How do you choose a school?
College progression figures and league tables are only part of the picture. When it comes to deciding on the right school for your child, there are more important factors
Yet again, The Irish Times Feeder Schools Lists are out, and yet again, they will be snapped up by Irish parents thirsty for information – any information, even flawed information – about how schools are doing. How many students are they sending to college? Some information, the success of the tables will attest, is better than no information.
This is especially true when it comes to making that decision about which school you should choose for your child, and Irish parents are particularly involved in that decision. An ESRI report from almost five years ago found that half of Irish parents chose to send their children to a school other than the one closest to them. That’s a huge number of people who are making a very active decision about their child’s education.
Every parent wants the best for their child, which is why choosing a post-primary school, where they will spend the bulk of their time as teenagers, is such a complicated decision. Should you choose a community school or a vocational school? Is mixed better than single sex? Your local school has great facilities but it’s a huge place with six full class groups in each year – would your child be better off in that little private school a bus ride away? Do you go for the school that gets amazing results, or the one that has a fantastic sports coach given your teen is fixated on becoming the next Katie Taylor?
Naturally, lots of people simply send their children to the local school, but few do so lightly. Irish parents’ involvement in the decision is well placed, as studies show that choices made during post primary education have a huge effect on what happens to a person later in life.
Indeed, data such as that in today’s feeder school lists, while helpful to a certain extent, does not provide anything like enough information about schools.
Dr Deirdre Raftery, director of research in UCD’s School of Education is co-author, along with Catherine KilBride, of the book Choosing a School – second-level education in Ireland. She says, “Increasingly, parents are attuned to the importance of teenage mental health, and look to schools for support in helping them to raise young people who are confident and happy.”
The key is not in choosing the best school, Raftery says. It is in choosing the best school for your child. As every child is different, the best school for one may not be the best for another.
More awareness of the challenges faced by teenagers is leading to more examination of how schools approach such issues. “In choosing a school, parents may want to see how the school approaches health issues – physical and mental – and how it manages areas such as anti-bullying, examination stress, and physical education,” Raftery says.
Essentially the right school for your child is one that will contribute positively to their development, academic results and general wellbeing. Most parents know this instinctively and automatically put their child at the centre of their decision.
The reassuring thing is that most schools are generally quite effective, meaning that they tend to have a positive influence on their students’ attainment. There are practical indicators of a school’s effectiveness.
Research shows that objectively effective schools tend to be flexible when it comes to subject choice and level. They are clear, consistent and fair in their implementation of discipline measures. Teachers in such schools tend to have positive expectations of their students. Effective schools are well managed and run smoothly.
Beyond those issues, things like location, school size and so on are important in how they affect your child, but they haven’t been shown to have a significant impact on overall outcomes such as how well students do in exams as a whole. These factors may have an influence on how well your child will fare and that is what parents need to consider.
Just to confuse things, being top of the feeder lists is not necessarily an indicator of how academically effective a school is. A grand haul of A grades at Leaving Cert level could well be thanks to a huge amount of work on the part of grind teachers outside of school, in which case, the depth of parents’ wallets and ambitions are the factors having the largest influence.
The effective school is the one that makes a positive difference, be that an A grade, a C grade or simply completing school.
Essentially, most schools are a mixed bag. Some teachers will be excellent, others will be less so. Some year groups will be a dream to teach, others present more of a challenge.
What is reassuring for parents is that in Ireland, the standard is fairly consistent and the decision will come down to where your child will be happiest.
A large part of the decision will come down to instinct. “A Leaving Cert result, or progression to college is the end product,” Raftery says. “There are six very important years between now and then.”
The right choice
The factors below have not been shown to have an influence on overall outcomes for students. However, you know your child and they may have an influence on how an individual student does in school.
Comprehensive versus vocational – does school type matter? In Ireland there is a choice between voluntary secondary, vocational and community colleges and community or comprehensive schools.
Voluntary secondary schools are privately owned and managed. They are under the trusteeship of a religious community, a board of governors or an individual. Traditionally they have offered more academic subjects as opposed to practical ones, although this is changing. They can be fee paying or non-fee paying.
Vocational schools and community colleges are run by local vocational education committees (VECs) which are statutory bodies set up by local authorities. In the past they would have provided more practical and skills based education, but nowadays they provide a wide range of academic and practical subjects. Many vocational schools also offer adult and community education.
Many community and comprehensive schools were established as a result of an amalgamation between a vocational school and a voluntary secondary school. They offer a wide range of both academic and practical subjects.
Research has shown that school type has very little influence on how well students do in exams.
Local or not? Just half of students surveyed in the ESRI report previously mentioned were attending their local school. The rest were travelling to a school further away, indicating that Irish parents are active decision makers when it comes to schools.
Does school ethos matter? This is subjective. Is the school’s ethos important to you? Is it more
important than other factors? Go to the open day, read the literature. How will your child fit in?
Big or small? Larger schools can offer a wider range of subjects and levels. They often have good facilities and can cater to a variety of abilities. Smaller schools have the advantage of offering an environment where your child will be well known by students and teachers, but their subject and extra
curricular options may be more limited.
Girls or boys, or both? Research shows no difference in academic outcomes between mixed and single sex schools. On a social and developmental level, mixed schools are particularly good for boys.
The research for girls is more ambiguous, with some studies showing that a mixed environment reduces gender stereotyping for girls while others show it reinforces stereotyping. Ask yourself what suits your child.
How does the school deal with different abilities? Most schools now have a mixture of abilities in all classes, particularly in first year. Later on, some schools stream students according to ability. Other schools stream students for certain subjects only – maths, English and Irish for example. Ask about the practice in your favoured school, and again ask what will suit your child
What’s the academic record like? Ask the school. Feeder school lists, imperfections aside, give some idea of college progression from a particular school, but they don’t tell the whole story. If you want information about student progression, the best option is to ask the school where its students ended up last year.
What happens when a student needs extra help? Your child is fully entitled to take a full part in school life and deserves a school that recognises that.
Talk to the school. See what accommodations are already in place for those with special educational needs and how the school is willing to help. You will know from the response whether you have found the right place for your child.
Academic options Do you think a good transition year is important? Would your child be interested in alternative exam options like the Leaving Cert Vocational Programme or the Leaving Cert Applied? These are not available in all schools.
How much will it all cost? Fee paying? Non-fee paying? Is there a book rental scheme? Are students expected to have laptops or tablets? What’s the voluntary contribution? Is there a culture of school trips? What impact will this have for your family over six years?
Outside of academia
Did your child like playing hurling in primary school? Did he or she show a particular interest in science? Is he or she a talented artist?
Does the school offer facilities and activities that will allow your child to pursue his or her talents and interests?
Characteristics of an Effective School
School organisation and leadership
Identified a school? How to find out more about what’s working, and what isn’t
Websites like schooldays.ie and citizensinformation.ie can also be helpful.
The Find a School feature on the Department of Education’s website, education.ie, is useful. It’s on the upper right-hand side of the homepage.
You can input a few details about the sort of school you want and it will give you a map with schools in your area. Click into any of those schools and it will give you details about the school including website, pupil numbers and all inspection reports available.
The resulting inspection reports are published online.
The best way to locate them is to find your school of interest via the Find a School feature on education.ie. All published reports about that particular school will be there.
Types of inspection report
Whole school evaluations (WSEs) are the most commonly used form of whole school inspection at post-primary level.
They are quite detailed and involve meetings with members of the board of management, the parents’ association, focus groups of students, the principal and deputy principal, and groups of teachers.
Inspectors also observe teaching and learning, and they distribute questionnaires to students and parents seeking their views on the school.
Inspectors are looking at the quality of school management and leadership; the quality of learning and teaching; the implementation of recommendations from previous evaluations, and the school’s self-evaluation process and capacity for improvement.
How to read a report
Short cuts for interpreting a report
1) Look for the Summary of Findings and Recommendations for Further Development in the report. These are to be found as part of the introduction in the WSE report.
2) What sort of things need to be improved according to the inspector? Watch out for things like staff relations. Are there indications that staff members aren’t happy or feel unsupported?
Communication, within school and between schools and parents can be a problem. Are there indications that the school is not well managed or organised? When large areas like that are marked out by an inspector for improvement, it’s worth investigating further. Parents who have students in the school can be an excellent inside line in cases such as these.
3) Sometimes the reports are very clear, especially on the good things. Quality of teaching and learning being described as, “good, very good or exemplary,” is a good thing for example. Watch for commendations of staff expertise and commitment as well as levels of student support. Does it sound like the school is working well? Are staff, students and parents happy and satisfied? What are the comments on teaching, learning and curriculum planning?
4) Whole school evaluations essentially give you some idea of the culture and organisation of a school. Is the school welcoming and friendly? Is it well organised? Are all structures and policies in place? Are staff members enthusiastic and motivated? Are students and parents happy? A school should operate well on that basic level.