, education and allocation of funds. Each school uses these guidelines to devise their own objectives, curriculum framework and school charter to best meet the needs of the local school community. This acts as the guideline for directing funds into specific budgets, including staff wages, administrative costs, educational equipment and resources. Government schools are responsible for presenting their results to the school community, which allows them to celebrate the success of quality education for all.
Private or independent schools include all educational institutions which are not state run. Catholic, Christian based, single sex and alternative schools come under the ‘Private/Independent’ umbrella. This form of education is becoming more accessible to families with eligibility criteria becoming more flexible and fees being made as affordable as possible. Whilst private schools rely heavily on the fees charged, a government grant is also provided annually. Private schools are able to develop their own philosophies and values in regards to uniform, discipline, extra curricula activities and education.
Home education is a legal alternative in all Australian states, although legal requirements vary. The way in which families go about home education differs enormously, but will reflect their reasons for choosing this option. Methods vary from a structured school-like day, perhaps utilising a purchased curriculum, to natural or child-led learning, with the families’ philosophy and lifestyle. Rich and diverse resource are available in the community for home-educating families, on both a formal basis (museums, libraries, classes and the like), and an informal basis (tapping the skills of members of the community, for example) and home-educated children may have the opportunity for active learning from real-life situations.
Pinky McKay has been the Editor of Choosing A School For Your Child (Victoria) (Universal Magazines). She is also the author of Starting School, a Better Parenting Special (Universal Magazines).