It’s secondary school Open Night season in Dunedin. All over the city, nervous Year 8s (and sometimes even younger children) are trudging around various secondary schools as anxious parents attempt to find the best educational fit for them. And of course, they all scrub up well. From the freshly pressed uniforms donned by smiling, courteous current pupils to the latest technology proudly on display.
Signs are erected, advertising spreads booked and freebies ordered as each school vies to entice the next generation of learners amidst the challenging environment of falling or static rolls. (Just think what that money might buy if invested in classroom resources 😦 )
And you can’t blame schools. This is exactly the environment that Tomorrows Schools created when it was introduced in the late-80s. Schools have adapted quickly, learned to write websites, created marketing plans and sadly, when demographics drive budgets, become less collaborative over time.
As parents we are extremely fortunate. There are no “bad” schools in Dunedin although I’m not entirely sure what a “bad” school is. Teachers are all trained at the same institutions with the same entry requirements. We must all provide regular proof that we meet professional standards. We all adhere to the same curriculum and assess against nationalised standards.
At any secondary school your child could participate in drama, dodgeball, physics or photography. They might be involved in inter-schools, overseas trips or house sports. Same stuff, different window dressing.
When people ask me if a school is “good”, I reply that it depends on your child and your family. Working parents need to consider practicalities – where you work and hours of work, transport to and from school, accessibility to after school activities. If you work full time, does the school provide a before/ after school care service? Then there are the less tangible considerations. You may feel schools have a place in delivering religious education, or you may not. Ultimately it is about where your child will be happy.
I don’t personally feel Open Nights are the best way to assess your child’s fit with a school. They have become a necessity in many places such as Dunedin more for economic factors than anything else. Nor are ERO reports the be all and end all. Do you really understand the edu-jargon used? If you read two or three, do you notice the same phrases being repeated? Sometimes, it is what the reports don’t say rather than what they do say that is most telling.
Here’s a simple list of questions to consider when choosing a school for your child:
- How do people in the local community regard the school? Does it have strong and positive links with the surrounding neighborhood?
- Does the school employ a mix of experienced and beginning teachers? All offer unique skills and strengths and it’s the balance that’s important.
- Are the discipline procedures fair and transparent?
- What is the school’s approach to pastoral care – restorative justice? PB4L?
- Can you contact teaching staff, senior management or the principal or are there layers of gatekeepers to navigate?
- If the school offers extras, such as sports academies, are the selection processes transparent?
- Do you know any past or present pupils or students from the school you’re considering? What do they think?
At the end of the day, you should rest assured that in Dunedin at least, we are very lucky to have an excellent range of full primary, primary, intermediate, single sex, co-educational, state and state integrated schools. And New Zealand has one of the best educational systems in the world.
So by all means, see if you can sit at the back of a Year 9 maths or English class on a typical weekday to get a feel for the place but don’t lose sleep because the fact that you care enough to put some thought into the decision making means you can’t go wrong.
The rest is simply PR.