How to choose the right high school

Choosing a high school can be a tough decision.
Choosing a high school can be a tough decision. Photo: Getty

I recall one of my university lecturers describing the move from school to university as “trying to drink water out of a fire hydrant”. I think the same can be said for the leap from primary to high school.

It makes me feel old to say it, but we’re broaching the topic of high schools as our eldest nears the end of his primary school career. The decision is complex with so many factors to consider.

In the centre of it all is our child who has two wishes, that he: Be with “all” his friends and can walk to school. With his friends split between at least three high schools in the vicinity, the first condition will be impossible to meet. In terms of location, there is only one school within walking distance.

Then there’s my husband: a private school graduate who is (often quite vocally) sceptical of the private system. He questions the return for investment the exorbitant fees promise. Instead, he believes you're buying your way into shoulder-rubbing with society’s A-list. Cynical and generalising perhaps. Either way, status and state of the art facilities don't rate highly on our priority list. He’s also dead against any school that has a religious affiliation. Naturally the private school system is as diverse as the public in terms of fees, facilities, expectations and reputation.

Then there’s me. As a student, I attended both public and private schools, religious and secular. I can assign pros and cons to both. In theory, I support local, government education, first and foremost because it is quite obviously local and more affordable. Secondly, because I want to advocate for quality schools and teachers who choose to work in the public system: a system worth supporting. Thirdly, some of our friends are phenomenal teachers and work in the public system and I have faith in the curriculum and the people who run it. I also prefer a co-educational school, which rules out some of the reputable single sex schools in our area.

Accommodating each person’s criteria would appear to leave a very short contender list, so practically the decision should be easy. It’s not.

When it comes to your own precious little cargo and your responsibility for choosing an educational path for them, the waters are muddied. Is my theoretical preference for public schooling tested if the local school is not appealing? Do I send my child anyway with the hope his own motivations for success will see him through whilst supporting the “system”? Or do I fork out the fees for private schooling that professes better outcomes without any guarantees?

A close friend, Mr Alex Robertson, is a leading teacher at a prominent government high school in Melbourne. He has added some worthwhile advice to my list below.

1. Look local first

Buses, trains and other travel add time to the day, plus broadening the area for which your child will make friends, potentially making fostering friendships a big commitment on weekends when you are the driver.

Alex adds, “Firstly, the ‘choice’ is pretty illusory. Local school (closest in a direct line) is required to place your child and enrolling in any other school is by application with no guarantees. Most students go to their local school and this is how the system works best so unless there are very specific reasons to the contrary that’s the best option.”

2. Decide what your priorities are

Understand which components of schooling match your child and your own family values.

  • Are the fees manageable?
  • Do you rate academic record over sports/arts/science/music/language programs? Are they equally important?
  • Is pastoral care and educational philosophy more important than where the school features on the MySchool website?
  • Do you judge the quality of facilities as important, imperative or an added bonus?
  • Are you interested in a small school or a large school?
  • Look at the Year 12 subjects and ensure there is a breadth of topics that will offer options to your child when the time comes.

3. Is the school a good fit? Does it have a valued reputation?

For your values and expectations, for your child, their abilities and learning style. Will it support your child’s development, in all areas: social, emotional, physical and cognitive?

A friend mentioned recently she liked the local high school but took issue with the length of the girls’ school dresses. Whether it was an indication of lack of direction from the principal or a school who failed to enforce the basic standard of dress, she was unsure, but it left a negative impression of the school. I was not so concerned. Perhaps it was fashion (abysmal, admittedly), typical teenagers, or a uniform oversight, I thought there were more important things to worry about.

Alex suggests, “The best way to get a view of how the students are is to buy something from the local milkbar 10 minutes after the students are released. Or take a bus/train/tram ride past the school at 3:35pm and see how they behave as they get on.

"But be careful with this: remember that most teenagers can behave in a pretty obnoxious way when they’re away from the gaze of teachers or parents. Particularly regarding offensive language, total disregard for others, leaving their bags in aisles etc.”

4. Attend Open Days

Stating the obvious? I’ve met many parents who just assumed their child would (or wouldn’t) attend a particular school until they attended the open day. Many a mind was changed by actually stepping on the grounds. It may be very The Castle”-esque to say it, but you do get a vibe for a school by simply being in it.

That being said, Alex cautions:

“Open days are carefully orchestrated affairs so look/listen at how the students relate to each other and their teachers.”

5. Be mindful of whose opinions you adopt

In all my discussions with other parents in my area about schools, I can guarantee I could build a case for and against each school. It is based on individual experience with individual children so trying to promote or discourage others through your own personal involvement with a school can be futile. I always listen to the grievances or praises parents offer for the school their child attends but with a critical ear. Is their grievance related to an overall student welfare/management/school policy issue, or was it a personality clash with a particular teacher?

6. Ask where your child wants to go

A happy child is more likely to learn, So their preference needs to be carefully considered and given weight.

When you have more than one child, the decision can become multi-layered. One school may suit one child, but be a complete misfit for another. Do you send them to different schools or find one that offers a middle ground? Logistically, it would be difficult for us to support our four children at four different locations. Unless there were extenuating circumstances, multiple schools are not ideal for us.

With so much to consider, I’m almost tempted to scale back and take the “suck it and see” approach. Pick the closest and enrol. A true evaluation of a school cannot be effective until your child has actually started attending.

Above all else, no school is perfect, and with combined support at home and at school, a child’s high school experience should be a predominately positive one.

How have you decided on a high school? What advice would you give when making a decision? Leave a comment below or on the Essential Kids forums.