During one of the Pregnancy and Parenting Network get togethers, we discussed ways on choosing the best preschool or school. We thought it useful to share information on this important issue. Pinky McKay has kindly given permission to publish this article.

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, it’s 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 are less. What about the location and the proximity of public transport? Is carpooling 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 day care 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 educating 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 philosophy will make a difference to the school environment.

Individual care. Is there a commitment to assess and cater to 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?