Choosing A Secondary School

Choosing A Secondary School

It is the time of year in Victoria where parents of year six students choose or confirm their choice of secondary school for their child. (Known as high school in some states.) My eldest son is in year six and its his last year of primary school, so we are in this process right at this very moment.

Selection Criteria For A Secondary School

In Victoria, you can choose from three broad categories of schools:

  • Local government secondary school
  • Catholic secondary school
  • Independent secondary school

You can download an excellent PDF here which outlines some criteria and questions you should consider when looking at secondary schools. I have listed an excerpt below:

Some of the factors that may influence your choice are:

  • The size of the school
  • Specialist programs that the school runs, for example, services for Koori students, language programs
  • The school’s resources/facilities
  • The location of the school
  • The academic environment
  • The school’s values and ethos
  • Where your child’s friends are going.

Some examples of the questions you should ask at the school are:

  • What is the size of the school?
  • What are the number and size of classes?
  • How many teaching and non-teaching staff are employed at the school?
  • What support programs are available for children with special needs?
  • What are the schools policies in relation to discipline and bullying?
  • What is the focus of the curriculum (all government schools in Victoria adhere to the same curriculum although their focus and approach may differ)
  • How are the children assessed?
  • What is the policy on homework?
  • How much involvement is expected from parents?
  • Are there any extra-curricular activities?

Some areas for consideration I would add to the list would be:

  • Single sex vs co-educational
  • How do they manage student behaviour?
  • Turnover or length of tenure of teaching staff
  • How does the school interact with the local community ( eg aged care visits, social justice issues etc)

The Dilemma Of Choice

If you want to choose an Independent or Catholic secondary school for your child, in Melbourne in particular, this often requires parents to place their name on a waiting list from birth. For local government schools, it used to be a matter of going to the closest available secondary school, however the choice is not so clear cut as it once used to be. The range and diversity amongst government schools is significant. Some have specialist programs, some have accelerated learning programs and some are so popular that parents determine where they will live, so that they are in a particular zone to be eligible to attend that school.

I was recently listening to a podcast which discussed the school’s choice dilemma parents face. It was an interview on ABC Radio National by Richard Aedy with Helen Proctor. Proctor is the co-author of a new book School Choice: How parents negotiate the new school market in Australia.

This book is based on a major four-year research project funded by the Australian Research Council. The authors, Associate Professor Craig Campbell, Dr Helen Proctor and Professor Geoffrey Sherington are all from the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. The book:

Explores the dilemmas many parents face when choosing a school for their children, and the impact of the growing gap between public and private schools on families, schools and the community.

The big take out for me from this podcast was something that also makes writing this post a little uncomfortable. Aedy and Proctor discuss how school choice for secondary school is predominantly a middle class issue. At its bluntest they say that for those in lower economic brackets, there is not much choice and it is generally the local school option and for the wealthy, their isn’t the financial constraints to worry about in their choice. It is the middle class that have issues with “anxiety and aspiration”.

In the book Proctor et al, venture to define middle class into seven categories:

  • Old
  • New
  • Catholic
  • Cosmopolitan
  • First Generation
  • Self Made
  • Marginal

Our family would cut across a couple of those categories and given the time and thought that we have put into the choice of school for our son, I would have to say that we have been somewhat inflicted with the “anxiety and aspiration” that Proctor noted.

For our family our faith is important and we have chosen a school with faith being a key criteria, along with the schools ethos and values, its academic environment and commitment to community. Choosing a secondary school has been a significant decision to make and one which we have taken seriously. Time will tell how well we have chosen!

I would be interested to hear from others what selection criteria you used to decide on a secondary school for your child.


  1. Stitch Sista says

    Oh gosh such a loaded issue.

    Having grown up in Melbourne, and gone to Catholic school in Hawthorn (albeit a small inexpensive one which is now closed), I was surrounded by big independent schools and had friends from many of them. There was no way my family could afford to send me to one, even though I wished they would.

    My hubby on the other hand did all his high school in Canada, where there is very little choice. You just go to the big local high school and that’s that!

    So now that we have our own family we have talked about this stuff lots. He doesn’t understand or see the need to spend money on an independent school.

    The reality is, we have a big mortgage and it’s very unlikely we will have the money to send three children to independent schools. It wouldn’t be impossible, but I think it would be to the detriment of our overall lifestyle. Also we are zoned for what is considered a very good high school so we might as well use it.

    As I’ve got older, and essentially not really having a choice over this, I see this now too as a political/ideological issue. It very much bothers me to see the poor state of some of the public schools. It concerns me greatly that big money is used to fund independent schools, whereas some public schools seem to be deliberately neglected. There seems to be an agenda to get more people into independent schools (like private health) so that the government no longer have to fund public schools. I would love to see the government withdraw all funding from schools and instead provide a ‘voucher’ system of sorts where every child is allocated the same amount and puts it towards the school of their choice. It would need to be the equivalent of what it costs to fund a child in a government school. That way we can see the real cost of education, especially in independent schools.

    Anyway sorry for the rant. I guess this is me in the middle class…anxious and aspirant lol, but also a realist!

  2. says

    Now that we’ve settled on (and settled in) a primary school we’ve started thinking about this already….

    One of our biggest issues is distance. There is only one local state high school, it is big and so far we’ve not been very impressed with opinions and reports about the school. So that leaves us looking at independent schools… trying to juggle price with distance and the opportunities each school offers.

    It’s a nightmare, and it’s only just begun, but our choices are already limited by the fact that we’ve not chosen and put names down at schools already…. I just want to stick my head in the sand and ignore it all!!!!
    .-= katef´s last blog ..A House for a Tiger – Imaginative Play =-.

  3. says

    Me three on the middle-class anxiety & aspiration! Probably more intense in some ways because the major public secondary schools in my area are, not to put too fine a point on it, fairly craptastic, both academically and more importantly socially / environmentally (bullying, violence, etc are rife).

    It’s funny really, we have several lovely public primary schools (including the one my eldest is currently enjoying grade 1 at, which will also be attended by the younger two in due course). I would never have dreamt of going for an independent school for primary, it never even occurred to me. But for secondary we will almost certainly go independent or Catholic. We are not ourselves Catholic so that may in fact restrict choices even further as local Catholic colleges (and there are some very good ones) are often full of Catholic children and have no room for non-Catholics.

    The school I’d *love* to send them all to is a mid-priced independent with a great reputation for social justice involvement, fostering science / maths in girls, and general educational and social supportiveness. It’s well doable distance-wise as one of the school buslines runs from the next suburb (only 10-12 minutes’ drive for me to take them to the bus-stop, then 35 minutes on the bus for the child/ren). But when I say mid-priced independent, we’re still talking a number well in excess of $10k per child per annum. That is a LOT of money. A real lot! We could afford it if I worked 25 hours a week or more at my current pay level, but it’d be a stretch, and a hard one.

    Three other possibilities exist that might clear the way – 1) One or more of my daughters might be able to obtain a scholarship. They are all fairly bright so maybe! 2) Also, being brightish, one or more of them might obtain a place in a selective state school instead. 3) We might opt to send them to a local state school (best available) for years 7-8 and move them across to the independent school at year 9. Husband likes this option, I am less keen, remembering a dreadful year 7 myself at a poor high school.

    Enough rambling … time to get working on it, I think!
    .-= Kathy´s last blog ..Learning to eat =-.

  4. says

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is nice to know that I am not the only one who agonises over this issue. I feel quite conflicted as I truly believe we should have a strong public educations system, yet because of the reasons outlined above, we have chosen not to go public. When did this all get so tricky – choice can be a double edged sword!!!

  5. says

    We are already talking about secondary school options for Annie and she is only in grade one. The worry for us is that we have a gifted child who may slip through the cracks in the public school system but I don’t want her to be pushed too hard either. Husband went through local govt high school and I went to a private high school. So we have both experienced the good and bad points of both systems.

    We have to think about it now because if she go with private education we need to start saving straight away. The other option is that some schools offer scholarships but is the pressure worth it. Or we could homeschool as some friends do, a very common option when it comes to students with special needs, especially during high school when unfortunately their differences tend to single them out for bullying.

  6. Ellen says

    Stitch Sista – did you got o Kilmaire? I went there too for year 7:)

    My husband went to a state school and I went across the board – small Catholic school, exclusive Catholic school and then selective state school. I think academically if you child is that way inclined they will thrive anywhere but if you child is gifted or has learning difficulties I think that makes the choice harder.

    I am much more worried about my children enjoying learning than their actual results so we are looking at a nearby Christian highschool, faith is very important to us, where the children are nurtured and can flourish into a good thoughtful and kind adult.

  7. says

    We look for a few things:

    – It has to be non religious (each to their own of course, but this one is important to us)
    – We have to have a good feeling after talking to the principal and dealing with staff in general (I was turned off one school instantly simply by visiting their office!)
    – It has to be affordable.

    We’ve very fortunate in that we’ve just moved from a school in Sydney that had something like, I don’t know, 400-600 students, to a school in a little country town, which has 34 students TOTAL!

    My daughter’s class is a composite, and has 14 students in it. It’s a public school, but I love, love, love that student to teacher ratio! The kids apparently do very well at this school because of the low numbers, and any learning problems can be picked up on and dealt with straight away. They also have an excellent orientation program, which I’m completely blown away by.

    If I felt we weren’t happy with the options presented to us, we would homeschool our kids again.
    .-= Hear Mum Roar´s last blog ..How to make fingerpaint the easy way =-.

  8. says

    My wife and I met at a State Government High School and both have good memories of school. My mum was a teacher in a state school. For our three kids however we chose to send them to a Christian School. In our area we have three to choose from.

    I started working a couple of days a week at Covenant Christian School in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I do their website and other fun stuff. I was so impressed I transferred my kids there.

    We wanted our kids to enjoy a rich education. Plus I want teachers who will work with me and not undermine my role as a parent. (I admire homeschoolers!!) I no longer believe there is such a thing as a neutral education. It all comes from a worldview, a faith, an understanding of what is and isn’t important. What schools decide to focus their energies helps kids understand and discover what is important inlife. It is impossible for anyone – including teachers – to leave their beliefs at the door of a classroom and just teach “facts”. In choosing a school you are choosing a culture or an environment for your child.

    Actually I never saw myself as a “Private School” person. I like Covenant for its relaxed family atmosphere – the generous family discounts also help though!