How To Know If Your Sending Your Kid to a Good School?

One of the biggest decisions for any parent, apart from buying a house, is selecting the right school for their child, especially secondary education. Every child is different and every school is different. Principal of CBC St Kilda Gerald Bain-King offers some practical and personal advice 

When my wife and I began looking for a school for our sons, we did the things most parents do. We listened to car park talk and kept an eye on open days and local newspapers. I had an advantage of being a teacher at the time, so I also talked to colleagues. But that wasn’t good enough for my wife; she undertook her own reconnaissance — driving past bus stops and local milk bars after school — hoping to see what the students were up to, how they treated one another and their general appearance.

So why all this effort? The fact is that secondary schools can be a mystery. Partly, this is because high schools are usually much bigger than primary schools, making them harder to penetrate. As is the case with parenting though, the fact is that educating adolescents is a tricky and complex business. Rightly, parents want a lot from the secondary school experience. Our check list will likely include an education that builds on our child’s numeracy and literacy skills, as well as a wide range of academic studies. We want good attitudes, habits and skills that create an appetite and love for lifelong learning. We will also require an education that enhances resilience, provides wide cultural experiences, improves social skills and fosters a sense of justice, morality and spiritual growth.

No doubt we’ll be looking for experiences in sports, outdoor education, leadership programs and musical productions. There’s also the need for safe and sensible peer groups. As a consequence, a successful school experience can be defined and measured in different ways. Importantly, for my wife and I at least, was the knowledge that the available data about schools is very narrow and only focusses on certain types of academic performance. Therefore, you have to be very clear in your own mind what you value, what’s negotiable and what your absolute priorities are. For this reason there are no easy recipes for the inquiring parent, as they create a check list to short-list schools. But there are helpful guidelines.

Like many of our friends we wanted our children to do well at school. Most of us had degrees and knew the power of a good education, but for us performance measures were not enough. We weren’t bringing up racehorses, but children. And like most parents we believed we were placing a precious cargo in the hands of the lucky school that would be educating our boys. We felt that the adolescent years ahead would not only be great fun but also awkward, delicate and complicated — especially as family influence took on a different tone with the impending influence of peer pressure. We firmly believed that if our carefully nurtured values were to remain intact then school had to be an extension of family.

As the principal of a Catholic secondary school, I’m privileged to talk to well over 200 families a year. And as a parent I try to identify the things that really matter to help other parents with their decision making. So, here are some of my guidelines for selecting the right school.

My first point is simple, but often easily forgotten or brushed aside during the countless debates about the effectiveness of schools. Schools are not the primary educators of the children they teach. Schools run a distant second to the primary educators, families, which form values, beliefs, habits and teach particular skills to their children. This learning takes place in every little parenting encounter, and it’s the results of these endeavours that parents form the spiritual, social, intellectual, emotional and physical infrastructure within each child. This is what schools build on. With the exception of some wonderfully gifted and inspiring people, if that parental infrastructure is not there, then a school will either fail or only partly succeed.

On the basis of this truism, parents should choose a school that shares the same values and beliefs. And I don’t mean, ‘I’m a Catholic, so I’ll choose a Catholic school’. Yes, you probably should, but you need to identify more specific values. For example, we wanted our sons to have learning that took into account their development as people. We were also keen for discipline processes that were logical, helped solve problems and didn’t employ fear, as well as spiritual development that took their age into account.

To find these things you need to visit the school and talk to people. Do the principal and the teachers explain things in ways that resonate with you? If they do, then you and the school are most likely on the same page which is critical because the school will build on your work and most importantly create coherence in the mind of your child during a period of significant change. Incoherence is the worst medicine you can give any adolescent.

My next point maybe a little controversial, or at least counter-cultural to many prevailing beliefs. At my school, CBC St Kilda we are fortunate to have some quite famous old collegians — some brilliant in their respective fields. Talking to one old collegian recently who heads an internationally recognised global corporation, I asked him to reflect on his education. He said it wasn’t the results he achieved that counted as much but the deeper learnings that gave him what he called ‘his platform’. The school, he said, fostered in him a sufficient belief in self to follow his passions in life. It also gave him the capacity to enjoy team work, gave him a love of learning that continued through life, and the ability to work without receiving instant gratification. Above all, his education encouraged, humility.

But surely high performance is the best path to success; whether it be NAPLAN, VCE or school assessment. Another old collegian, Tony Shepherd, who used to head the Business Council of Australia, thinks not. It is worth looking at the BCA’s views on what business wants from education in order that its prospective employees are best equipped for their working life.

  • Communication skills that contribute to productive and harmonious relations between employees and customers
  • Teamwork skills that contribute to productive working relationships and outcomes
  • Problem solving skills that contribute to productive outcomes
  • Self-management skills that contribute to employee satisfaction and growth
  • Planning and organising skills that contribute to long-term and short-term strategic planning
  • Technology skills that contribute to effective execution of tasks
  • Life-long learning skills that contribute to ongoing improvement and expansion in employee and company operations and outcomes
  • Initiative and enterprise skills that contribute to innovative outcomes.

My point here is not to dismiss performance per se, but to seek the deeper question. Will the school foster within your child capabilities in communication, teamwork, problem solving, initiative etc. or is it only focussed on achievement for the now? A good school knows that adolescents grow and develop at different rates; some will be brilliant at Year 12 while others may start to come into their own in their mid-20s. Lifelong learning is a long distance affair — not a race to the VCE — and good schools develop programs whose reach goes well beyond their six-year tenure.

So, I suggest as a parent you may know more than you think about education because most parents train their children for life — not just to do well as a six year old.  We call this a holistic education or developing the whole person. My key tips are:

  • Assess the vision of the school, not in pamphlets or websites but by speaking to the principal, teachers and students
  • Don’t be afraid to use your intuition — consider the atmosphere, and is it warm and engaging or is it formal and big on status
  • What do they promote most and is that the most important thing to you?
  • Do they encourage a range of opportunities to get to know the school or do you feel only welcome in certain ways and under pressure to decide?
  • Learn about the programs they offer, their learning philosophy and whether they can explain it simply enough so it makes sense to you?
  • Be suspicious of jargon and edu-speak and be especially suspicious if they talk down to you or imply that they’re the experts
  • Do they see learning as what happens in the classroom and all the other events as something else? The reality is that everything we do teaches children something, so schools should be purposeful in all they do
  • Is there variety in the programs that cater for different interests, abilities and skills?
  • How do they undertake discipline and is it educative or punitive?
  • Will they let you tour the school during school time? If they do observe how teachers relate to the students
  • Remember deathly quiet classes are as bad a sign as rowdy ones
  • Does the school have a balanced program where it takes seriously the arts and sports
  • What have they spent most of their money on, as that will tell you where their values are
  • Most importantly, avoid making choices based on what everyone else is doing because your family knows best

Our family moved house about eight years ago. During that time a wise estate agent gave us some canny advice. He said choose an area and price range and learn a bit about key real estate issues such as siting, house condition and layout. Be clear in your mind what will work best for your family. Visit lots of open houses and get to know that area really well. Once you know the area and the market, you will be more of an expert. Next, forget it all because you will have absorbed the ‘do’s and don’ts’ but continue looking. Once you see the house you want you’ll just know. It will feel right and that will be your intuition kicking in. The same applies to education. You need to do your research but once you’re done, don’t over analyse things. Instead, allow your intuition to make the final decision. It will feel right and that feeling will continue. Then you will know.


Gerald Bain-King retired as principal of CBC St Kilda at the end of 2019.