How to choose the right secondary school for your child

Education experts and students on what to consider and where to look when considering schools.

The then taoiseach  Leo Varadkar with principal Dr Áine Moran, deputy Leona Harrington and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the opening of Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrrelstown in 2018. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

The then taoiseach Leo Varadkar with principal Dr Áine Moran, deputy Leona Harrington and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin at the opening of Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrrelstown in 2018. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The data published by The Irish Times today, which measures the progression of students from schools to third-level institutions, is just one factor that parents and guardians might consider when choosing a secondary school for their child.

So what else should they look into and what are the tools at their disposal?

We asked education experts and students for their views.

The Expert View

Arthur Godsil former Principal of St Andrew's College Booterstown, Co. Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien
Arthur Godsil former Principal of St Andrew's College Booterstown, Co. Dublin. Photograph: Bryan O'Brien

Arthur Godsil. A former headmaster of St Andrew’s College in Dublin, Arthur Godsil is founder of Godsil Education, an education consultancy company that provides services to industry, educational institutions, students and their parents.

There are six key elements that make schools successful:

Firstly, school culture: nothing is more powerful in setting standards and values than the continuous attention to maintaining an inclusive and energetic school climate; it assists with the prevention of bullying, cultivates respect and assists learning.

Second, modelling behaviours that we wish to transmit to our young people. It is important that we have a variety of individuals as role models in positions of school leadership showing students that the school does not discriminate against diversity, whether that be gender, race, religion or any other form of differentiation.

Third, schools that personalise education to each individual are the schools of the future, where they focus on the strengths of the [students] rather than concentrating on weaknesses.

Fourth, formative learning means that learning should be a process and not an end point. Every assessment of a child’s work should be seen as the beginning and an opportunity for the child to reach greater heights.

Fifth, we are unsure of what this changing world will bring; we don’t know how machine learning and artificial intelligence will affect traditional employment but we know that skills development and expanding the ability of our students to be agile and flexible, to be able to think creatively and find innovative solutions to difficult problems will, in the end, serve our new generations far better than an unquestioning adherence to a set curriculum. Developing the skill needed to differentiate between what is truthful and accurate and that which is false and imperfect will become a necessary requirement in the repertoire of learners.

Finally, schools that have a well-developed understanding of the value of being self-aware and actively incorporate policies and procedures that align with best practice in promoting self-esteem among our young people will significantly contribute to the collective mental health of our society.

Dr	Áine Moran is the ethos and leadership officer at Le Chéile Schools Trust.
Dr Áine Moran is the ethos and leadership officer at Le Chéile Schools Trust.

Dr Áine Moran. Currently the ethos and leadership officer at Le Chéile Schools Trust, Dr Áine Moran was the founding principal of Le Chéile Secondary School in Tyrellstown, Dublin 15.

In November 1976 Christina Murphy, the then education correspondent for The Irish Times, wrote an article about my primary school.

I’ve always had a sense that I was fortunate to have attended “good” primary and secondary schools, so when I was asked to write a few words on what makes a good school I went back to find the article about Breaffy National School in Co Mayo to try to understand why a six-year-old might have thought her school was such a thing. Even in the photo that accompanies the article, it is easy to see that I feel at home, I’m confident even though I’m being challenged and that I’m having fun. Maybe that’s all there is to a good school.

Christina Murphy's article about Breaffy National School, Co Mayo, in November 1976,
Christina Murphy's article about Breaffy National School, Co Mayo, in November 1976,

I’ve spent much time as the principal of Le Chéile Secondary School trying to ensure it is a place of excellence where all can reach their potential, a place where there are deep links to the local community and engagement with parents, a familial feeling among staff and students, an environment that inspires, a creative curriculum.

At both St John’s National School in Breaffy and later at St. Joseph’s Secondary School in Castlebar, I knew I was known and I was loved. I experienced this love as empowering, something that drew the best out of me. A good school does that. It creates a sense of possibility for both staff and students. There is a “try it” attitude that builds confidence and resilience.

The Student View

Saoirse Exton (15), equality officer with the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union.
Saoirse Exton (15), equality officer with the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union.

Saoirse Exton (15). Saoirse is the equality officer with the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union.

* Student voice: No school can be 100 per cent perfect but an empathetic atmosphere that listens to us on everything from soap dispensers to combating homophobia is crucial. Our voices should be heard and there should be mechanisms to translate our voice into school policy.

* Leadership: A principal that listens to students and works with their teachers to lead and be imaginative.

* Extracurricular: Sports are important, but not for everyone, so it’s great if schools also have options like chess, debate or quiz team.

* Voter registration: As soon as you start secondary, they should encourage civic engagement and get all their 18-year-old students registered to vote.

Seán Sweeney (19), third-year Irish and geography student at Maynooth University.
Seán Sweeney (19), third-year Irish and geography student at Maynooth University.

Seán Sweeney (19). Seán is a third-year Irish and geography student at Maynooth University.

* Diversity: Different perspectives and outlooks enhance education. I liked being in a co-educational school – you won’t be with only the same sex when you start college or enter the workplace.

* Take the pressure off: Not everyone suits the Leaving Cert so it’s important you’re supported in what you’re good at, including extracurricular activities. Being part of the student council helped me with public speaking, event organisation and working as part of a team.

* Inclusion: You should feel welcome and that you can talk to the teachers without fear of judgement.

Where to get information on schools:

* Whole school evaluations: Available on the Department of Education website. Not always up-to-date but they do provide a good overview of a school’s strengths, weaknesses and, perhaps most importantly, where they have improved. education.ie

* Open days: These may be on hold until the pandemic passes but many schools are running virtual open days to provide parents and guardians with a sense of the school’s values and ethos, teaching and learning approach (a good sign is a school that emphasises the word “learning” over “teaching”), subject options, wellbeing and pastoral care supports, mechanisms to enhance students’ and parents’ voices.

* The grapevine: Treat the local grapevine with caution but it can be a good source of information.

* Trust your gut: If principals and teachers are cagey and defensive from the outset, it’s a bad sign.