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A secondary school where they belong

Choosing a secondary school for your child is a big decision, but how do you know the school is the right fit for your whānau? By Kate Barber 

What are your values and aspirations?

When we think about schooling and what we want for our children, we often place a lot of importance on academics. However, former guidance counsellor Louise Oskam urges parents to think more broadly about their aspirations for their child/ren when considering the right school. 

When looking for a school for their own daughter, Louise says, “we wanted somewhere she would be safe, somewhere she felt she belonged, and somewhere that reflected her cultural heritage. Long term, we wanted our daughter to be a contributing member of society, and our society is diverse. We were looking for somewhere she could excel academically if she chose to, but more than anything, we wanted to have a kind, compassionate daughter.”

One Canterbury principal we spoke with said that the best school for your whānau is “one that supports rangatahi to be able to be who they are, that allows them to follow their interests and supports them to engage in new opportunities.”

How do you know what a school is really like? 

Visit! Louise recommends visiting during school hours and not just on an Open Day. Meet with the principal and the person in charge of transitions. She reminds parents not to pay too much attention to a school’s reputation: “Don’t choose or write off a school based on the reputation it had when you were young, or because of its decile rating”, says Louise. “Go along and look at the leadership of a school – a strong leader will transform a school.”

Louise also suggests talking with students who go there and asking them what it’s like. Ultimately, you have to “trust your gut instincts”, she says. “What does it feel like here? Does it feel like a place that reflects your values?” 

What does your son or daughter think?

It is important young people are part of the process. As the principal we spoke with says, “young people want to have a voice. They want you to work with them rather than impose things on them.” They may well have slightly different priorities, but it’s important to consider them. Ask them how they felt about a school when visiting and talking with staff and students.

Louise also reminds parents that, just because a school is a good fit for your eldest child, their younger sibling might be much happier somewhere different.

When should you start thinking about options?

As soon as you move into an area, or even beforehand, think about your options, Louise says. Is there a school that reflects your values? “By high-school age, they are able to bus if you can afford that”, which may widen your circle of options.

What if your son or daughter is unhappy at school? 

As a guidance counsellor, Louise saw a lot of teenagers who were unhappy at school. She urges parents to “take it seriously when they tell you they don’t like school.” Sometimes changing schools is a good option; however, it’s important to consider carefully what the actual issues are. 

If you’re in a situation where changing schools isn’t an option, let them know it won’t always be like this and focus on the strengths and skills they’ll be developing as they navigate the challenges, says Louise. “Young people need hope and for there to be meaning to the issues they’re experiencing.”

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