How to find the best school

3 Minute Read | Author: Roger Balch

Many parents stress about planning their child’s education because there are so many options and so many consequences – potentially lifelong – if they get it wrong. Where on earth do you begin?

Education experts and parents agree that the process should start with your child.

“Different schools have different strengths  – whether academic, sporting, or in the arts,” says Aaron Matthews, content manager at the Good Education Group, publisher of The Good Schools Guide.

Matthews believes the first step is to choose a school that caters to your child’s interests.

 “From there, parents need to look at their budget and decide what they can afford,” says Matthews. “There are many excellent government schools, but some parents will choose a private education based on their religion, or the ethos or reputation of a particular school.”

Sydney parent Kate Parker knew exactly what she wanted for her daughter.

 “Academic results were secondary for us. We wanted a school that fostered a culture of hard work and self-confidence, and that gave our girl opportunities to have interesting experiences. The school we chose is non-selective.”

Beyond that, there are practical considerations. How far away is the school? What are the transport options? Do you want to send your child to a school that requires a uniform?

 
Feel the vibe

Once you know what you want, the hard work really begins.

You probably won’t be able to find a school just by sitting at home on the internet – or even by standing outside the gate and observing. Instead, your secret weapon is the school’s open day.

Parker explains why she and her husband attended open days at the schools they were considering: “This let us check out not only the school layout and facilities, but most importantly, the vibe at the school. The vibe was the main consideration. This extended to the teachers and other parents.”

An easy way to find out when open days are on is through the Good Schools website at  www.goodschools.com.au/school-open-days.

Some parents obsess over test results and rankings. But, although these will give you a sense of how the overall student population performs, they are not the be-all and end-all of defining a good school.

Matthews says, “Your child’s performance will depend on their interests and how well they engage with their chosen school. That means it’s better to consider test results and rankings as just one small piece of the larger puzzle.”

Academic results plus less tangible values

As well as scrutinising the schools, it’s important to talk to the other parents. “I spoke to a lot of parents of girls of who went to those schools, of all ages, to hear about their experiences,” says Parker. “I did this over a couple of years.”

Talking with other parents also helps to validate whether the school has values that are important to you.

“Similar values are important,” says Parker, “especially if you’re going to spend the next however many years with those people [teachers and other parents]. Parental involvement is also much more than when we were at school.”

Given that it’s the child who’s actually going to be in school, how much input should he or she have?

Matthews says, “Your child needs to be happy with their school to get the most from it, but the decision should ultimately be the parents’ choice. Older children may have ideas about what they want from their high school education that should be taken into account, but the parents will have a better view of the big picture.”

No matter how much work the parents put into the search, there are no cast-iron assurances.

“It’s very hard to predict whether the culture at a particular school will suit a child for all the years that they’re there,” says Parker. “Our daughter started at her school in kindergarten. We have a different head of school than when she started. We hope she’ll be really happy there until she finishes, but there’s no guarantee.” 

For example, she says, “One of the girls in my daughter’s year is leaving our school because she plays multiple musical instruments. Another girl left last year to go to a religious school. One left because she wanted to board overseas to learn more about Asian culture. Two other girls left last year because they liked the vibe better elsewhere.”

As a parent, her final reassuring words are: “I don’t think there is a foolproof method for finding the right one. But everyone seems to find their level.”