Choosing a secondary school: Do your homework first
Choosing a secondary school for your child can be surprisingly complicated. A community school or a vocational school? Is mixed better than single sex? This school has great facilities, but it’s enormous. Would your child be better off in that little fee-paying school a bus ride away? You like the look of this school, but you keep hearing that school gets better results.
Many people simply send their children to the local school. Indeed, a large cohort of parents in rural Ireland have very little choice. However, a 2010 report by the ESRI, which surveyed parents about their choice of secondary found half of the respondents chose a school other than the one closest to them. Irish parents are very proactive when it comes to choosing the right school for their children.
Just to increase the pressure, studies show that the educational choices a young person makes in secondary school have a huge impact on their later lives. How do you decide?
Do you use a guide such as the annual Irish Times School League Tables, which is published with the paper today, to help you choose? The popularity of the list shows a thirst for information about academic progression from individual schools, but does it really tell parents everything?
Dr Deirdre Raftery, the director of research at UCD’s school of education, is the author of Choosing a School: A Guide to Second-Level Education in Ireland (CMD Book Source). She says: “Feeder-school lists and league tables are blunt instruments. Your child is an individual and the information you need to make an informed decision is much subtler than that. As a parent, you are looking for an effective school for your child. The most effective school for someone else’s child may not be the most effective for yours.”
An effective school is one that contributes positively to your child’s development, academic results and general wellbeing. This is a more interesting perspective as it puts your child, rather than the school, at the centre of the decision. Your daughter is active: does the school have good sports facilities? Your son has dyslexia: will he be supported? Is the school of a suitable size? Will your child do well there?
There are practical indicators of a school’s effectiveness. Objectively effective schools tend to be flexible about subject choice and level. They are clear, consistent and fair in implementing discipline. Teachers in effective schools tend to have positive expectations of their students. Effective schools are well managed and they run smoothly.
Beyond those issues, factors such as location and school size are important in how they affect your child, but they have not been shown to have a significant impact on overall outcomes such as how well students do in exams as a whole. These factors may influence how well your child will fare and that is what you need to consider.
Just to confuse things, excellent exam results don’t necessarily indicate an effective school. A grand haul of As in Leaving Cert could well be thanks to grind teachers outside school. In that case, parents’ income and interest have far more effect on a school’s results than the school itself.
Conversely, an effective school may be firmly in the middle of the table of exam results, with respectable, if not overwhelming, grades. However, that school may have teachers working diligently to bring students who would have failed up to a pass or even to an honours grade. That school has a positive effect on its students’ academic outcomes and is an academically effective school.
Essentially, most schools are a mixed bag. Some teachers will be excellent, others less so. Some year groups will be a dream to teach, while others present a challenge. It is reassuring for parents that in Ireland the standard is fairly consistent.
According to Raftery, few if any schools will be wholly effective or wholly ineffective. “Irish schools are more similar than they are different,” she says. “Much of the time you’re comparing like with like and the decision will come down to the needs of your individual child,” she says.
Indeed, when parents were surveyed about school choice for the ESRI study, the most important factor in choosing a school was the child’s preference. That was more important for parents than whether the school was deemed to have good results or facilities. “Parents want their child to be happy,” Raftery says. “That outweighs everything else.”
The decision also comes down to instinct. “Remember that a Leaving Cert result or college progression is the end product,” Raftery says. “There are six very important years between now and then. Parents know when a place feels right and when it doesn’t. A lot of it comes down to common sense.”