Swotting up on best school choice
The decision of where to send your child to secondary school creeps up on you pretty quickly, and competition for the 'best' schools is as fierce as ever
What secondary school are you sending your child to? That's the start of my every conversation with other parents at the moment. If you live in a small town or village where there's just one post-primary school and the word on the street is that it's as good as you'll get anywhere else, then lucky you.
I guess we're spoiled for choice in Dublin, but it also means that you have to do your homework.
For your information, there are 737 post-primary schools in Ireland, and these are divided into five different categories. Secondary schools, community schools and comprehensive schools are generally denominational, eg Catholic or Protestant, although this is changing. Vocational schools and community colleges are non-denominational.
I started putting my daughter's name down for secondary schools when she was in junior infants. Notice I said 'schools' and not school. I was even indecisive back then.
Keeping in mind that the reputations of schools change over the years, particularly with a change of principal, and also that we might move to a different area, I put her name down in four different places.
At this stage, one of those has been eliminated, as we decided to extend our home and not move, and the commute is just too awkward.
Secondary school seemed an age away at the time, but, like everything else, it comes around so quickly.
In fifth class now, Alannah was offered two places in relatively nearby schools last week, and is close to the top of a waiting list for another school which is in Dublin city centre.
The third school is a private fee-paying school, and to be sure of a place, I should have put her name down from the delivery room in the Rotunda Hospital.
You'd think with the economic downturn, there'd be a huge decrease in students attending fee-paying schools, but apparently not. Over 26,000 students attended fee-paying schools last September, a decrease of less than two per cent on the previous year.
The two letters from schools offering a place gave 10 days to pay a non-refundable deposit. There was no open evening for either school, so I thought the best thing to do was to arrange an appointment to see the school for myself and to meet the principal.
After all, this is someone to whom I'm going to be handing over my precious first child. I have wrapped her in cotton wool and molly-coddled her from birth, and I don't feel like committing to a school without first meeting the principal and checking out the institution. Surely that's not a lot to ask?
Well, surprisingly, it is. I didn't get past the secretary of what I thought might be my preferred school. "Oh no, that's not possible. She's too busy for that. The website will answer any questions you have about the school."
Now, as a former secondary school teacher, I know there's a lot that a website can't answer about a school.
One of my first questions would be: Is your discipline policy enforced, and how do you deal with continuous disruptive behaviour in the classroom?
This was highlighted to me again recently when I did a week's substitute teaching. I tell you this -- any parent would be horrified to witness the way in which some students try to disrupt a class.
In the school where I was teaching, some students came to class without any books, copies or pencils. They had no intention of ever learning a word, however they had every intention of enjoying themselves in class. It just reminded me of why I left the profession in the first place.
I really felt sorry for the genuinely good kids, who hadn't a hope of ever realising their potential because of the trouble-makers.
Discipline is hugely important in a school and it needs to come from the top down. As a parent, I'd like to know that my daughter will not be placed at a learning disadvantage because of disruptive behaviour in the school or classroom. Dealing with it is such a waste of time.
I rang my second preference school and asked for a meeting with the principal. There appeared to be no problem with this request. I was told that they would get back to me. A week later, and no meeting was arranged.
I've already attended an open evening at the private school. I was very impressed with the principal, the school ethos and the school itself.
However, in tough economic times, can I justify paying fees for a private secondary school for my three daughters?
Should I add an extra two hours a day on to my daughters' commute time, just because I think it's a 'better' school?
Don't get me wrong. I'm very lucky to have been offered a place anywhere at this stage. There are plenty of parents who didn't realise how early you have to consider putting names down for secondary school. They will get their children into a school eventually, but it won't be their first or second preference.
It's funny how I never really considered a mixed school for the girls. I guess it's because I went to an all-girls convent school myself.
A friend of mine, Juliette Gash, went to Mount Temple, which is a co-educational, comprehensive, non fee-paying school in Clontarf, on the north side of Dublin.
Juliette thinks the notion that girls do better in single-sex schools is so out-dated and nonsensical.
"Life is not split into genders and nor is college, so if you want your child to grow into a rounded adult I can't think why you'd ever want to separate them from their peers.
"While I didn't have close male friends until later in school, it made for a nicely balanced classroom."
Juliette says that where private schools may have better resources and may indeed attract 'better' teachers, so much of school is subjective that once a child has the support (and watchful eye) of his or her parents, any school will have much to offer the child.
"I think that having a school where a child can be herself is vital. I think the school should appreciate the student who excels at being a scholar but not as a sports star or vice versa.
"I also think it's vital," she says, "that schools have full access to languages, good science labs, music, drama, computers, sports and art."
So, if a public school doesn't have these on offer, perhaps a private school would offer more options.
"That said, Mount Temple had all of the above in some measure -- without my parents having to pay fees or for uniforms."
The main reason Juliette's parents chose Mount Temple was because it's a multi-denominational school. "Being Protestant," she says, "there was no question of me ever going to a Catholic school.
"I'm glad I didn't either," says Juliette. "I don't feel religion has a place in school and long for the day Ireland's schools become secular.
"I was always going to go to university," says Juliette. "My parents are academics and I just thought that everyone went to college and I wanted to too. On the advice of the guidance counsellor in Mount Temple, I took a look at the University of Limerick (UL) because I wanted to study Law and German."
Juliette has never looked back. A successful scholar with a first-class honours law degree from UL, she decided to pursue her love of acting after college and went to study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York.
Jim and Breda Deignan from Glasnevin are the parents of three children, David (14), Laura (11), Peter (10), and our daughters Alannah and Laura are good friends in school.
"Like all parents," says Breda, "we were anxious to send David to a school where he would be happy. We involved him in the selection process and took on board his views. Therefore, ultimately, it made making the decision easier."
Jim and Breda decided to send David to an all-boys fee-paying Catholic school in Dublin city centre.
"Overall, parents concede that it is an important decision as it is a big change in your child's life moving from primary to secondary," says Breda. "They are introduced to new teachers, new subjects and a totally new way of learning. These changes are a lot to cope with and they are expected to become independent, so there is a lot going on in your child's life," she says.
"We are very happy with the school," Breda says. "They are very welcoming to the boys and open up significant options of both academic and extra-curricular activities.
"They offer great support and encouragement for the boys to become involved and to make the most of their time in school," she says.
"We found different enrolment procedures for girls' schools, so Laura's name went down before she started primary.
"We decided on an all-girls fee-paying Catholic school for Laura next year, taking on board the positive feedback and experience of friends and family of girls who attended the school.
"We want our three children to enjoy their education and for them to leave school with a sense of self-esteem that will give them the personal confidence to be able to face the many challenges that life has to throw at them," says Breda.
Back to my own decision for my eldest daughter, and, subsequently, her two siblings. I say 'my own decision' as my husband tends to leave the education side of things up to me. One thing he does say, however, which is probably an important deciding factor, is that a fee-paying school will cost us between €80,000 and €90,000 over the next 10 years. "There is a lot of earning in that," he proclaims.
This does not include uniforms, books and school trips. In these harsh economic times, I'd better start writing faster or put my 'Dragons' Den' hat on.
I'm very lucky that my daughter isn't putting any pressure on us about what school she'd like to go to. She says it really doesn't matter, as she has friends going to all three schools.
You know, she's such a great girl and will get on well anywhere. She's probably right -- it really doesn't matter.