Colman Noctor: The myth of the right school

Parents need to think of their child's needs and interests when choosing a secondary school  
Colman Noctor: The myth of the right school

Picture: iStock 

It is hard to believe my eldest child is in fifth class. It seemed he was cryogenically frozen in the spring of third class when the first lockdown was announced. Now he is thawing out only to find that moving to secondary school is a topic of conversation in the playground.

It’s widely believed that the choice of secondary school will have a significant impact on the kind of adult a child will become. It is no surprise then that the various options are carefully researched and discussed. Indeed, many parents will agonise over the decision.

The first consideration is the child’s preference, often the source of dispute. Customarily the child wants to go to the same school as their peers. Parents are aware that friendships can be transitory – particularly as children move between primary and secondary school - and worry about making an important decision on this basis. This is an interesting justification for dismissing the views of the child and one I would warn against.

Mixed or single-sex school?

The next issue is whether to send your child to a co-educational or single-sex school. It’s often said that boys do better in mixed-gender environments than girls do, but this may come down to the young person and is almost impossible to predict as children’s attitudes to the opposite sex can change quickly.

The other factor is the personal preference or indeed the parent’s own experience of attending a single-sex or co-educational school. In some cases, the single-sex school is chosen because mum or dad had a positive experience of a certain single-sex school, and they want to replicate that experience for their child.

Next comes the issue of logistics and spaces available in your locality. For many parents, the geographical location of the school will be an all-important variable and understandably so. Your child attends school five days a week so the convenience of the commute is a vital component. Is it on route to your workplace? You will need to consider commute times and the possibility of extra-curricular activities after school. Also, there’s the issue of accessible public transport which can be the deciding factor in your choice of school.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, there is the possibility that siblings are involved too. Will they be able to go to the same school? Do you want all your children to attend the same school?

Finally, and not insignificantly, there is the financial consideration. Are you are contemplating private education? Is this something you can afford and will the cost-benefit analysis add up?

Many believe that attending a private school will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives, and the more upmarket the school, or the more expensive the tuition, the more likely it is the child will achieve high Leaving Cert results.

Academic success is something we do not talk about enough. Are grades important to you? Is the purpose of secondary school to achieve maximum Leaving Cert points? The popularity of grind schools in recent years would suggest this is the case for many parents and students.

A school's academic performance is often a deciding factor. This can be emphasised by the themes of the open evenings where the performance of pupils over recent years and position on the School League Tables are front and centre of the sales pitch to attract students, or more accurately parents, to sign up to the particular school.

Picture: iStock 
Picture: iStock 

Social and emotional wellbeing

 I don’t mean to be critical. Understandably, parents want their child to achieve their maximum points in their Leaving Cert. However, it is important to look at the priority you give to academic results as a parent.

I receive school reports for all my primary school children at the beginning of the summer each year and I find myself going directly to the social and emotional observations that the teachers made about my children, rather than to the academic scores. Partly because of my day job, my children’s emotional and social wellbeing is far more important to me, at this point in their education than their academic abilities.

My experience as a child and adolescent psychotherapist has taught me that without emotional and social stability, all the academic ability in the world means very little. I have treated many academically gifted, but anxious children, who have been victims of pressurised environments, parental expectations and social exclusion. Their intellectual ability proved no match for these social toxins.

I believe we need to build the child first, and then consider the academics as a bonus. It is for that reason I have always felt that the primary school experience is just as important as the secondary school one, not because it builds a strong academic foundation, but rather because it plays a vital role in moulding the child’s social and emotional intelligence that will hopefully allow them to progress healthily into secondary school.

Right fit for your child 

As I consider the best secondary schools for my son, I am reminded of something a colleague once told me: ‘Pick the school to fit the child’. So if you have a naturally sporty child, don’t send them to the beacon of academic success, because their strengths will not be valued. Also, don’t send your academic, non-sporty child to a school where the school’s senior cup is the be-all and end-all of that culture, because equally their skillset and qualities will not be nurtured.

Regardless of what school you choose, your child will be at the mercy of the classroom group dynamic. A school could have a fantastic reputation but the dynamic in the particular year your child ends up in could be toxic. Equally, you could send your child to a school with a mediocre reputation, but their particular year group are especially kind and considerate of each other.

I am well aware of the logistics of finance, geography and reputational concerns, but I would urge parents to consider the fit for the child as the most important variable. I would prefer to get up 30 minutes earlier in the morning or have my child return 30 minutes later from school if it meant they felt happy, integrated, and had a sense of belonging in their school community. Such an outcome would, I believe, reap far greater rewards than high Leaving Cert results.

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