Choosing the correct ‘big school’ for your child

Education is the gift that should keep on giving. Educational psychologist Claire Maher advises parents on factors to consider when choosing their child’s ‘big school’

The grade 1 year is generally referred to as the start of ‘big school.’  In the past, when schools did not have Grade R attached, going to grade 1 generally meant a new school, new friends, a uniform and space cases.  Nowadays many schools have Grade R, or even a whole pre-primary school attached to them, and while the jump doesn’t seem as big, there are still many factors that need to be taken into account when choosing a ‘big school’ for your child.

What should a school offer?

There is no hard and fast rule of what policies and facilities schools should include.  Inclusion of extramural activities, remedial assistance, therapy (occupational, speech and play) as well as certain subjects depends on the school type, their individual mission statement or aim, and resources.  For example, remedial and special needs schools are generally expected to offer remedial assistance and therapy on site, whereas a mainstream school may only have a psychologist or remedial teacher.  Certain schools only offer a small selection of subjects for learners to choose from, whereas others offer a wider variety.  Some schools will offer sport due to facilities available, whereas others will not.  Some schools will offer the opportunity for learners to use computers and tablets, whereas others will not necessarily be equipped.  There are certain schools that do not offer subjects such as drama, whereas others may revolve around drama, arts and culture.  Depending on your child’s interests and strengths, these are enquiries that need to be made with the school.  While schools are encouraged to ‘move with the times’ there are also limits to their abilities to cater for everybody, and parents need to be cognizant of this when making decisions – instead of hoping to change the school policies later on in their child’s career.  Parents need to establish what they see as important or vital for a school to comprise.  If you think reading and access to a library is important, parents should make sure their school choices have libraries.  If your child is the next ‘Beast,’ or Jacques Kallis, or even if they purely love sport, a school that encourages sport should be chosen.

The price to pay for learning

Some schools in South Africa are assisted by government grants and input and therefore do not charge school fees. There are other schools that work on ‘sliding scales’ and will offer reduced fees depending on the family income.  There is no hard and fast rule though.  There is also no limit to how much a school is allowed to charge in school fees.  Higher school fees should generally translate to the available amenities and opportunities for learners.  Schools who charge higher in school fees may be able to afford Astroturf for their hockey fields, more outings to encourage and enhance learning and may offer higher salaries to secure exceptional teaching staff.  This is not a generalisation though and many lower fee paying schools provide quality education and experiences for their learners.  School uniform costs also differ from school to school.  Many schools have a standard summer and winter uniform, whereas others have a smarter version, a tracksuit and sport kit (varied for different sports), among others.  While some school uniforms are standard in their appearance (black shoes, black socks, black shorts/pants and a white shirt), others are very school specific which can be costly.  It must be kept in mind that many schools – government and private – have waiting lists.  If you are intent on your child attending the school you attended, or a specific school, you may need to place their name on a waiting list early on – in some instances this is needed as soon as they are born!  Placing your child’s name on a waiting list is also a cost that is incurred (and usually not returned if your child does not get accepted into the school).

Government or Private?

Government schools, as the name suggests are owned and assisted by the government.  Private schools (also known as independent schools) are privately owned (either by trusts, churches, community groups and the like). Being a private school does not necessarily imply higher school fees, although this is the case in most of our schools in South Africa.  Generally speaking, private schools are affilitated with the IEB (Independent Examinations Board) while government schools are considered to be part of the public sector.  Both school types offer an NSC (National Senior Certificate) although the examinations written are different and there are differences in subject matter taught.  Tertiary institutions do not distinguish between IEB and NSC results and an ‘A’ on one is equivalent to an ‘A’ on the other.  According to an article on Finance 24 ( ) titled ‘Are private schools worth it’ (2011) many school principals and stakeholders explain that the IEB examinations are more cognitively demanding, which then can place IEB learners at a disadvantage at a university level.

What if my child has special education needs?

According to the Educational White Paper 6 which came into effect in 2001, no learner is allowed to be refused entry to a school based on specific barriers to learning that they may have.  The onus falls on the school to make accommodations to assist learners with special education needs.  I agree with this policy to an extent, but I also believe that there are special needs schools for a reason.  These special needs schools are specifically structured to accommodate learners with special needs – their classrooms are smaller, teachers have further qualifications, there are therapists on site, computers or tablets are offered instead of writing and the list goes on.  I feel strongly that parents or guardians who have children with special needs (whether it be cognitive, behavioural, emotional or physical) should seek out appropriate schools that have education programmes tailored to support such needs.

Many schools require a psychoeducational or school readiness assessment to be completed prior to acceptance into their school.  This is also in order for parents (and the school involved) to ensure that their child is being placed in the most appropriate environment.  Many pre-primary schools will offer informal school readiness assessments or screenings where a variety of skills are observed and tested in order to determine whether a child is ready for school.  While assessments are no the be all and end all, they are exceptionally worthwhile in order to gain a greater understanding of your child and their strengths and weaknesses.

Raise your hand to ask a question

When selecting a school for your child there are a variety of questions or enquiries that parents should ask of the future school.  Enquiries should be made regarding the qualifications of the teaching staff – especially when your child is attending a remedial or special needs school.  It is beneficial to know what the teachers are like (loud or quiet, strict or soft etc.), but parents need to also bear in mind that certain learners can thrive in classrooms where others find it difficult to adapt – a general decision cannot be made about a teacher based on stories that the previous year’s parents relay.  Do not form an opinion about a young or old teacher before you have met them.  Some of the oldest teachers are often the most caring, loving and supportive educators, and some of the youngest and ‘freshest’ teachers can have dynamic and new ideas on how to teach, as well as a greater understanding of ‘the youth of today.’ The principal or governing body’s involvement in the school should also be queried.  Parents should enquire about the uniform requirements too, and where they can source the relevant pants, shoes and socks.  The same should be done with stationary and book requirements.  It is important that your child arrives on the first day feeling part of the rest of the group.  While starting ‘big school’ is exciting for some it can be anxiety provoking for others, and the last thing your child needs is to look or feel different on the first day.

Choosing a ‘big school’ for your child is not easy, and there are so many factors that need to be taken into consideration.  It is important that parents begin exploring their options during their child’s Grade R year in order to avoid last minute decisions and changes.  Your child’s personality, the school type, family finances are among a few factors that need to be thought long and hard about when selecting a school.  A child’s school placement can make or break them and the early years are the foundation of their little personalities and will essentially impact the type of person they grow up to be.

Written for Mamas and Papas Magazine


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