How to find the right secondary school for your child

Finding the right fit for your soon-to-be highschooler.
Finding the right fit for your soon-to-be highschooler.  Photo: Getty Images

Gone are the days when we went down the road to our closest secondary school. Now, even if you are choosing a public secondary school for your child, there are many things to consider, and many ways to get in if it's not your closest school. How to choose the school that's the best fit for your child can be tricky. But it's important not to get overwhelmed. Transitioning to secondary school is a big thing for many children, and if their parents are equally nervous or jittery about the decision they've made then it's even harder for the child to feel confident.

So do your homework early. Work out what you and your child need and want and stick to it. Don't flip flop around the decision and make it even more loaded than it needs to be.

First make a list

Only you know what's important to your child and your family. Do you want a public, private or independent school? Same sex or co-ed? How far is your child willing to travel? Remember it's not just getting into the school, its also getting them to and from every day, for the next six years.

Do you want your other children to attend the same school, and if so, then you need to think more broadly about the school that will best fit all your children. Do you want a uniform? A music program? Particular subjects like languages? Is select entry important? Does it matter to you or your child if they have a friend going with them?

These are just some of the things that may matter to you, and they are a good first step in culling certain schools from the list of possibilities.

Visit the school

Once you know what criteria are important in selecting the right fit, then find the schools in your area that offer those things. And go and visit them. All of them. And take your child, because what they see is different to what you see. You might be looking at the state-of-art science lab while all they can notice is that the building feels difficult to navigate.

Talking to teachers or the principal or deputy will give you a feel for the school that you can't get just by reading about it online. Watching how the staff interact with students can tell you a lot about how involved they are. Ask lots of questions. Do the teachers stay at the school or is there high staff turnover? What's the wellbeing program like? What are the camps and opportunities for exchange? What subjects are taught at VCE or HSC? And what if your child wants a different subject? Is there any possibility they can study it somewhere else? What about if your child isn't academic? How does the school prepare them?

Remember you aren't just transitioning your child into Year 7 they are going to be at this school until they finish VCE or HSC so try to imagine all the things that will matter to you over the next six years.  

Word of mouth

This is a tricky area because with any school there will be both negative and positive comments out in the community. No school is immune to this. And how you navigate the minefield that is word of mouth is very hard. So listen to everything, but also ignore it. Just because your neighbour's child hated the English teacher, or they weren't pushed hard enough in science, doesn't mean your child will have the same experience. Selecting the right fit school is deeply personal and your child is an individual and what suits them will not necessarily suit others. But that said, if what you are repeatedly hearing from people you know and trust is worrying then it may pay to listen.

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ATAR scores

We all look at them. We all want to know our child has a chance of reaching their potential. But when we look at them, we need to keep all sorts of things in mind. Like is the school a select entry school in which case it will affect the ATAR scores. And as important as they are, your child is still an individual and how they learn and what they achieve is also up to them. Try and find out from the school what the percentage of children going off to their first or second place choices at university are. And have a look at the ATAR scores over a few years and not just a year in isolation.

What does your child think?

Letting your child have a say in their secondary school is both important and impossible. What they want is often not what you want. What they value at 11 or 12 is nothing like what they will value at 17 or 18, but explaining that can be hard. It's up to you how much you take their opinion into consideration, but if it's that they don't want to wear a uniform, or they don't like the purple school dress on offer, then it's probably best to ignore it. But if it's that they feel really strongly about having a friend or someone they know at their new school, then only you can establish how important that will be to your child. Try and help them to understand what you think are the important reasons for choosing a school, and try and get their opinion on these issues, so that at least you are sort of on the same page.

Try not to worry

Your child and you have survived seven years of primary school. It's probably been a wonderful experience where you've made friends, built a community and now can't imagine starting again. But secondary school is exciting. It's the time for your child to really consolidate everything they've learned and are learning. Importantly what will help your child transition is being positive and excited for them as you all enter this next stage of life. The school you choose will seem like the only decision worth making for the six months in which you worry and plan and change your mind a hundred times over, but then a few months in when your child is coming home with new friends and new ideas, you'll probably wonder why you worried so much. And if the school you choose is really not the right one, then you can always change down the track. 

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