How to pick a school for your child

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By Úna Rice

When you pick a nursery for your little one, it’s only the beginning of years of decision making about their education...

Your child will be spending many hours a day at crèche, and many years at primary and secondary school. Doing your homework coupled with following your instincts will guide you and steer you in the best direction.

Schools can all seem to offer pretty much the same, until you sit down and investigate further and then you may realise that they’re not all alike. Indeed, your own children may have such different personalities and learning styles that it’s more beneficial for them to attend different schools, particularly at secondary level. But even at primary level schools can be astonishingly different due to student numbers, facilities and how the school is run and managed.

Do the groundwork
For primary school, ‘the school around the corner’ might be conveniently located, but it’s not necessarily the place where your child will do best – you may have to travel further afield, but it may be absolutely worth it. Ask around friends and acquaintances where their children attend and how happy they are. A big warning sign is if friends are usually complaining about niggling school issues regarding specific teachers, an over reliance on sub teachers, poor provision for special educational needs, homework (too much or too little) , discipline or how school policies are enforced. It’s always a good sign if a school has a positive reputation. Another good sign is if there is an active Parents Association with good involvement from lots of parents which works in harmony with the principal and board of management. Another positive sign is if a school just seems to be organised – friends will tell you if they get good notice for events and closures during the year and if there is active participation in things like extra-curricular activities, national art and writing competitions, World Book Day and Readathon events, all the little extras that benefit children.

Consider the school hours – 15 minutes in the morning or the afternoon can really help or play havoc with your own work hours. If you can’t leave work, is there a playschool attached to the primary, offering after school care, or a local childminder who can do pick-ups? Take into account also the number of students. Would your own child feel daunted in a very large school, or are you better off only considering schools with much small numbers.

On open day find out about the school policies which should include the code of conduct for pupils and healthy eating. Bullying is a major concern for parents so enquire about how the bullying policy is enforced – you should get a sense that issues are dealt with fairly, firmly and consistently.

Visit education.ie to find out if the school you are interested in has had a recent Whole School Evaluation. These reports give a good insight into the positive aspects of a school but can often highlight weaker areas too. Find out what steps the school management has taken to improve areas of concern.

Of course when your child is going into junior infants your main concern is that they settle, make friends and get the chance to socialise. Over the years a lot can happen in a school particularly as teachers move on. Principals have different styles and a school can thrive and obtain a great reputation under different leadership. Sixth class may be a few light years away when your child seems to be just recently out of nappies, but it’s worth asking parents of children in sixth how they get on. Are they well prepared for assessment tests, are there any prevailing areas of concern, and have they blossomed educationally to their potential in preparation for secondary?

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Choosing a secondary school
Secondary is a very different environment and a lot for your child to get to grips with. Many parents know years in advance where they want their child to go, and then, their child may insist on going where their friends are headed. It’s a really good idea to take your child’s point of view into consideration. You may feel strongly that you want your child to go where you went to secondary, but schools change hugely in the intervening years and it’s important that you include your child in the decision making. You don’t want him turning around after a month declaring that he hates the place and it’s all your fault for forcing him to go. A successful open evening can be all it takes to change your child’s – and your – minds about the best next step. 

Also, don’t assume that the same school will suit all your children. There may be a strong emphasis on academic achievement that may not suit your child. Perhaps you have a very creative or sporty child on your hands, who you know will excel at specific subjects. Or perhaps you child has specific needs that need to be addressed.

Parental concerns can include bullying (is there zero tolerance) and how the school helps children to form friendships so that they’re not isolated, how policies are implemented, is there a breakfast club and homework club. Another consideration may be how the school does in state exams and what percentage of students go on to third level – because before you know it, your child will have mastered the school lockers and multiple teachers and may be thinking about the next step – college.

Catherine Devane