How do you choose the best school for your child? 9 sneaky but simple things to do before you decide

The nightmare of getting your child into the “right” school is up there with childbirth.
— Amanda Craig
Choosing the right school for your child.  9 Sneaky but  simple tips.  Katie Heath Photo Credit  Aubrey Wade Photographer  -  Sierre Leone  International Rescue Committee

Choosing the right school for your child.  9 Sneaky but  simple tips.  Katie Heath Photo Credit Aubrey Wade Photographer -  Sierre Leone International Rescue Committee

It's tricky to know if a school is right for your child

My 2 eldest children are at the right school ……. now.  They love it.  They never want to miss a day.  The school fits their personalities.  It makes them feel happy.   This is their 3rd school.  They are 12 and 10.   For lots of reasons the other schools were not the right place for them.  

I didn't do the most obvious research when I chose their first schools.  I didn't make sure the school was the right fit for our family. I missed some simple steps that would have helped make a better choice.

Try these simple steps to see the 'real' school.

You're at a point where you're looking at a new school or are thinking of changing schools.

You've read the websites, been to the info evenings and read the brochures. But how do you know if you're making the right choice?

Well, you'll never know exactly because every child is different.  But once you've checked out the fees, transport logistics and 'results' there are a few other things you can do to help finalise your decision.

9 simple ways to help you choose a school 

1. Be careful of the website bravado.

 It seems obvious but it's easy to get sucked in. When I changed my children's schools the first time I completely got carried away with the school's website. It sounded perfect - made for my kids.  

Many school websites are brilliant at making you feel that you would be a bad parent not to choose them.  How will your child succeed in life if they miss those 'exceptional' opportunities?

Don't get me wrong.  You do need to spend time looking at the website.  Take it all in and get a feel for the place.   Just don't let the bravado fool you.

2. Sign up for the weekly school newsletter.

Go to the schools website and sign up to have the newsletter emailed to you.  An awesome way to help you understand the inner workings of the school.  Most schools have this option.  If not, they have their newsletters on the website. 

Newsletters will give you a feel for how the school runs as a community. Formal, informal, inclusive, authoritarian.   Take some time to read over the last few months of newsletters.  It will give you a great insight into what's going on.

3. Stroll the grounds to see the real school

This step is fun.  You'll need to be discreet.  Walk through the grounds both at break times and while classes are in action.

Be bold here.  Just walk in and look like you're a parent of a current student.  You'll get to see kids interacting, teachers teaching and hear the sounds of the school.

Note: Of course schools have rules for visitors relating to entering school grounds. You might not want to break the rules.   That's understandable. There are other ways to skin a cat.  Be creative, if you know another parent ask them to take you.  

Another option is to ask the office team for permission to visit the canteen/cafeteria to discuss their approach to food intolerances.  The canteen is usually at the heart of the school so you will pass a lot on your way.  However you manage this step, just don't rely on the official 'show and tell' and tour.  It's impossible to see the real school when both teachers and students are on their best behaviour for visitors.

4. Follow the school on Facebook.

Some schools are active on Facebook to help create a sense of community. This is a great way to get an up to the minute feel for the place.  Excursions, sports carnivals and big events are often part of the Facebook feed.    Can you imagine your child part of it all? 

 Like them on Facebook.  Make sure you tick the 'get notifications' tab so you don't miss anything (Tip: hover over the like button and this option will show).  

5. Go to a school assembly

This is huge. A big deal.  If I'd have gone to a school assembly for my children's last school I would not have enrolled them.  Period. After  6 months at the school I went to a weekly formal assembly.  I walked out in shock.   I couldn't believe I'd sent them there.   It wasn't  what I expected.  It suited some families.  It didn't suit ours.

Schools generally have regular informal assemblies.  They also tend to have fortnightly or monthly more formal assemblies.  At these they tend to give out awards, have class performances and talk about bigger events.  Get to informal and formal assemblies.  You'll know when they are by looking at the newsletters that you've subscribed to in step 2.

6. Hover at the gates at drop off and pick up times.

This is easy.  You'll see the type of kids your child will be mixing with.  You'll see the parents and their cars.  Do the kids seem happy, well behaved?  Are they having fun? Is it a diverse community?  Can you imagine your child amongst this crowd?

Do the same thing at different schools.  You'll notice differences.

7. Be cautious of being starstruck by fancy facilities

School halls, gyms, science labs and fields.  Facilities don't teach your child. People do. You don't choose your friends based on their house or their car.  Don't choose your school based on stuff.

Teachers, culture, vibe, community, diversity and their approach to creativity make a school.  A tennis court does not.

8. Imagine your child there 

You don't have to do anything really for this step, except imagine.  Imagine your child at the school.  Does it feel warm, welcoming and inclusive.  Can you imagine them happy there?

9.  Find parents who have taken their children out of the school. 

Often you'll find that parents who have children at a school will tell you the good things about it.  Some won't accept there are negative issues within their school.  Of course some people will give you frank feedback and discuss both the good and the bad.  These are the people you want to talk to.

The other way of finding out any issues is to talk to parents who have taken their children out of the school for reasons other than a location move.   Why did they leave? It's a big decision to take your child out of a school.  Parents certainly don't make moving school decisions on a whim.  It's normally as a result of unhappiness and a feeling that the situation will not improve.  

These issues may or may not be relevant to you.  Listen and add this feedback to your overall considerations.

Final Thoughts

No school is perfect and you wouldn’t want it to be because in real life, things aren’t perfect.
— Jane Caro cowriter of "What makes a Good School?" with Chris Bonnor

Choose your childs school based on everything you've gathered.  You've done all you can to understand the place which will at the end of the day form part of who they are. You may find you've made the wrong choice in the future. Don't worry.  Change builds resilience.  Resilience is critical.  Change will benefit your child in ways you would never expect.

Resources to help with your considerations

Audio What Makes a Good School A thought provoking radio interview with comments from callers.  Hear a variety of opinions on what makes a good school.  Australian based but useful for parents anywhere choosing a school.

TED Talk -  Ken Robinson: How Schools Kill Creativity A captivating and 20 minute TED talk if you are interested in education.   Ken's argument is that creativity is as important in education as literacy and we should treat it with the same status 

The Great Secondary School Scramble?  Does it actually matter?  An entertaining article discussing our intensive focus on choosing the 'right' school for our kids.  It absorbs us. Hindsight is always great and this article prompts us to think in reverse.

Question:  I'm certain there are many more ways to help choose a school.  Do you have any other suggestions to help others choose a school for their child?  Your ideas may be just what someone else needs to hear.