Make the grade

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. The better independent schools, in an effort to trump the facilities and triumphs of the better public schools, will tell of small classes and the individual support they are able to provide because of this.

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?

  • Speak to parents who have a child at the school and ask them whether their child is happy, whether he or she is doing well academically and whether he or she is involved in extracurricular programmes.
  • When asking about the school’s extramural programme, focus on the range and diversity of the activities that are offered and the levels of participation.
  • Drive past the school at different times of the day, including when the formal school day begins and ends. Observe the children. Are they happy, relaxed and cheerful and is there a sense of order and respect for one another and for passers-by?
  • If the school has an open day, use it to take a walk through the school, keeping your eyes open for the tell-tale signs of a well-managed, child-centred institution.
  • In the case of primary schools, inquire about the performance of pupils in the externally set grade three and grade six systemic assessment conducted by the department of basic education. Some of the more affluent schools may also make use of similar internationally benchmarked tests such as the Schools International Assessment task tests developed by the University of Queensland in Australia. These tests provide schools with an accurate measure of the proficiency of their pupils in the key areas of literacy and numeracy.

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

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