You’ve just got the kids off to school and now it’s time to start thinking about their next steps.
Most secondary schools will be hosting Information Evenings or Open Days in the next month and that’s a good place to start, but you can’t decide a school’s merit based on this one visit. You need a more thorough picture of what it can offer your child.
Whether you’re sending your precious bundle off to Day 1, Year 1 or pushing a belligerent teen out the door to high school there’s plenty to consider. Weighing up what each school says they offer and working out what’s important for your specific child is a complicated balancing act.
Even narrowing down a short list can be a challenge when there’s as much choice as Hawke’s Bay offers.
State, private, integrated, special character, church-based, single-sex, co-ed, full primary … each comes with its own package of pros and cons. Equally, each child is different and what might have been perfect for James may not suit Jack who’s coming along behind.
BayBuzz talked with Mums who are also experienced teachers, they emphasise that choosing the right school goes beyond reading ERO reports and studying achievement stats.
Catherine Bentley is the principal of Hastings Girls High School, which has a roll of nearly 700. With her youngest child in his final years of high school and two daughters in tertiary she’s spent the last thirty years considering school choice from a personal and professional perspective.
Kate Field, deputy head (pastoral care) at Hereworth School, a private prep school for boys in Havelock North, also has three children. Now in their teens, all three boys went to Hereworth but made individual decisions for their secondary school based on their particular strengths and interests.
Vinka Donkin, learning leader at Taradale Intermediate, one of the biggest intermediates in Hawke’s Bay, has a teenage daughter and twin ten-year-olds who will join her at Taradale next year. She has been teaching in intermediate schools since 1997 and is an advocate for the structure that some parents struggle with.
Here is their advice.
Piecing it together
Many families question the concept of two years spent in a separate intermediate school, a hangover from 1950s education system, but it can be a necessary evil with very few full-primaries (1-8) on offer in the Bay. Vinka herself went to Havelock North Intermediate and is an advocate. “It was a really positive experience for me, it’s about opportunities and trying things you can’t do at primary.”
As rolls have grown, some intermediate schools have lost classrooms specifically meant for the more hands-on subjects that once dominated years 7 and 8. But these are an important part of the success when intermediates work well.
“It’s about discovering something new,” says Vinka. “Students have to make choices early at secondary school so it’s important they are given tasters at intermediate.”
At intermediate age – 12 and 13 – doing beats thinking, so practical programmes (mixed materials, food technology) are a vital part of the curriculum. Some intermediates can offer more in this area than others.
“Those specialist subjects are a big reason people come, they can physically do stuff, kids this age like the challenge.”
Full primaries aren’t for everyone. For some, it’s a big step to go from a small group and one teacher to a range of teachers and rooms; self-management and motivation are emphasised. But, particularly for children who have had a negative experience during their primary years, Intermediate can mean a clean slate.
“Park it to the side, this is a new start… it’s a special place because of that,” says Vinka.
A smaller school with fewer students can be preferential for what it can offer too.
Kate Field at Hereworth explains that when students and teachers know each other over a number of years, strong bonds can form. “There’s a feeling of tolerance and acceptance,” she explains.
“It allows the boys to be younger for longer,” she says. “The environment here lends itself to still having play as an important part of their lives … you’re old for a long time!”
When it comes to choosing single-sex options over co-ed, Kate, who’s experienced both modes as a parent, says balance within the full school experience is key. If a child has attended a single-sex school before high school then looking at co-ed options for secondary could be a good move, and vice versa. Each offer something unique and at specific stages one may be more suitable than the other for a particular child.
Kate feels there’s a gap in the education landscape in Hawke’s Bay that would offer much to families: a co-ed intermediate campus with single-sex classes. Socially co-ed is healthy, but boys and girls are so different when it comes to in-class education that separating them can be helpful.
“Boys are more likely to volunteer and put their hands up without girls in the classroom,” says Kate. “Boys can be goofy, where girls mature earlier, and boys are more inclined to back themselves without girls there.”
Whether single-sex or co-ed, Kate is a proponent for smaller class-sizes. And she believes smaller schools overall can mean every child is ‘seen’ for their individual strengths that may not be in class work but are just as valid.
Catherine Bentley has led Hastings Girls since 2017. But she also has experience in small, quite traditional, special character schools and large contemporary state-based co-ed schools. Across the full spectrum, shifting thinking about what student success is, is paramount to supporting kids to understand their self-worth.
“Parents get really caught up in what ‘achievement’ looks like,” Catherine explains. Choosing a school based solely on achievement statistics will mean parents miss focusing on far more important offerings.
“Right from when they set out, the education system is set up to just measure one fragment of what that child can do … that’s very sad.”
Catherine says building soft-skills, which are challenging to measure in an assessment context, can be more valuable to the whole child than simply aiming for merits and excellences.
“People get focused on that kind of success: trophies, badges, accolades. That’s doing nothing to build grit, resilience, EQ.”
She challenges parents to embrace those things as much as aiming high. Knowing your specific child and what they need is paramount, as is ‘measuring’ growth and improvements in these areas as your child moves through their learning.
“As a system, we don’t go anywhere near valuing social and cultural competencies, they are all teachable skills. That real emotional intelligence that’s so vital, but we don’t measure it.”
Using the New Zealand national school curriculum as a framework rather than a how-to guide is important, with every school interpreting the document differently and for the specific needs of their students and communities.
Asking questions about how the school does that will bring up interesting conversations and gives insights into the culture and ideology of the school.
Interpreting the curriculum is complex and can require some translation between teach-speak and what makes sense to parents, but having these conversations is worth the effort.
How curriculum is delivered
Hastings Girls High School is radically reframing the way the curriculum is delivering to the needs of Year 9 and 10 students. It’s a good example of the flexibility possible when it comes to innovation within the curriculum: “It’s not about tools, it’s about the shape of it, the focus, students being able to make choices,” explains Catherine Bentley.
The difference between what was offered in a school 20 years ago and what’s offered now should look more like revolution than evolution. Even if you’re considering a school you know well – you might have been a student there yourself – looking for how it’s delivering to the needs of the future is important.
“The world has changed so rapidly in ten years, so if the curriculum looks the same as it did when you were at school, you’ve got a bit of a problem,” says Catherine. “Important too is providing a curriculum that challenges students, finds their passions, hooks them in, to give them that engagement.”
At primary school level that new emphasis on soft skills may be as simple as a school expecting that children will get involved in things outside their natural comfort zone.
“We’re big on everyone giving it a go – if boys see others having a go they will too,” says Kate Field of Hereworth. “Having an expectation of participation is very important, it’s not just about academics, it’s about growing the whole child, giving them all a chance to experience success.”
In some schools this adaption to a modern context is clearly articulated and definitive.
Taradale Intermediate centres its offering around collaboration and a cross-discipline approach. Teachers are transdisciplinary and work across traditional subject lines. They also bring their personal passions and other supporting skills and experience to their work. The teaching style is inquiry-based with students and teachers working together to follow question lines and build a collective understanding of a topic. Teachers are coaches, head researchers, guides, but rarely the person at the front of the room with a whiteboard marker and all the answers.
The approach sparks curiosity, stimulates communication, builds capability across a range of areas. The main aim is to grow a passion for learning. Intermediate is the perfect place to get this right. Vinka Donkin: “If they can leave here still loving learning and knowing they can learn, that’s really important.”
A controversial addition to this contemporary model is large classes. Two or three classes together in one room with multiple teachers is becoming more common. Some parents feel nervous about this, but Vinka believes classroom management is key and teachers experienced in the specific age-group they are teaching. “Class sizes don’t matter, they have nothing to do with it,” she says.
Taradale runs composite classes across years 7 and 8 with a variety of teaching and structure styles. They have 20 classes, each with its own ideology and idiosyncrasies. There’s a collaborative class with 60 kids and 2 teachers, two extension classes for children who are achieving well above the standard, in 2021 if the demand is there they would like to offer a whānau class with a te ao Maori focus.
Alongside what’s happening in the classroom, pastoral care is becoming an increasingly important part of what a school offers. It’s easy for parents to focus on results that are easy to measure; asking questions about student wellbeing is more important and more complex. Every school is different, but conversations with lead teachers will throw up where the emphasis is for that particular school.
At intermediate age, Vinka Donkin says, anxiety – what she calls ‘worried students’ – is a huge issue. To help combat it, Taradale Intermediate has a fulltime pastoral care worker. This gives students and their families an extra tool with some distance from what’s happening in the classroom or at home. Addressing issues in a timely manner is crucial.
“Children of this age have unique needs in pastoral care. Social and emotional needs do need to be met and addressed, it’s far too late by high school,” says Vinka.
It’s at intermediate that children can slip through gaps, but that care package is important too at primary and secondary.
“Wrapped around academics, sport and culture is that care programme that’s special, where everyone knows who everyone is,” says Kate. She explains that even in larger primary schools making sure the full picture of each individual child is ‘seen’ by at least one significant teacher is important and something parents should investigate. Who will be your child’s go-to when you’re not there.
Making a specific choice for your specific child is the most important bit, instead of what’s easy or what’s been done before in the family. Rather than focusing only on the needs of children at either end of the ability spectrum, even kids in the middle can benefit from considered thought about where suits them best.
For Kate, her son’s invisibility at school when he first started primary made her rethink her initial choice. His area of strength was not in the curriculum but on the cricket pitch.
“That was his chance to shine.” With Hereworth being small “everyone knows everyone” and because teachers take co-curricular activities, wins on the field spill into the classroom. Hereworth is out of reach for many families but the same principle applies. Smaller schools can work better for some children while others flourish in big schools.
Vinka Donkin feels her personal circumstances mean even if she didn’t teach at Taradale, a big school, as it is, would be her choice. “Being a mother of twins, a big school is important to me. When Jack and Scarlett arrive next year they’ll be at opposite ends of the school, other children might not even know they are twins.”
Focusing on your child, their needs and personality, and what else they’ve got going on in their lives is useful.
“When you’re looking for a school think about the match for your child not for you.” Advises Catherine Bentley. “Look past activities and the whiz bang, listen to what teachers are saying and how they’re interacting, because it’s about relationships.”
At different times relationships with peers have more or less importance in choosing a school. Catherine Bentley counsels against selecting a school based solely on friendships.
“It’s not about where your child’s friends are going,” she says. “It will be tough at some stage and you need to have more to fall back on (regarding school selection) than just ‘their friends are there’.”
At intermediate, friendships are a focus for kids, and that spills into relationships with the adults around them.
“A school needs to be really relational. (At this age) relationships are more important than learning,” explains Vinka Donkin, but she warns against adults going off what their friends tell them about a school. Seeing for yourself, thoroughly exploring options and talking to potential schools are vital parts of the decision-making process.
“Word of mouth can be good, but it can also be quite negative; one negative experience that hasn’t been restored can be damaging,” she says.
The details differ from school to school, prospectuses can be impressive, websites can tell a good story, but visiting in person (Open Days and on any given day) are well worth it. Number one though is going with your gut. No matter who you talk to that’s an across the board must.
Vinka Donkin: “Every parent is looking for something different, but… How welcome did you feel, how happy did the school feel, what’s the principal like and are they available, what’s the communications like, they’re all great measurements.”
Catherine Bentley sees the issues for parents in choosing what’s right for their family but, in general, there are a range of options with something to suit most kids. “We are spoilt for choice in Hawke’s Bay, there’s a lot of schools in close proximity. It’s about the feel, so be intuitive.”
Finally, handing the decision over to the very person it affects most, could be the right choice. “Do the mahi first, make the decision on which schools you will consider, shortlist, then say, ‘Now it’s your decision’.”
A Mother’s Perspective
Lucy Rochester has five kids from 5 to 15. With five schools now their day-to-day reality, the Rochesters are pretty experienced when it comes to reading what a school can offer.
They’ve had some negative and some very positive experiences.
One intermediate choice for their older children means the family now travel further to attend an intermediate that works better for them. The old school was close by, but flawed.
“I feel they are badly led; bullying is out of control. A lot of people have abandoned the school,” says Lucy. “There’s no accountability of things that happen. Teachers are stretched, stressed and ‘over it’, and they say that to the kids.”
Even though the school was convenient, it wasn’t right and they’ve now moved to another. Not being afraid of making change, or having children at different schools is a bold choice.
Each Rochester child has a different picture of what success looks like for them. One is particularly social, one very bright – “He needs to be challenged,” says Lucy. One prefers the preforming arts and one is so soft and gentle that anything too myopically academic would be a strain.
“She loves adults and wants to be with teachers so she signs up for stuff!” says Lucy. “Guitar, karate, cross-fit, a lot of things that aren’t academic. She’s happy to involve herself in all sorts of things.”
In contrast, another child aces everything academic. He attends a school that embraces that. There are trade-offs. At intermediate he was a keen sportsman, now at a single sex secondary school he’s been put off. Getting it just right can be challenging, but a kid’s self-determination can offset that.
The Rochester’s middle child made a decision not to follow her older sister to a co-ed high school.
“She didn’t want to be around boys because she’d been picked on by lots of boys, not is a really awful way. But she said, ‘I don’t want to be around boys any more’.” Lucy explains: “She’s very good at sport. Boys were telling her she was too short, too slow, just being silly boys, but it was constant. She was keen to get away from that.”
With the youngest Rochester just starting her school journey, Lucy has a good perspective on how each part of the education puzzle fits together.
Every element has a different job to do, but proactive, enthusiastic teachers and strong teacher-parent relationships are the constant. And choosing schools could just come down to gut.
“Ask around 100%,” Lucy says. “Ask people who have been through the schools. Definitely go and meet the teachers before you make a decision. Mainly though, just go with your instincts.”
Evaluating Schools – ‘Best Practice’
- Schools do have important differences.
- Therefore, they — and school staff — should be eyeballed firsthand.
- Look deeper than just the academic barometers – consider the total school environment or culture.
- Beware of anecdotal claims/grievances — another reason to eyeball yourself.
- Similarly, kids do differ — make sure you’re clear about your child’s idiosyncratic needs before heading to the schools.
- Some schools will suit their unique needs better than others.
- Remember who the school is for — what worked for you might not work for your kid.
- Involve your student in the process.
- Look ahead – if you’re thinking about where to send your 13-year-old, quiz 18-year-olds about their experiences.
- Communication is king – get your head around how a school connects teachers to parents and make sure you get involved.