Five tips for choosing a school – and three things to avoid

by Julie Sonnemann and Peter Goss

Published by The Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday 17 March

Choosing the right school for your child is tough. You are often influenced by proximity to home, whether the school is public or private, or the shiny buildings and manicured grounds – none of which matter much to student learning.

Fortunately there is increasing research about what school approaches have the biggest impact on student learning (while 21 st century skills are a big priority, there is limited evidence on how to measure or teach them in schools – but that is a topic for another time).

So, if you want to give your child the best chance of a good academic education, here are five things you should look for, or ask about:

1. Does the school focus on students’ learning progress over time, not just their achievement at a point in time? The amount of progress a student makes during their years at school is the best indicator of the impact the school has had. Achievement results often tell you less about school quality and more about the wealth and educational attainment of student families. Schools should discuss not only raw NAPLAN results, but also the gain in NAPLAN points as students move from year 3 to year 5, or year 7 to year 9, compared to similar students.

2. Do teachers provide a good balance of ‘explicit’ (teacher-led) and ‘inquiry-based’ (student-oriented) approaches? Some schools go too far with inquiry approaches. International test results show that students in countries that predominantly use inquiry-based approaches do less well. Explicit teaching approaches can help build foundational skills and introduce new ideas; inquiry-based teaching can then deepen understanding and the ability to apply what is learned.

3. Do the teachers regularly assess what students can do in class? Unfortunately, testing is a dirty word in some schools. But good teachers conduct regular assessments so they can identify what students are ready to learn next and target their teaching. The aim is not to judge the student, but to help the teacher do their job better.

4. Is there sensible standardisation of teaching materials and assessment tools? It’s a waste of time
and a threat to quality if teachers are constantly being asked to create new materials and tools.
Teachers should share high-quality lesson plans, teaching approaches, subject materials and textbooks.

5. Do the top teachers give guidance and feedback to the rest of the teaching staff? Top teachers
should help guide teaching practice, through coaching and opportunities to observe their colleagues in the classroom and provide feedback.

On the flipside, here are three things you should be wary of:

1. Schools that over-emphasise small class size. Reduced class sizes offer little benefit for very high cost unless they are very small, ie below 20 students.

2. Schools that frequently hold back struggling students for a year. Evidence suggests this generally hinders rather than helps their learning.

3. Primary schools that do not embed phonics into how they teach reading. They are ignoring perhaps the strongest evidence available on what works best.

One final thing, which moves beyond academic learning and what is known in the research. You might want to think twice about choosing a school where the other students are just like your child. Being exposed to diversity might just improve your child’s social and cultural learning – important for their understanding of their local community and the wider world.