Choosing a Secondary School Without Losing Your Cool – 7 Practical Tips For Parents

As your child nears the end of primary school you start to hear the same questions over and over:

Which secondary school will you send them to?

Public or private? Co-ed or single sex? Religious or secular?

And on it goes…

When faced with such an inquisition at every turn, it’s easy to become racked with fear about the implications of choosing the WRONG school.

What if your kid falls in with a bad crowd? What if they aren’t challenged? What if they are not supported? What if they are not properly prepared for adult life and a future career? What if you can’t afford it??

Eeek!!!

BUT the good news is that with some basic research and timely planning you can avoid a lot of stress.

Following this simple seven step process will help you to feel more confident in your decision and put your mind at ease.

1. Start Early

The earlier you start looking at possible secondary schools, the more time you will have to do all the necessary research. You will also have more time to prepare your child for the transition and a higher likelihood of actually getting into the school that you want.

Most parents start considering secondary schools when their child is in Grade 5 but there is no harm in starting to look around even earlier than this.

If you are thinking of a private school and the application process is competitive, you might have to think about putting your child down on waiting lists at several schools when they are quite young and then weighing up your options later on.

2. Make a Short List

If you are looking at state schools, the first thing to think about is which zone you fall into. There is no point getting your heart set on a school only to find out that you are not in the right zone for admission.

Similarly, if you are interested in Catholic schools, you may want to consider which primary schools feed into the Catholic secondary schools as this will affect the likelihood that your child will be accepted.

3. Ask Your Child What THEY Want

While you can always reserve the right to make the final decision, it is often useful to ask your child what they want from a secondary school.

Do they want to go to the same school as their friends? Do they want to go to a co-ed or single sex school? Are they willing to travel a bit further to go to school?

If you are considering a private school, does your child understand that there may be certain financial sacrifices your family has to make to cover the fees, and are they ok with this?

You might find that your child has more motivation for study and displays fewer behavioural problems if they are happy with the choice of secondary school. But also keep in mind that kids don’t always know what is best for them and many will automatically opt for the school that their best friend is going to, regardless of whether it is the most appropriate choice.

4. Think Long Term

Decisions about secondary school should largely be made based on the opportunities your child will have when they reach the later years. It may be hard to know what is going to be the best long-term pathway for your child while they are still young but it is good to know what the options are.

Once a student has finished Year 10, they can opt for VCE, VCAL, VET or IB. This article explains the differences between these different pathways. Of course, they can also leave school and attend TAFE or pursue an apprenticeship as well.

There are also schools which offers a learning approach that is similar to a university. Students at such schools are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning and the teaching style is more collaborative. There may also be less focus on rules and uniforms. Have a think about whether a school like this might suit your child.

Think about the pastoral care that each school offers. Does your child have special needs or are they likely to benefit from a bit more support? If this is the case, you should be asking about the wellbeing team, the “individual differences” department, learning support, counsellors and any other support staff that the school may have.

Consider the personal development opportunities that your child may be exposed to. Does the school have a focus on leadership opportunities, outdoor education programs, outreach, volunteer or community work? Is this important to you?

Remember that if you choose a school which doesn’t have many personal development opportunities built into the curriculum, your child can always build these skills through extracurricular groups such as scouts, cadets, community groups or sporting clubs.

5. Ask Around For Feedback

School websites, publications and orientation days are designed to show each school in the most positive light, but this is unlikely to be a true indication of what happens on a day-to-day basis.

Talk to friends and family to see if they have any feedback about each school on your short list. See if you can get in contact with parents whose children are currently at the school and ask some frank questions, such as “Is there anything you’ve been disappointed with about the school?”, “Is there anything you wish the school did more of?”, “How good is the school at communicating with parents?”

6. Consider Cost and Convenience

How important is convenience to you? Think about how much easier life would be if your child went to the local secondary school and could walk there every day. The travel time would be less, their friends would all live in the neighbourhood and they would have more time for after school activities.

But what if your ideal school is a little bit further away? Would you expect your child to travel there by public transport or would you drive them? How much would this cost?

Where are the after-school and weekend sports grounds? Which area would most of your child’s friends be coming from?

Sometimes these issues can be easily managed but sometimes the additional stress that can come with a school further away can negate any possible benefits.

Cost can sometimes be the most important factor for parents when it comes to choosing a school. Many families can only afford private schools if they make sacrifices when it comes to discretionary spending on things like holidays, cars and home renovations.

You also have to think about the additional costs that are expected at a private school, including camps, uniforms, laptops and extracurricular activities (e.g. overseas exchange programs, rowing, skiing, etc.).

Private schools can offer some great opportunities for extracurricular activities, even if you assume that the teaching standards are not necessarily better.

But a private education certainly won’t be ideal for every child. Some adolescents may feel out of place in a private school, especially if they are not interested in pursuing the ‘expected’ pathway of VCE or IB that is often the norm in these environments.

7. Consider Siblings

Is it important for you to have all your children going to the same secondary school? How would this help? Weigh up the pros and cons.

If you would like to send all of your children to the same secondary school you will need to consider the social, emotional and academic abilities and needs of each child.

8. RELAX

(Yes, I know I said there were only 7 steps but this is important so I’m adding it anyway!)

Even after you’ve made your decision just remember that you can always CHANGE YOUR MIND.

If, say, your child gets halfway through secondary school and things just aren’t working out, you might have to consider changing schools. Naturally, such a decision should not be made quickly or on the basis of one bad teacher, one school bully, or one bad mark but it is an option.

(The emotional and social upheaval of changing schools for adolescents can be substantial. But if you have repeatedly tried to seek additional help from the school and still feel that your child is not getting the help they need, it can be the right thing to do.)

That’s all for now. Take a few deep breaths and good luck with your research and decision making.

PS: If you would like some impartial and independent help with choosing a school for your child please feel free to get in touch. An experienced Educational and Developmental Psychologist will give you a professional opinion on what type of academic, social and pastoral environment will best suit your child’s particular needs.

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