Every child is unique. Every secondary school is unique. The trick is to make sure you find the school that best fits your child’s talents, needs and personality.
A great place to start is to examine each school’s climate and culture and the most pressing questions parents have about these important areas.
Q. I’ve heard friends discussing school climate and culture. What exactly do these terms mean and are they important?
A. School climate and culture are extremely important to your child’s happiness and success in secondary school just as they have been during their primary school years. The quickest way to describe school climate is to think of the warmth a school has as opposed to a school that is cold and somehow less welcoming. Naturally, a warm school has nailed the friendliness factor. Right from the person who greets visitors at the reception to the staff and cleaners, people are relaxed and friendly. You can see quite quickly if a school has the kind of people you feel comfortable about entrusting with the welfare of your child.
School culture refers to the things that are most valued in a school, the things that are most celebrated. Are glowing results valued more than the individual student? Are students who are not receiving glowing results subtly (or quite openly) encouraged to find another school before they reach senior levels where their results may ‘damage’ the public reputation of the school? As a parent, you should be certain that a secondary school you are considering for your child honours and welcomes every student regardless of their academic results. Some schools place a higher value on sporting achievements than achievements in the arts. It would be unwise to send a boy who dislikes sport into a school where the sports jocks are Gods and non-sporting boys are the brunt of constant jokes – if not bullying. Find a school that places an equally high value on sports as they do on art, drama and other cultural events and subjects. The culture of some schools works to produce graduates who are global citizens with a strong social conscience. These schools often have fund raising for international aid agencies as well as formal activities and programs to help less fortunate citizens in our community. When thinking about school culture, think about the kind of person you would like your son or daughter to become. Apart from offering a great academic education, does the school you are considering actively seek to nurture in your child the kind of values and ethics you feel will make a great human being?
Q. How can parents find reliable information about the climate of various secondary schools?
A. School climate is hard to fake. Here are some ways to measure school climate:
- As you go on school visits and information evenings, look carefully to see how relaxed and friendly staff really is. Does this look like a staged event or can you detect a really welcoming vibe?
- Often there will be student ambassadors taking groups of parents around the school during school tours or Open Days. Are these the kinds of young people you would like your child to grow into? Are they genuinely friendly and respectful or arrogant and pretentious?
- Drop into the school reception on a day that isn’t a formal Open Day or school tour and ask for a copy of the latest school newsletter. Do you detect a relaxed atmosphere in the reception? Is there a chill or a warmth in the air?
- If possible, speak to parents of current students. How does the school support students who are struggling with any issue – academic or personal? Is this a caring school?
- Park outside a school and watch students walking into the school one morning. Another day, observe students leaving the school at the end of the day. Do they seem happy, excited and full of youthful energy or are they subdued and looking as though they are entering and leaving a detention centre?
- Ask neighbours or shopkeepers in the local area whether this is a happy and friendly school for students. Most people are happy to share information when they know you are trying to make such an important decision.
- It’s also very telling to check the welfare support being offered in the school. Are students of all backgrounds, cultures and sexualities equally valued and supported in this community or are some excluded from the warmth of that school climate.
- If you want to ask a specific question about any aspect mentioned here, you should be able to approach a great (warm) school and receive an answer that reassures you. If the school appears to be ill at ease or reluctant to answer your questions, delve deeper. Schools with warm climates welcome parents and want you to feel valued and appreciated. They are not uncomfortable answering your questions.
Q. How can parents find reliable information about the culture of various secondary schools?
A. School newsletters reveal a lot about the culture of a school. Some are even published on school websites. What is being valued in this community? Do academic results feature far more than sport, music or extracurricular activities? Look at local newspapers and speak to local shopkeepers. What is the school known for? Are the students well-rounded, thoughtful and well-mannered citizens or are they a tad arrogant? What values are being imparted by the school? Do students give back to the community? Do they respect and honour diversity or is bullying of students who are in any way different almost tolerated? Would a boy who loves dance and drama be valued and safe in this school? What about a girl who wants to play Aussie Rules? The best school is the one who allows every student to be themselves and celebrates the uniqueness of each student.