By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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School girl packing bag with mum helping
Choosing a school and making choices about your child’s education can be straightforward or tricky. For many parents, the best school for their child will be their local government funded school. But if you’re thinking about other options, here are some practical steps to help.

Step 1: consider your child and your family

  • What do you want a school to do for your child?
  • Does your child have special language, education or other needs?
  • What’s your child’s preferred or best learning style?
  • Is location a factor in your school choice? Does the school need to be within walking distance? Or does your child have special transportation needs?
  • What costs are involved?
  • Is religion an important factor?
  • What are your child’s views and feelings about the school?

Step 2: gather information about schools

You can check out school options in much the same way as you would if you were buying a car or house. For example, you can:

  • talk to family and friends
  • call the school
  • look at school websites
  • collect written materials like brochures from schools
  • go to information sessions or open days
  • look in the local paper.

You can also contact your state or territory education department (by phone or their website) to get a list of schools in your area or use the Australian Government’s My School website to find government, Catholic and independent schools across Australia.

Step 3: visit schools

  • Contact the schools you’re interested in and make an appointment to visit. If possible, tour the school during regular school hours and visit a few classes.
  • Schedule an appointment with the school principal.
  • Attend open days and any other school functions to gather information about the attitudes of staff, students and parents. Listen closely to what they say about the school.

Step 4: apply to or enrol in the school(s) you choose

Most government schools accept applications and enrolments from the second term of the year before your child will start school – around May each year. Independent (non-government) schools often have long waiting lists, so you need to apply and enrol much earlier. You can contact schools directly to find out about their requirements.

If you’re not applying to your closest government school, consider applying to more than one school, in case your child doesn’t get into your first choice.

You’ll need to fill out an application or enrolment form with: 

  • your child’s name, age and birth date (you’ll also need to supply a copy of your child’s birth certificate)
  • your child’s address and phone number
  • your contact details
  • health and welfare information that will help the school meet your child’s individual needs
  • an Immunisation Status Certificate (in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria).

Most government primary schools are required to take enrolments from every child in their ‘school zone’. This means your child must be accepted into the school closest to your home. Many government secondary schools have other selection criteria but give preference to children who live within their area.

If you want to enrol your child at a school out of your area, you’ll need to apply to that school.

Some schools will ask you to pay some or all of a levy or contribution fee when you enrol your child.

For more information on points to consider in the decision-making process, you can read our article on choosing your child’s school.

Frequently asked questions about choosing a school

How can I find out about the academic record of a particular school?
The My School website allows you to search for information about both government and non-government schools. You can find out how many students the school has, its attendance rates, its senior school outcomes and its national assessment results (for example, NAPLAN), compared with other similar schools.

Some states and territories might also have websites that list information about the academic records of schools in that state. You can find these through the appropriate education department in your state.

Do secondary schools take only students living in their local area?
Government secondary schools are separated into districts or zones, but students don’t have to live in those districts to attend the schools. Whether a school can take your child will probably depend on how many places the school has and whether your child meets other school-based requirements.

You should contact any school outside your district to find out what you need to do if you’re interested in your child going there.

How far in advance do we need to be thinking about choosing a secondary school?
You need to enrol your child in a government secondary school in May of their final primary school year (Year 6 or Grade 7, depending on which state you live in).

Many secondary schools hold family information nights and specialised school tours towards the end of the second last year of primary school. You could start listing your priorities and gathering information during this year, so you’re ready with questions when you and your child visit schools.

My child wants to go to the same secondary school as friends, but it doesn’t have a good reputation. What should I do?
Tough decisions like this are a common experience for parents when choosing a school. It’s good for children in late primary school to be part of the decision-making process. But they’re not mature enough to make an informed choice based on all of the important information.

One of the advantages of secondary schooling is the opportunity to meet new people and create a widening friendship group. But separating from primary school friends can be one of the hardest parts of moving to secondary school.

A good first step is to acknowledge how difficult this decision is for you and for your child. Listen to your child and let her know you’re taking her views into account. It can help to reassure your child that going to different schools doesn’t mean she’ll lose touch with her friends.

A second issue is the school’s ‘reputation’. You might want to dig a bit further to find out more about this. Sometimes a school’s reputation is based on a single incident or event that doesn’t reflect the school as a whole. Other times schools have a reputation from the distant past that’s no longer accurate.

You could consider the following questions:

  • Is what you’re hearing about the school based on fact or opinion?
  • Who are you hearing information from?
  • Is the reputation based on old or recent developments at the school?
  • Most importantly, how will the school’s reputation impact on your child if he attends the school?

Regardless of friends or reputation, you need to be happy that the school matches your family’s values and your child’s learning preferences, and that it’s the one that will give your child the most opportunities to achieve in her areas of interest.

Choosing a school for your child is only the beginning. By being involved in your child's education and building a strong relationship with your child’s school, you can help your child get the most out of education.

  • Last updated or reviewed 26-10-2015
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health, Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, with contribution from the Education Institute, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.