Shopping for Schools
shopping for schoolsBy Fay Prideaux

Options today provide a heady mix of choices and plenty of room for confusion. So what are the important factors for your child or children?

As the year draws to a close, parents with children starting primary or secondary school for the first time next year are asking the all important question: “Which school is best for my child?”

Choosing a school was once a simple matter of geography; the school closest to home got the thumbs up. Today the decision is more complex. Will I choose a public, private or denominational school?

For secondary education the question has added dimensions- is a single sex school or co-educational school a better alternative? Is a private school with a solid history in academic, sports or creative arts a better investment than a local high school? Parents want the ‘best fit’ for their child on social, emotional and academic levels in secondary years and are prepared to pay for the privilege of such choices. Selective schools specializing in the arts, sport, drama and music hold considerable appeal for parents of children who are gifted in these domains.

The options provide for a heady mix and plenty of room for confusion.

So what are the important factors and considerations?


Often parents reflect on their own personal history before deciding on a school. Unless they were dissatisfied with their own experience, they will usually send their children to the same type of school they attended. If you attended a private school, you are likely to send your children to one. Similarly if you attended a public or denominational school, you will gravitate towards that option. It is important however not to transfer parental disappointments to current situations without some research. Much has changed in the field of education from generation to generation; new leadership, diversified curriculums and student demographics to name a few. Explore all options that are within your financial and geographical reach before deciding to follow the historical path.

Single Sex or Boarding?

Debate continues over the advantages of single sex schools, but it is well documented that boys and girls learn differently. Different teaching techniques are therefore required to optimize the learning of both. Boys’ schools are usually staffed by male teachers. This promotes and provides strong male role models for young boys which can be especially important for families who live without dad under the same roof.

Parents choose boarding schools often for geographical reasons, but many also embrace the opportunity they provide to develop resilience and independence in a child.


Private school fees vary considerably from $1000 per term, to in excess of $10 000 per year. In addition to fees, it is advisable to do your homework on the additional cost of excursions, books and resources so that you have a realistic figure for the annual cost of a child’s education. Indexed according to inflation, the figures are likely to increase, so it is important to feel confident that you can meet these costs over the course of a child’s education. It can be difficult emotionally for children to be withdrawn from a school once they have established a circle of friends and a comfortable environment.

School Policies

All schools today have a website, brochure or prospectus promoting their academic record and facilities. Research has shown however, that a school’s impact on a child’s academic achievement is only around 12 percent. It is helpful to look beyond the statistical data on academic achievement and consider the other support services available.
  • Is there a program for the gifted and talented? Which student strengths in particular are catered for?
  • If my child struggles academically, is there a learning support program to assist?
  • Can I access special programs on request, or are they limited to small numbers?
  • Does the school have a variety of sport options that are well-organized and supervised?
  • What is the pastoral care situation: Does the school provide a counseling facility to address personal/social problems? Does the school have an anti bullying program? How effective is it?


Know Your Child

Matching schools to children can sometimes mean that siblings will attend different schools, particularly for secondary educaiton. Not every school is right for every child and whilst it can be geographically challenging it is important not to consider schools as ‘one stop shopping.’ Looking at what a school offers to meet the individual needs of each child in the family is a worthwhile exercise. Consider your child’s learning style, strengths and needs. A child who is creative, artistic and independent may thrive in a school promoting art and drama, but be thwarted in one that has a purely academic focus. Students that struggle academically may feel more comfortable with schools that have strong pastoral care programs or those that cater for learning difficulties. Boys who perhaps are living in a predominantly female household with limited access to ‘Dad time’ may benefit from a boy’s school to increase interaction with male role models. The right choice can make a huge difference to a student’s self esteem and confidence.


Families in which both parents work are more the rule than the exception these days, so it can be important that schools have before and after school care facilities attached to the premises. This allows working families to rest assured that their children are in good hands, surrounded by familiar friends in a supervised environment for those hours between school finishing and parental pick up.
Relaxed parents equate to happy, relaxed children. Explore the options for after hours care if it is important to family harmony.


The power of peer pressure can be pivotal in the choice a child wants to make, especially when choosing a high school. Making new friends is an important part of life and there are times when close friendships from primary school must undergo a change when different secondary schools are chosen. Solid friendships will survive and evolve through periods of change, but considerable encouragement and support may be required while children forge on to new learning environments.


Take advantage of the opportunities to visit prospective schools on their open days or information evenings. Walk around the premises; ask questions that are relevant to your family needs. First impressions count. Ask yourself if you would be happy to come to a particular school every day for over six years. Talk with other parents whose children already attend a school. Keep a balanced view of their opinions, as not all schools suit all children, but a positive vibe from a reasonable cross section of parents is usually a good sign.

When choosing a school, parents are united in their desire for children to be secure; academically secure in that learning will be nurtured, emotionally secure in that they will be supported and fairly disciplined and physically secure in the school environment. Choosing a school for your child is well worth the commitment of time and research.

Enjoy your homework.