Nov 12, 2013 Schools
The life and culture of the place, the ability to hold on to students – how do you measure the quality of a school, and how do you work out how well it will serve your child? We’ve been talking to principals, teachers and students, reading the reports and crunching the numbers.
Also on metromag.co.nz, The Best Schools in Auckland 2014, featuring the most recent available achievement data.
Every morning, not so long ago at a school in South Auckland, principal David Hodge and his deputies rostered themselves, two by two, to stand at the gates and greet every student as they arrived. By name. They weren’t doing it to guard the school. They were doing it to reinforce a culture of communication and care. And it wasn’t just about the kids: “We knew the kids, and we knew their families,” says Hodge. “We’d ask after them, ‘How’s that new puppy?’ and ‘Is your mum’s cold better?’”
So the kids came to school knowing they were part of something big and inclusive, and that the men and women who ran the school — who were important role models for those kids — cared about each one of them.
This in itself did not make it a good school or guarantee good grades for the students. But it did create an environment where teaching and learning would be easier. When the culture of the school is based on its relationship not just with the students but with their whole families, that’s a strong platform for achievement.
Hodge has moved on now, swapping those few hundred low-decile students for a few thousand high-decile ones at Rangitoto College, the largest school in New Zealand. He can’t know them all by name, and he certainly can’t greet them all every morning. So integration with families takes other forms: getting the students involved in some of the enormous wealth of extracurricular options, for example, in which parents can also become engaged.
Catholic schools know all about a commitment to families, although it is not usually the first thing they point to when asked about their success. Their levels of academic achievement are almost universally higher than those in other comparable schools, and they like to tell you the reason is their religion.
Chris Rooney, principal of Liston College, a decile 5 Catholic school in Henderson, says quite fervently his school does well because it is dedicated to making the most of every student’s “God-given abilities”.
Brian Evans told me it was “the faith” a few years ago, when he was principal of De La Salle College, a decile 1 Catholic school in Mangere East. His students were achieving way above the norm. But a couple of years ago, Evans moved to Kelston Boys High, a state school, where his students are now also recording some startlingly good grades.
Clearly, it’s not just the faith. Malaea Evile, a student at Marcellin College, a co-ed decile 3 Catholic school in Royal Oak, told us something revealing: “My mum is ambitious for her children,” she said. “The teachers smile when they see her coming with her notebook. She demands excellent effort, homework and achievement. So she records every bit of advice from parent-teacher evenings and repeats it to me and my sister for months.”
Parent-teacher evenings as the cornerstone of a family/school/student plan for progress? And how it’s monitored? Now there’s some revolutionary thinking.
Every parent knows how desperately farcical those parent-teacher evenings can be, when we shuffle dutifully from pillar to post, queueing in the corridors in the glumly remote hope the next five-minute interview might reveal something useful. Wondering if all the families not represented at all on such evenings are making things worse in the school, or are they the only smart ones?
It shouldn’t be like that. If a school tells you that’s the best they can do, they really don’t understand one of the basics of modern education.
So what do Catholic schools have over many other schools? Perhaps it’s not so much the faith itself, as the mechanism that faith provides for the schools to integrate into the lives of their families. They share not just their religion but so many of the significant events of their lives — cultural, social, sporting, celebratory, commemorative. The things that give shape to who they are.
For other schools, doing all that in other ways can be much harder. And that raises the first of our big questions. All schools love to talk about their “community”, so when you’re out there choosing, ask them about that community.
What is it you will belong to? Ask them: How are we — school and family — going to share in the frequently frustrating, occasionally shocking, often entertaining and deeply rewarding (you hope) process of helping your anxious newbie adolescents become fine young adults?
How Good are the Teachers?
What’s the biggest influence on success in school? The quality of the teachers. Which means looking for a good school is about looking for a school with good recruitment policies, good professional expectations for its staff and a good record of retention.
But what does good even mean? It hasn’t got much to do with personal style. Old-fashioned non-nonsense types are just as likely as down-with-the-kids young thrusters to be good teachers, or bad ones.
It’s a handy question to ask a principal, though: what do they look for in a teacher? As some American studies have suggested, a key predictor of teacher quality is past performance. If a prospective teacher has a record of academic success and of running something successfully, they’ll probably have a valuable aptitude for the job. Wanting to teach and being happy with their lives as teachers are also important, and so is perseverance.
Ask the principal, do they ask their teachers if they are enjoying their work? And if they’re not, do they help them find something else to do?
Ask how many inspirational teachers your child will have over five years in the school. Ask what’s expected of teachers in their own development. Post-graduate study? Regular upgrades for their teaching skills? Professional activity away from the school? Good schools have programmes of such things for their staff.
What do schools do to keep their best teachers? Private schools can offer whatever incentives their resources allow, but state schools are tied to nationally established pay scales. Some state schools get around this with trust funds that allow teachers to be paid for “extra activities”, take “sabbaticals” and the like.
For many teachers, though, the issue isn’t just money. It’s also a question of opportunity. So how does the school help good teachers to advance?
Often, the best judges of teachers are the students. They know who gets them doing the business. The website ratemyteachers.com provides insights on this, although it’s susceptible to peer pressure and not as good as talking to students directly.
Can they Explain Themselves to you?
Teachers — well, the entire education industry, really — love jargon. They call what they do “pedagogy”. They use “formative assessment” if they’re good, and rely entirely on “summative assessment” if they’re not. They can, if you let them, go on and on about it.
You might not want to hear that stuff, but unfortunately many teachers are not good at using their words to explain themselves in simple language. Ask them to try. See if they can walk you through a typical lesson, tell you why it happens the way it does, and make it sound interesting.
What you’re looking for is this. At the start, they will set out in writing the goals for the lesson. Throughout, there will be a two-way engagement: the teacher will give students feedback on an individual basis, and they will give the teacher feedback too. The lesson may well be based on the outcome of a recent test, and if there is to be another test, the results of that will be used to plan the next round of teaching.
In simple terms, this is the widely accepted best method, or pedagogy, of teaching. A “formative” approach emphasises the two-way nature of learning, where teachers must be attuned to student needs and ready to modify what they do, as they go. It also emphasises the diagnostic role of testing.
The alternative, put crudely, is to teach a bunch of stuff, have a test at the end, and then move on to something else.
One of the fundamental reasons most teachers dislike league tables and the prevailing emphasis on pass rates in end-of-year exams is that they can easily push classroom practice towards summative learning. As long as the students know what they need to know on the day of the exam, that’s all that matters. Getting an A on a report becomes more valuable than whatever comments the teacher might provide.
Of course, good teachers and good schools will help their students to achieve beyond their own expectations, and end-of-year grades are the ultimate measure of that. So there has to be a balance. Ask about that. A good teacher should have some pretty interesting things to say about all this.
Next page: More on how to pick a secondary school, including academic options and the ‘life of the school’