Choosing the right school for your child
What you should consider when thinking about what secondary school will best meet the needs of your child
The ‘right’ school choice is the one that’s right for your child. It all comes down to a number of different elements, such as subject choice, ethos, and facilities. Photograph: iStock
There’s more to picking your child’s secondary school than thinking about what they will grow up to be: who they are and who they will become matter just as much.
If you want your child to learn the essential skills that will allow them to progress successfully through life, alongside developing their academic chops, then taking a holistic view, rather than just looking at the school league rankings, is a better approach.
“All of the research demonstrates that schools with students who are happy do better, students comfortable in their school environment do better, students who feel they have a voice in their school do better,” says Prof Joe O’Hara of the School of Policy and Practice at DCU’s Institute of Education.
“You know what’s important to you, and you know what is important in terms of what you want your child to get out of school, but you also know your child better than anybody else,” he says. “You know what their interests, talents and aspirations are and you really need to think about that when choosing a school.”
Including your child in the decision-making process is crucial, says O’Hara. “You need to have a conversation with them and you need to take them into account because ultimately they are the ones who will be spending the time there.”
So what are the key things you should consider when trying to find the right fit for your child?
Type of school
There are three main school types in Ireland: voluntary, vocational, and community/comprehensive schools. Voluntary secondary schools make up about 50 per cent of secondary schools and are privately owned and managed. A small number are fee-paying but the majority are non fee-paying. The trustees of most of these schools are religious communities or boards of governors. Traditionally, they offer more academic subjects than practical ones, although this is changing.
Vocational schools and community colleges (non-fee paying) make up about 35 per cent of secondary schools and are run by local Education and Training Boards. In the past, they provided more skills-based education but now they provide a wide range of academic and practical subjects.
Community and comprehensive schools (non-fee paying) offer a wide range of both academic and practical subjects and make up about 13 per cent of schools. They are managed by boards of management which are representative of local interests.
The “right” choice is the one that’s right for your child. It all comes down to a number of different elements, such as subject choice, ethos, and facilities.
Ethos and values
What does the school say is important and does that match with what you and your child think is important? Finding a school where the values and ethos match largely with your own is an important element to consider. All schools have developed sets of statements about what their values are and what they are trying to instil in their students. The school’s values, ethos and mission statement should all be available on its website, so be sure to read through them thoroughly to get a good understanding of them.
Of course, saying and doing are two different things, so how do you know that the school lives up to its ethos? One way, says O’Hara, is looking at the school’s whole-school evaluation, a detailed report carried out by the Department of Education into all aspects of the school. “A lot of what they talk about is the student experience within a school and you can pick out of that if students are respected, if students feel they are a part of their own learning, if they have decision-making, if they are listened to. All this information is in that.”
Alternatively, ask questions of the school directly if you cannot get the answer online. This might include questions on what the school’s policy regarding the teaching of Relationships and Sexuality Education is or whether it has a smartphone policy. Or, if climate change is important to you or your child, does the school take it seriously? Did they participate in the recent climate strikes?
What is the range of subjects like? If your child has a keen interest in woodwork, a particular foreign language or science subject, does the school offer it? Can students sample all available subjects in first year? This can be an effective way of figuring out what subjects your child likes – or doesn’t. Is there any risk of a timetabling clash? If your child wants to do both home ec and music, will this be possible?
Big or small?
The size of the school is likely to affect the subject choice, with bigger schools generally having a greater array of options. However, a smaller school community may be where you see your child being happier and getting a better educational and social experience, so it’s an important aspect to consider.
Mixed or same-sex?
While there is a lot of research on this area, some of it conflicting, the standard statement is that single-gender schools tend to benefit girls more than boys and that mixed-gender schools tend to be fine for both. However, O’Hara says that there are a lot of caveats around this and that context is important. “The type of school you have, the type of facilities, the sense of ethos, size, all of these things feed into it.” Again, it comes down to what you think is the best fit for your child.
Activities and wellness
What extra-curricular activities are available for your child to participate in? This may be particularly important if the child is less academically-inclined but enthusiastic about sport or drama. which will help keep them engaged. Is there a good mix of activities? Is their chosen sport available at the school? If they are into music or coding, are there outlets for that? If emphasis on mental wellness is important to you or your child, consider whether the school prioritises this and how it puts this into practice. Does it have a relaxation or meditation room? Do students have access to counselling?
Does your child have additional learning needs?
If your child needs special or additional facilities, O’Hara advises visiting the school, looking at the facilities and talking to the teachers who are responsible for helping those with additional needs. Speaking with other parents in the school who also have children with additional needs is a good way to find out how helpful the school actually is and what you can expect.
Are students listened to?
All schools now have a student council, a representative structure through which students can become involved in the school’s affairs. O’Hara says it is good to find out how meaningful the student council is and whether students genuinely feel they have a voice. “There is a very practical way of looking at that, in going to the school on an open day. Who is taking you around and telling you about it? Normally, it’s the older students. What sort of sense do you get off them in terms of how they connect to the school? Are they comfortable? Happy to talk about the school? Do they seem like people who really enjoy the school? That is very important when you are looking at the type of environment your child is going into.”
Support for LGBTI+ students
A recent report showed that almost 75 per cent of LGBTI+ teenagers feel unsafe in school. To find out if the school is inclusive, BeLonG To, a group supporting young Irish LGBTI+ advises asking if it has an anti-bullying policy explicitly naming homophobic and transphobic bullying. Does it have zero-tolerance for any type of bullying? Has it taken part in any of BeLonG To’s teacher training or its annual Stand Up Awareness week, aimed at tackling anti LGBTI+ bullying?
In some schools, transition year (TY) will be compulsory and in others it won’t, so if TY is something your child might want to do, it needs to be taken into consideration. Will TY be beneficial and something your child will want to do? Or is it an optional year so you can make a more informed choice closer to the time?
Leaving Cert programmes
If your child is less academically-inclined, it might be worth considering the options available for their senior cycle. Does the school offer the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme? LCVP aims to give students an opportunity to develop their interpersonal, vocational and technological skills as well as providing extra points for grades for getting into universities. There is also the Leaving Cert Applied, which is a distinct, self-contained two-year Leaving Certificate programme aimed at preparing students for adult and working life.
Speaking with other parents who already have students in the school will also provide you with a wealth of information about it. This can also help with getting an insight into the quality of the school’s teachers and its genuine academic performance. Is the school doing well in the league tables because it has good teachers, or because everyone is getting grinds or going to study camps during the holidays? Does it really live up to its ethos? Is it as open and inclusive as it says it is?
Will you get it right?
While it might seem daunting to find the right school for your child, the good news is that it’s a decision most parents get right, O’Hara says.
“We get it right because I think we have a pretty good education system. Our schools tend to be positive places for children and they tend to be places that allow children develop those skills and attributes that we think are important . . . We’ve very well-trained teachers, and in the vast majority of schools, they do really try and put the students at the centre of the education process and do their best to develop the whole pupil, not just the academic side.”
Whole school evaluation
Reading an institute’s whole-school evaluation (WSE) is an excellent way to inform yourself about many aspects of the school; its strengths and weaknesses; if it takes a holistic approach to education; if its management is effective etc. All WSE’s can be found online at education.ie/en/Publications/Inspection-Reports-Publications/Whole-School-Evaluation-Reports-List/.
What to look out for on a school visit
Visiting a school’s open day/evening with your child is a great way to get a feel for the school, look at the facilities, meet with teachers and current students and ask any questions you need answering. For the child, it’s a good opportunity for them to size the place up and have an image of the school in their head before their first day, to have an idea of what the classrooms look like, or the general size of the building they are heading into.
The first thing to notice, O’ Hara says, is its physicality and how it looks. “Most schools are very proud places and they will do their best to present the best of themselves to anybody coming in and will try and create an environment that is comfortable for learners. But, do you think the environment you are looking at meets that? Is it somewhere you think your child would be comfortable?”
The open day is also an opportunity to examine the facilities. Are there enough playing fields for sports, a hall for drama or school concerts, an art room? Is your child interested in tech? If so, is having good ICT facilities at the school important and does the school have them? If your child has additional facility needs, are they available? Are they up to standard?
Listening is also key. What are the students, staff and the principal saying to you? “They will tell you what they think is important, what they think they do well and they will tell you why they think their school is suitable for your child, so just listen to them,” says O’ Hara.
It’s important to question people as well, especially the teenagers who are helping out with the event. It could be that the students chosen for the open evening are the star pupils but they still have a great sense of what the school is about, what it values and if it’s an enriching place to be a young person. Talking to the teachers can also give a good insight into the type of teaching and teachers you child will encounter. Do they seem passionate and informed about their subject? If your child is weak at maths or Irish for example, is this something that they will be supported through? If you are given any materials, take them home and read them. What’s in them should give you a good idea of what the school thinks is important and what it values.