Private schools aren’t always the answer for a “perfect” education, warns education expert

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Head of Academics at ADvTECH schools, John Luis, warns parents not to assume that a private school is automatically the best choice for their child. “Just as with public schools, quality and performance vary from school to school, and it is incorrect to assume that just because a school is private, it is automatically the best choice for your child,” says Luis.

He says the philosophy, approach, and capacity of various private schools are vastly different, and that a school should be selected only after consideration of the specific needs of the child to see how they match to potential schools.

Luis urges parents to scrutinize promises schools make against their track record. “Parents must firstly make sure that the overall ethos of the school is a good match to the family and the child,” he says.

“When visiting schools – a non-negotiable part of the process of selection – parents should observe the learners and their interactions among each other and with teachers. One should ideally get a good sense that the environment is safe and stimulating and that the school has all the resources and facilities one expects from an environment in which academic excellence can become possible.”

He also adds that parents should also look at the long-term performance of schools and their students, to ensure that learners are equipped not just to excel at school, but also to flourish in higher education and beyond. “Schools should no longer be operating in the way they did ten or even five years ago, with the approach of imparting knowledge top-down, and learners being exam-focused parrots. That does not serve us in the real world out there anymore and will do so even less in future. Globally schools are moving towards empowering learners with the kinds of skills they need for our new workplaces – skills such as being able to creatively problem-solve, research, communicate and self-manage,” he says.

Offering similar advice to parents of pre-primary learners is Trudie Gilmore who is the Assistant General Manager at ADvTECH Junior Colleges. Gilmore says there are few things that instill more anxiety and apprehension in parents than the task of finding the right school for their child’s first foray into education. “The choices can be overwhelming, the deadlines are impossibly early, and the pressure to get it right is huge,” she says.

She advises parents looking for pre-primary schools to structure their search as follows:

1. Start your search at least one school year prior to attending, and note that many schools take applications as early as just after a child’s birth. Schools should have viewings scheduled throughout the year, and you should attend these at all of the schools you have identified. If you missed the boat on timing, call around and arrange as many visits as you can. Most have waiting lists, and there are often last-minute openings. Be persistent by checking back in and being proactive.
2. Attend an Open Day or Expo to hear about the philosophy, admission process and much more, then submit the application and registration fee. You can view the school while classes are in session, and we recommend that you bring your child to spend time in the classroom. Be ready with a notebook on the viewing, and bring a list of all your questions to be answered.
3. Know how often and how long you’d like your child to attend. Children usually attend preschool anytime from 3 months to 6 years of age. Most schools should offer half-day and full day programs. Check that you are happy with the programs for both the morning and the afternoon if your child will be there for the full day.
4. Assess the quality of children’s relationships with the staff. Pay close attention to the language used in the classroom and the friendliness of the staff. View a few different classrooms while school is in session to see how the teachers interact with the children.
5. Check if the primary school offers home-to-school connections, which are important as preschools that have high family involvement are often the schools with the strongest programs. When families are involved, children do better, teachers feel supported and everyone works together for the children’s learning and development.
6. Also, check if the preschool has structure. High-quality preschools have a structure: They follow a specific philosophy or model and have specific guidelines for addressing challenging behaviour. Discipline policies should emphasize positive approaches to teaching children new skills and proactive strategies for behaviour management such as classroom rules, routines, and social-emotional lessons or curriculum.

As the needs of children in pre-primary school differ from those of children in primary and high school, Morag Rees, Principal of Crawford College Sandton, says that to be academically excellent, a school should not only provide enriching, empowering and meaningful learning opportunities which challenge students’ thinking, assumptions, and abilities. Rees says in addition to this, schools should also ensure that these learning opportunities provide a foundation for further study and successful future lives.

Rees advises parents to consider when looking at schools include the following:

1. The culture of the school, which includes things such as diversity, community awareness, priorities (e.g. academics, leadership development, cultural activities and/or sports), student interaction, and commitment to learning.
2. Travelling distance is also a consideration – especially if the child and parents want to be fully involved.
3. Teaching philosophy and school ethos should align with the learner and parents’ expectations.
4. The school’s track record over the long term, which means not just looking at last year’s matric results.
5. The options available to learners in terms of subject choices, extra murals, and genuine interest in offering every student opportunities.
6. The staff and faculty (qualifications, personalities, passion, genuine commitment to students and education).
7. Awareness of current education trends and research, and using technology in a relevant way.

“With the proliferation of private schools catering to a much bigger section of the population than ever before, parents may understandably be excited at the prospect of being able to give their kids ‘the best’, even if it entails some sacrifice,” says Luis.
“But we urge parents to do their homework and to ensure that the sacrifice is not a blind one, because of a cookie-cutter education – even if it is at a private school – is not desirable. Parents should ensure that the school they choose is able to tailor their offering to take into account each child’s uniqueness, that it is an enabling environment, that it encourages relationship building, and that it is optimally conducive to learning and development.

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