Choosing a school: Survey reveals what Kiwi parents think is most important

Many parents agonise over where to send their child to school. They pore over NCEA results and examine ERO reports, sometimes paying thousands or moving suburbs to get into the “right” zone.

Now researchers have looked at what Kiwi parents really want from a school – and while grades remain top priority, there are other factors at play.

The CoreData research, commissioned by insurance company OneChoice, surveyed a randomised sample of 1000 Kiwi parents with children aged 19 or under.

Two out of three parents (64 per cent) rated academic reputation or NCEA marks as very or extremely important.

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But after grades, a school’s artistic, creative and environmental reputation was most highly valued, with 45 per cent of parents saying they were very or extremely important.

Less important was religious affiliation (20 per cent), while just 24 per cent rated a school’s sporting reputation as very important.

Sending siblings to the same school was very important to 39 per cent of parents, but only 18 per cent felt where a parent attended school was an important consideration.

Parents in this country have a pretty rich, deep understanding of school, and what it does well and what it does badly

University of Auckland education expert Professor Peter O’Connor said the findings echoed consultations carried out after Labour was elected, when parents up and down the country were asked what they wanted from the school system.

“They talked about schools being places where children felt safe, cared for, that their cultural identity was validated and respected. They wanted schools where there was equal opportunity for everybody,” he said.

“I think it shows that parents in this country have a pretty rich, deep understanding of school, and what it does well and what it does badly.”

O’Connor was particularly struck that so many parents felt artistic, creative and environmental endeavours were important when choosing a school for their child.

“Policymakers and principals and teachers should be looking at that and going, ‘So if this is how parents are seeing us, is it accurate? And, if it’s accurate, what are we doing to change and shift?'”

He said while the survey gave a good overall view, its weakness was that it could not delve deeper into how parental attitudes varied depending on differences like ethnicity.

Majority support zoning changes

The research also looked at parents’ perception of recent school-zoning changes.

Almost all schools in Auckland and many others around the country are getting geographic zones drawn up, giving local kids first priority to attend their nearest school as the population grows.

The survey found 69 per cent thought those changes were mostly fair, and 52 per cent believed zone boundaries should be allowed to change again if needed.

However, 45 per cent of parents felt the zoning changes held pros and cons for their communities – with 69 per cent saying inflating housing prices was a negative outcome.

Almost half said they had moved or would move suburbs to get their kid into the right school, and 43 per cent would spend more on a house for the same reason.

O’Connor said he believed every local school should be an excellent choice for every parent – but that was “quite old-fashioned”.

“You shouldn’t ever have to worry that the school that you want to send your child to down the road isn’t an excellent school. And what we’ve done is, we’ve created – for generations now – winner schools and loser schools. We don’t have an equitable system of education in this country, and parents know that.”

Public versus private

Questions about public versus private schools found a high level of support for the state school system.

That’s perhaps unsurprising, given last year fewer than 4 per cent of students went to a private school and 85 per cent were at state schools, according to the Government Education Counts website. A further 11 per cent of students attended state-integrated schools.

The survey questions did not make an explicit distinction between private and state-integrated schools, but the researchers expected most respondents would classify state-integrated as state, rather than private schools.

Just 26 per cent of parents surveyed preferred private school, while 36 per cent preferred public and the rest had no preference.

Slightly over half thought there was no difference in the academic outcomes or career prospects public or private schools could achieve for their children, while one in 10 thought public schools would do better and three in 10 thought private would be superior.

A significant number did believe there were advantages to private schooling, including better facilities and smaller class sizes. But there was also a common belief that they were expensive, elitist, and left students feeling pressured to “keep up with the Joneses”.

Private schools were also thought better than public on developing discipline – 44 per cent vs 7 per cent – while 42 per cent thought there was no difference.

But when it came to social skills those roles were reversed. Thirty-four per cent of parents thought public schools developed better social skills, compared to 13 per cent for private schools, while 47 per cent thought there was no difference.

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