How to choose a primary school? Not just academic results, say parents

Chebiwot Kipsaina and her Australian-born daughter Malaika Kisia. Photo: Chris Hopkins Kenyan migrant and mother Chebiwot Kipsaina and her Australian born daughter Malaika Kisia. “I wanted a school that went beyond that,” says Chebiwot. Photo: Chris Hopkins

A government primary school in Melbourne’s south-east was Chebiwot Kipsaina’s first choice for her daughter, six-year-old Malaika.

Close to home and near to public transport, initially at least, it ticked all the boxes.

But Malaika would have been the only black African at the school, so during orientation Chebiwot asked the principal how it promoted diversity.

“We have children from Denmark,” was his reply.

“It was very limited,” Chebiwot says with a wry laugh. “That kind of put me off. I wanted a school that went beyond that.”

For most of the 20th century, it was uncommon for Australian parents to actively choose a primary school for their children, but this is changing.

And while academic or sporting prowess might feature in high school deliberations, less is known about how parents decide which primary school is the best fit for their kids.

Now, using data from 8000 families across Australia, researchers have discovered that parents decide on primary schools based on a whole host of largely personal factors that go beyond academic results.

“Australian parents and mothers, in particular, tend to do a lot of research into the school community, its reputation, academic performance and the affordability of fees,” said Anne Hollonds, researcher and director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

The proximity of a school to home, whether other family members are attending, academic quality, and its religious or philosophical outlook were the main considerations, researchers found.

But the reasons behind school choice differ considerably depending on whether parents send their children to private or government schools.

Government schools are still the main providers of primary school education, while about 20 per cent of students go to Catholic schools and 12 per cent go to private schools.

Those who sent their kids to government schools were most concerned with convenience and if another family member was already at the school. Those who chose independent schools were motivated by academic results and religious values.

Kipsaina, who came to Australia as a student and then became a citizen, decided not to enrol Malaika at the government school and opted for a Catholic primary school in their south eastern Melbourne suburb instead.

Malaika is still the only black African student at this school, but when her mum asked the teachers about diversity she liked their response: “She was quite frank, she said they hadn’t had children from an African background specifically, but she said it was a learning opportunity.”

Religion is a central part of Kipsaina’s life, but she has had to adjust to the Australian approach, where not all parents at her daughter’s school are practicing Christians.

Some parents expected religiously-affiliated schools to demonstrate active religiosity, while others saw them as a haven for their children from unsatisfactory government schools, the study noted.

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