Home » Doing Drugs with Paul Dillon » What makes a good school great? How do you choose a school that’s right for your child?

What makes a good school great? How do you choose a school that’s right for your child?

As most of you know I do not have children (as I always say in my talks, if I did, they’d live in a cellar, be chained to a wall and never be let out – I say that in jest but to be honest I’m not really sure what I would do!), but I am frequently asked by parents (and particularly friends who are parents), if I did have children, what schools would I send them to and why?

I come into contact with almost 200 schools each year, across all sectors – public, Catholic and Independent – and I continue to be impressed by the amazing things I see across the country. I don’t want to get into the whole ‘public or private’ debate – parents make a choice about whether they’re going to put extra money into their child’s education based on a whole pile of things. Certainly faith can play a role for some people (although it would appear this group of parents is getting much smaller) but for many, it’s simply they want to ensure that their child has the ‘best education’ that they can afford. Whether a private school education provides that depends very much on what you mean by ‘best education’.

At this point I need to say that when I taught (many years ago now!), I chose to teach in the public system. I try to think back now to whether I considered entering the private system and I honestly don’t think it even crossed my mind! I can’t tell you why I made that choice and I don’t know whether I would make the same choice today but there it is …

So back to ‘where would I send my children and why?’

Over the past 20 or so years that I have been visiting schools across the country I have seen a tremendous change in how schools ‘sell’ themselves. Years ago it was all about results (e.g., how many Year 12 students got into university?) and I’m certainly not saying that has completely gone, of course ATARs are important. For some, particularly some of the elite boys’ schools, it was about sporting achievements or what famous people had been students in the past. Increasingly, however, I’m seeing schools that are promoting their pastoral care (as they are referred to in the Catholic and Independent systems) or well-being (public schools) programs as a ‘selling point’ to parents trying to work out where they should send their kids and, for me, these programs and how they are rolled-out are really what makes a good school great!

Pastoral care means different things to different people, but my definition is simple – it is ‘the way in which a school demonstrates it cares for the student as an individual’. It is the procedures and practices that schools put into place to ensure that no child ‘falls through the cracks’. Primary schools do this incredibly well due to the nature and style of teaching at that age (one teacher across one year, interactive learning and relatively small class sizes) but at high school it is so much more difficult. Teachers don’t just teach one class of 25-30 students across a year, they may teach hundreds across many classes and it is a struggle for some to even get to learn all their students first names, let alone anything about what is going on in their lives – in that sort of environment it is incredibly easy for a student to just get lost in the crowd …

Quality pastoral care builds ‘resilience’. Those with greater resilience are less fazed by setbacks than others and clearly
show a greater ability to ‘bounce back’, no matter what life throws at them. It is important, therefore, to try to make our young people as
resilient as possible, hopefully protecting them against the
stresses and adverse situations that they will encounter as they go through
life. One of the best ways for schools to build resilience is to ensure that young people develop ‘connectedness’ or a ‘sense of belonging’. Teens are at a stage of their life when they are pulling away from their parents and trying to establish their own identity. Their once strong connectedness to the family can often be tested. A positive relationship with the school and a ‘sense of belonging’ to something they view as important at this time can play a powerful role in keeping a teen as safe as possible.

When I visit a school these are the kind of things I look for from a pastoral care perspective:

  • what does the front office look like and who is behind the desk? Some of the ladies I have met across the country who have these front office roles are incredible human beings! They have been at the school forever and when I hear them talking to students, often knowing each of them by name, it just blows me away … you can tell so much about a school from the front office staff …
  • do students freely approach teachers to talk to them as they’re walking through the school? What are the interactions like? I often sit outside during lunchtime and simply count the number of interactions I see, how long they last and how the student looks as they leave the conversation – this tells you so much about the quality of the teacher-student relationships at the school
  • how often do teachers address students using their first name? Most probably the most important thing that I look for when I visit a school and such a simple test … Whenever possible I note down the names of students who come up and talk to me after a presentation and when I visit the following year I do my best to approach them and talk to them using their name. You have no idea how special that makes that young person feel! Sometimes they are literally left speechless that I remembered them and it takes such a small amount of effort and has such a huge impact …
  • what does the staff room look like and how do staff interact? When I taught the staff room was abuzz at recess and lunchtime, that is not always the case today. So often teachers are so busy that they never ever get to the staff room, instead staying in their faculty areas. Smart principals are now realizing that it is so important that staff across faculties interact and talk – when you go to a school where staff rooms are busy and social, teachers are happier, they’re communicating across faculties and this positive energy flows onto the students

I’d like to make it very clear that if I do not feel that the school is not doing a good job in this area and that doesn’t look like changing anytime soon, I usually don’t go back! The work I do in a school hangs very much on what is done pastorally, if it isn’t followed-up by teachers and if there aren’t quality conversations about what I raised during my presentations, there really isn’t much point in me going back. In those situations the school is simply ‘ticking a box’ and we know that doesn’t work – it’s a waste of the school’s money and my time!

Of course, some of the things I discussed above are not easily assessed by parents when visiting a school to work out whether it is appropriate for their child. That said, I believe there are some simple questions a parent should ask a school that are able to give you a good idea about their pastoral care programs and whether what is happening at school will help ensure that your child does not fall through the cracks and at the same time, help build their resilience …

  • what pastoral care (or well-being) programs are run across the school?
  • are there specific pastoral care sessions allocated across the years or is it integrated across the curriculum? What you want to hear here is that there are a mixture of both – a school that knows what they’re doing will tell you that pastoral care is embedded across all that they do … if they do, ask them for an example 
  • who is responsible for pastoral care? (if you don’t get the answer – “All teachers are pastoral care teachers at this school?” there’s an issue!)
  • will there be a specific teacher responsible for my child’s pastoral care? This will either be a Year Co-ordinator or a homeroom teacher or the like and a good follow-up question would be “How many students is that teacher responsible for?” As much as smaller numbers are better in many ways (the larger the group, the greater the risk of them slipping under the radar), the quality of the teacher and their commitment to the concept of pastoral care is so much more important
If you’ve elected to put your child through the state system you do not usually have the choice of what school you child attends. This does not mean, however, that you don’t have the right to ask the same questions. In fact, I think it is vital that you do … this year I have attended amazing state schools that have incredible well-being programs but that is not always the case (just as it is across the other sectors), asking the right questions (in an appropriate and respectful way) may make those schools more likely to assess their programs and try to improve what they are doing.
As already said, parents choose the school (and/or the system) they want their child to attend based on a whole range of things. For me, the most important thing a school should provide is a place where the students feel valued and important – once they have that, they have the best chance of learning and reaching their full potential. Secondary school can be a tough place (I know it was for me!) and when you add all the trials and tribulations of adolescence to the mix, it is important that we try to ensure that the experience, although not always pleasant for many, is as safe as possible.
Sure, look at their results. If your son or daughter is sporty, take a look at the sports programs the school offers and of course the same goes for music and drama and the like. But isn’t the most important thing that your child feels safe and valued? Without that, it doesn’t matter what their ATAR score is or whether or not they make the school football or rowing team – it’s all becomes a little bit pointless!
I can think of two schools that I visited this year (one in the state system and the other an elite Independent school) that simply ‘oozed’ quality pastoral care. From the moment you stepped onto the school grounds you could almost feel positive energy … the front office staff were amazing (one of the women walked around her desk and warmly shook my hand when she greeted me – unbelievable!), the teachers were buzzing and the quality of their interactions with students were a joy to see, both staff rooms were packed (both had functions on the day I visited and there was such a positive atmosphere) and the kids were amazing. But in both schools it was the principal that made the greatest impact … When you get dropped off at a school in the morning and the principal is standing at the front gate greeting students (often by name!), and they then take time out of their extremely busy days to make an appearance at least one of my sessions and say hello, you certainly know that that school is being led by someone who genuinely cares about the students and what is going on in the school and in their lives. Good pastoral care often seeps down from the top … when you have a principal who’s committed to it, you can pretty well guarantee you’re going to see it throughout the whole school. 

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