Private, public, religious, single-sex, selective: Finding the right school

It's a decision many parents agonise over – where to send their children to school. The choice can seem endless. More than half of Victorian parents are bypassing their local school in search of a better education. Others insist that their closest school is still the best. We asked eight families how they chose.
Interviews by Dominique Russell, Stephanie Chen, Henrietta Cook and Timna Jacks.

Belinda Barlow with husband Jamie Melville and daughters Amali (left) and Zara (right). Photo: Jesse Marlow

The Melvilles,
Haileybury City Campus

Belinda: We chose our first school for Zara when she was one-and a-half. We didn't really know what her strengths were or what she would be interested in. As time has gone on, that's become clearer.

Haileybury seemed to have a very well considered, structured academic program. It monitors progress so if there are any gaps they can be addressed quickly. They don't wait until your child doesn't know how to add or multiply and they're lost in the system.

They expose our kids to a bit of everything, like arts and sporting programs, and that's quite appealing.

We live in Port Melbourne and my husband works in the city so the junior campus in the city is very convenient.

There's a very caring environment – the principal knows everyone's names.

Obviously it's a private school and so there are fees. I'd rather not go on holidays and work late at night if I have to get things done in order to make sure we can give our kids a great opportunity.

Hassan, Mohyad, Ihsan and Faroug. Photo: Simon Schluter

The Hamdain family,
Dandenong North Primary School

Faroug: I am from the capital city of North Sudan, Khartoum. In my country, life is very, very hard. I could not find work, and we did not have much money. I didn't finish all of my education and I want to give that to my kids. Here in Australia, education is so important. Life is changing all the time. I want my kids to keep up. I want them to have a good education so they can go to university. Somewhere like Melbourne University or Monash University.

I arrived in Australia in 2004 and my sons, nine-year-old Hassan and 11-year-old Mohyad, were born here.

We are Muslim but we are not religious and I did not choose a Muslim school because I did not want them to speak Arabic. We want them to learn and speak English all the time.

We chose Dandenong North Primary after it was recommended to us by a friend who sent their child there. It was very close to our home.

The boys are doing well at school and they like all of their teachers. We believe that if they are well supported in school and at home, this will help give them a bright future.

Sandra, Sasha, Amelia and Greg Campitelli. Photo: Pat Scala

The Campitellis,
Sacre Coeur, Glen Iris

Greg: Amelia started her secondary journey at another Catholic school but struggled through year 7. Moving her to Sacre Coeur was a big decision. We thought, could we be jumping from the frypan to the fire?

We wanted to send our kids to a Catholic school with a proven sense of social justice. We also wanted it to be close to where we live. We were keen on a school that had about four classes in a year level and had less than 1000 students.

The school doesn't relentlessly pursue academic achievement, which was appealing – it's perhaps their holistic approach which ends up achieving top results.

One of the biggest factors was the principal. She conducted an extraordinary interview. We could see the genuine sincerity and how she really focused on Amelia and metaphorically embraced her.

Like in all schools, there are things that go wrong. But we like the way the school deals with situations. There's a swiftness of action and we like their approach to discipline, which is called restorative practice. It's not about detentions and punishing, it's about restoring relationships.

Best of all, the kids think it's great that the school looks like Hogwarts.

Joanne and Jeff Antcliff. Photo: Stefan Postles

The Antcliffs,
Bentleigh Secondary College

Joanne: It was not difficult to choose Bentleigh Secondary College because it was the closest co-educational public school. I wanted my children to have friends nearby in the neighbourhood.

We're originally from Queensland and when we were looking for an area in Melbourne to live, we looked at traffic flows, public transport, the quality of schools and the average ages and incomes of residents. That's why we chose the Bentleigh area.

I work full-time so I can't transport them to school. They are involved in a lot of before and after-school activities so they're at school 8am to 5pm. It needs to be easy for them to get there on their own. They either walk, cycle or skateboard to school.

The school's mindfulness meditation and wellbeing program was also a big drawcard. We were impressed by the before and after-school activities, band, choir, student representative council and study clubs.

The school is friendly and very supportive of our children and willing to listen to our concerns as parents. We haven't been disappointed.

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Kate Donovan with Rebecca, the youngest of four siblings. Photo: Justin McManus

The Donovans,
Sophia Mundi Steiner School, Abbotsford

Kate: I wanted my children to be happy, balanced and grounded. I wanted a school that taught them about the importance of caring for the environment and the community.

In prep the children learn through play. It becomes more formal in grade 1 and they sit at desks and reading is introduced. It's a bit like the Scandinavian system.

I remember my eldest daughter, Ondine, coming home and telling rich stories to her siblings at bedtime. She went from not reading and then the first book she picked up was The Black Stallion. She became an avid reader after that.

The music program is also amazing, I remember Ondine listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons when she was in grade 4 and then learning to play the piece by ear.

I teach at a mainstream school so I understand the system well and can see the positives. But I feel they don't address the more holistic approach. The children develop a more spiritual side in Steiner. They meet all the academic standards but go about it in a different way. For instance, they might look at Greece as a theme and focus on Greek inventions in science, democracy in history and Greek art. They absorb the learning in a different way.

David, Annabelle and Louise Aiton. Photo: Jesse Marlow

The Aiton family,
the Academy of Mary Immaculate, Fitzroy

Louise: We chose a girls' school so Annabelle would have the freedom to develop as a young woman without feeling pressured by boys. My husband went to a co-ed school and I went to a girls' school in the country. My experience was very positive. It gave me lots of confidence to grow as a person and I formed lifelong friendships.

We have a long family association with Catholic schools – I went to a Mercy school and my grandmother was also schooled by Mercy nuns. They are compassionate and great advocates of social change. We thought that was really important in this modern world.

We live close to the city and wanted Annabelle to attend a school where the city was an extension of the classroom. We were also looking for a strong music program. Annabelle is in the chamber choir, the school musical, plays the piano and does music theory.

We also ensured that she was able to continue Japanese, the language she studied at primary school.

After we went on a tour, Annabelle walked out and looked a foot taller. Her smile lit up the room. She said, "This is where I want to be. I feel like I'm an Academy girl."

Ben, Melissa and Holly Murphy. Photo: Vince Caligiuri

The Murphys,
Brighton Beach Primary School

Melissa: We didn't want our children to get lost in a large primary school. Brighton Beach Primary was appealing because it is one of the smaller schools in the area, with smaller classes.

We also looked at what extra-curricular activities were offered, like sports, inter-school sports, music and drama programs. We wanted our kids to become well-rounded. While being academic was obviously important, we also wanted a focus on sports and arts.

We also chose the school because it was close to where we live. We live less than one kilometre away so they can walk to school.

When we first visited the school it had a really warm, welcoming feeling. There were lots of happy, smiling children and a lot of interaction between students in different year levels. There was a real sense of local community, and parents volunteered to help out with initiatives like the walking school bus. That all sold it to us. It wasn't a difficult decision because our local school was brilliant.

Joseph, Yvonne and William Roshier. Photo: Eddie Jim

The Roshiers,
Glen Waverley Secondary College

Yvonne: We visited four local secondary schools and Glen Waverley was the standout. The teachers seemed extremely engaged and the facilities were impressive. But we lived half a kilometre outside the Glen Waverley zone so had to find out how to apply.

We wrote that William wanted to learn Chinese and it wasn't offered at our local school. He had been involved in leadership programs in primary school and Glen Waverley had some really good leadership programs that would fit him. We also listed his academic achievements and said we wanted him to attend a school where students wanted to learn, and a holistic school.

The school's impressive VCE results also influenced us but to a lesser extent. The teachers were also very keen on promoting extra-curricular and social aspects of the school. They don't want to just develop the child into an academic being who will get a very high ATAR and go to university.

We didn't have to go through the letter process for our second son, Joseph, but we chose to anyway. We wanted to do everything possible to ensure he would get in.

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