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27 Aug 2010 11:19
High school principals often boast about their matric results and the achievements of their sports teams. Boys-only schools are likely to focus on sport, whereas girls-only schools will focus more on matric results and cultural achievements.
Most of the better public and independent schools are also likely to place emphasis on their facilities, with computer rooms, white boards, swimming pools and Astroturf touted as part of their sales pitch.
Some will also brag of alternative examination systems such as the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) or Cambridge O- and A-levels, as if these somehow give the schools greater exclusivity. Many parents are taken in by these claims and, as a result, select a school for their child in the same way some of our politicians choose their apparel—it must have a designer label and it must be “bling”.
The problem with this approach is its focus on the outward façade of the school and not on the things that really matter.
The schools that are good, caring institutions are not so because of their fees, facilities or the size of their classes but because of the people who work in them—the teachers and support staff who will interact with your child on a daily basis.
Research into effective schooling consistently produces two factors that stand out for pupil success. There is strong evidence linking the ability of the teacher to engage pupil thinking through appropriate questioning and the teacher’s ability to select and use a range of teaching styles to improve learning and better academic performance.
The influence of the principal relates to his or her leadership and management skills and ability to create the kind of learning environment that will allow skilled and creative teachers to flourish.
How then do anxious parents, keen to give their children the best possible education, determine whether their choice of school is really as good as it pretends to be?
In the case of primary schools not linked to a high school, make enquiries about acceptance levels into the better local high schools. It should give you a good guide to the assessment standard of the school.
In the case of high schools, National Senior Certificate results provide the most objective measure of performance. Although a 100% pass rate is viewed by many political commentators as the ultimate measure of success, it is a fairly blunt instrument. Focus rather on the percentage of pupils who achieve a pass that allows them to enrol for a bachelors degree. Better still, ask the school to provide you with information about university acceptance rates for candidates and how those candidates performed once enrolled at university.
Don’t get bamboozled into believing that private examination bodies such as the IEB are somehow better than the National Senior Certificate exams that are written by all state schools or that the results from these alternative examination bodies are more acceptable to universities. It is simply not true.
In the end, choosing the right school for your child is about choosing the school that will best meet his or her needs. Much as we like to disparage our education system, it still includes public and independent schools that are as good as the best that the rest of the world can offer.
Alan Clarke is a former principal of Westerford High School in Cape Town and publisher of School Management and Leadership. He wrote the Handbook of School Management and the Handbook for School Governors. See www.ednews.co.za
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