Choosing a school

Some thoughts on finding the school that best fits your child...

In her 1992 article "Choosing a School", Diana Whitton started with "School selection is one of the hardest choices a parent has to make" (Choosing a school. Gifted, 74, December 1992, p19).

It hasn't become any easier. With the greater ability to choose the right school that has followed the relaxation of "zoning" in NSW a decade ago, it is an even more important responsibility. Parents need to find the right environment for their child to learn and to love learning, and schools and teachers need to respond to this search. For children who are different, and this includes most gifted children, finding the right environment is critical.

This article provides some ideas for parents to consider when choosing a school. It may also allow educators better to understand and prepare for parents who are seeking to acquit their responsibilities.

Start with your child and yourself

There are a large number of good schools. But not all of these will be good for your child. Use your knowledge of your child to consider the key characteristics of an ideal learning environment for him or her. Is he a noisy, gregarious, easily distracted learner that needs a structured and disciplined environment? Or is she a reflective, sensitive child that needs time to be by herself and would be better suited to a small school environment rather than regimented in a large one? Is he a boy that might suffer in the "macho" ethos of some boys-only schools? Is she a child that needs many opportunities for divergent and creative expression?

Start a list of these characteristics/needs, and come back to them often, to ensure you are not swayed by the marketing hype that schools are starting to use.

Consider your own views as well. You may have strong religious or philosophical views that will influence what you would look for in an educational setting for your child. Private schools, both the larger traditional and smaller community ones, offer a wide range of school philosophies and practices. State schools have also diversified significantly over the past decade, though their philosophies may be more dependent on a principal than an ongoing school ethos.

You also need to bear in mind that your views may be in conflict with the needs of your child. Your "old school" or one that you have learnt to respect may not possess the characteristics you identified above as key to your child's learning.

Then check out the possible schools

The number of schools on your "possible" list will vary depending on your means, on whether you live in the country or in a city, and on how hard you feel it will be to find an acceptable (or an ideal) school. If you have many schools on the list, start by ringing them and asking for their prospectus or brochure.

Don't necessarily rule out a school because of one adverse comment from a friend or a friend's friend - their child may have very different needs. Also don't immediately rule out a school if a long waiting list emerges. Obviously this may be a barrier (a larger one the later you start looking), but scholarships and special needs have overcome such hurdles - and you might value the fact that clearly other parents consider it a good school. Moreover, what you learn about that school may also help you consider others more effectively.

Once you have reduced the list to a manageable number of schools, go and visit them. Reading brochures or prospectuses is useful, particularly to identify aspects to explore further, but an on-the-spot intuitive assessment is imperative. There are aspects about your child and your preferences that you may not be able to articulate even if you wanted to. There are aspects about the school that will never be inscribed to words. It is your intuition, your informed but subjective judgement, that will measure the match between what the school offers and what your child needs.

If you can, take someone along with you. They may or may not be involved in the decision, but four eyes see more than two, and a second mind provides a later sounding board as thoughts percolate after the visit.

You need to gather a large amount of information, and walking in with a sheet of prepared questions, as I did many years ago, may not be everyone's style and may even be intimidating to the school staff. There is no need to apologise for asking direct questions - the education of a child is so important that it should make such questions the norm. Nonetheless there are other, less intrusive, ways of gathering information.

Gathering the information - the soft approach

Most schools have "open days" for potential enrolling families, some with activities for potential students at the same time. Education Week in August/September in NSW is often a time when schools place themselves on display. Observing how they present themselves to the public can provide very useful insights not only to their current status but also their vision.

What are they emphasising? In other words what are the higher priorities for the school? All schools have resource constraints. Even in terms of staff focus, only so many issues can be high priority issues at the same time. Do the areas of current focus and resource use suggest a learning environment conducive to your child? Is an emphasis on sports, or on music, or on learning difficulties likely to be appropriate to him or her?

How united are the staff? Is the public presentation a team effort with a number of staff and students participating? This may indicate a school staff that is motivated to put in extra hours for the sake of the school. Or is it just a few of the senior staff speaking? Is the Principal new or soon to retire? Is there a change in tone evident?

Talk to a number of the existing parents about how they have found the school for their child. Let them talk freely and colour your reception of the comments by your judgement of the parent. Try to talk to a number of people.

Go to a Parents & Citizens or School Club meeting or their equivalent at the private schools. Are these bodies actively supported by parents? What is the tone of the parent community? How does the Principal relate to the parent bodies?

Walk through the administration office corridors and check out what is on display. Is this children's artwork or sports trophies or academic achievement awards or all of these? Ask for some old copies of the school newsletter to peruse.

Asking Questions

The soft approach can only take you so far, especially if you have limited time. The time for direct questions has arrived.

Some questions are easily asked to administration office staff - before and after school care, public transport arrangements, uniforms, what happens when a child is sick, how many children are there in the school and how many classes in each year…

You may even be able to obtain a copy of the school's gifted and talented student policy, if they have one, from the office, and find the name of the gifted and talented student coordinator. You should certainly be able to make an appointment to see the Principal, or in a large school, possibly the Deputy Principal.

This interview is important. You need to be comfortable with the Principal's approach to the issues that are important to you and your child's learning environment. But there are two further elements to this meeting. If this proves to be the school your child attends, then your relationship with the Principal is likely to be an important one over a number of years - you are building a foundation. And it is a two-way interview. The Principal is undoubtedly forming a judgement of you and your situation. With the significant discretion that Principals hold, particularly but not only in the private sector, this could make the difference between being accepted at the school or not, and care being taken so that your child is placed in the most appropriate class or not.

So the interview is important and common sense suggestions regarding meetings would apply. You might be able to reduce any sense of intimidation by being open about any apprehension you have about your child's move to a new educational setting. You also need to be careful in managing time in the interview. Many principals would have a standard spiel they would use for general inquiries. If you have particular issues and concerns to raise, it would be useful to indicate this to the Principal at the outset.

It would generally be positive to the meeting to find an issue early where the Principal can talk about the things they do that would address your concerns - such as handling first day nerves etc. Producing a note with prepared questions listed after such an opening would generally present a different impression than starting the interview by producing a list.

It is useful to know, but not always to use, the current educational jargon. Try to work with the words that the school uses as this reflects the school you are trying to discover. Ask for explanations when words aren't clear - the way the school defines words may be very revealing.

Depending on your child's needs, some of the following questions may be appropriate:

  • How is communication between parents and teachers/the school handled? (I would be looking for an indication of whether parent/teacher interviews are frequent and open or infrequent and highly structured. I would also be interested in whether the Principal naturally volunteers his or her availability in the case of an issue. Open and flexible communication may help prevent problems and to resolve them more readily should they occur.)
  • How are children placed in classes each year? (Possibilities here include streaming or ability grouping, looking for best fit between learning styles and teaching styles, keeping existing classes together, deliberately mixing existing classes up, keeping key and sometimes nominated friends together, alphabetical sorting, etc)
  • My child is already a keen reader/good at math/etc, how will this affect his schooling? (If the school talks about ability grouping, flexible progression and the possibilities of acceleration, you can naturally express interest in learning more.)
  • My child is interested in music/pottery/astronomy/drama/etc, does the school provide anything in these areas? (This could provide a good indication of support for extension classes, mentoring or of flexibly incorporating children's interests into normal classroom activities.)
  • My child is a reflective learner/may have fine motor problems/seems to be easily distracted in a noisy environment/etc, what will the school do to respond to these needs? (I would be looking for a willingness to respond to individual needs but also a care to avoid simplistic labelling. This might include reference to the school counsellor, but I would be looking for evidence of a school-wide response to students' needs in class-rooms and out - this might include staff development days on different learning styles, the existence of an independent learning centre etc.)
  • I notice you have/I understand there is a gifted and talented student policy, how does this work? (I would start my follow-up questions by trying to explore the view on equity in this policy - is it a policy that tries to do something for every student in the school, or does it start with a clear strategy to identify the gifted and talented students to whom it applies. If the latter how are these identified and how are these students then monitored over their time at the school? This might also be the easiest time to ask if the school had ever had any experience with acceleration or whatever provisions you are critically concerned with - this might be done as an abstract question, unless of course you are seeking early enrolment.)

By the time you have asked this number of open-ended questions you will have a good idea whether asking others is worthwhile! Hopefully you will have many of your specific questions already answered. Most importantly you will have a good understanding of the Principal's approach to these issues. This will be one of the important components to your decision as to the best available fit for your child's educational needs.

If you are seeking particular treatment

This may come as part of an initial choice of schools. You may be already clear on some educational needs of your child that standard provisions in a school setting would not provide. How clearly and at what stage you raise this will depend on the particular circumstances, but I would suggest a soft start to the meeting approximating the lines above, while ensuring that enough time is left to discuss the particular treatment.

When you do raise the particular provisions you are seeking? I would suggest initially raising the problem and asking the Principal what he or she would suggest. This may raise new possibilities that you hadn't thought of as well as an indication of how forthcoming the Principal and school is likely to be. You can use your response and subsequent discussion to include any ideas you may have.

You can be fairly confident of your legal position. The NSW Education Reform Act (1990) states:

(s5) It is the intention of Parliament that every person concerned in the administration of the Act or of education for children of school-age in New South Wales is to have regard (as far as is practicable or appropriate) to the following objects:

(a) assisting each child to achieve his or her educational potential

(j) provision of opportunities to children with special abilities

(k) provision of special educational assistance to children with disabilities

Nonetheless you would need to form your own assessment of the practical response the school can and will make to the particular needs.

If you are asking for some provision beyond the current range for the school, it would be normal for the Principal to be looking for evidence of your child's needs. If you have kept a record of your child's history (including critical milestones/events/copies of assessments and notes of meetings with other professionals) and can provide a copy, this will provide a useful starting point. The Principal may also wish to involve the school counsellor - this could well be standard school policy for special provisions and provides a second useful contact for the future. However, make sure the Principal gives this (and other confirming steps) the priority they need to ensure that they are completed in time for the provision to apply.

Some logistical issues

There are some obvious practical issues also. Finding the ideal educational environment a hundred kilometres away is a problem if we are talking about Kindergarten.

As well as the daily transport problem, you need to consider aspects such as whether the positive availability of numerous before and after-school special interest activities would play havoc with reliance on public transport. Interacting with school friends out of school time will also be much more difficult.

Parents have been known to move in order to support enrolment in the schools they thought best. This may well be necessary to make the school a workable proposition. Clearly practical issues need to be considered, such as effects on the family's discretionary income and on other family members' travel times. A great school, but at the cost of a family torn apart by impossible pressures, is not a great outcome. Moreover, school policies and priorities can change dramatically over the years, particularly if the Principal changes.

Take your child to the school at some stage, even if this is to be their first school. It is important for them to become comfortable with and want to go to the school. Use your judgement as to whether this first experience would be more positive for your child in the middle of a busy school lunchtime or as a quiet visit after school is out. For many young children it might be better if they were not involved in any formal meeting with principals or other parts of the school hierarchy. It might also be wiser to wait until after your choice is largely made, as your child might fall in love with the playground equipment and not be impressed if you choose another school. The balance changes, of course, for older children who would be more involved in the decision-making process.

The above is the lightly revised first part of an article by David Farmer published in the February 1999 issue of Gifted. It can be freely copied for non-commercial purposes provided its integrity is preserved and its web-address, and its author, and its publication in Gifted are appropriately attributed. The second part of the article on Dealing with Problems at School is also available online.