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Interview With Erin Shale - The Best School For Your Child


 “There's no one best school in the world obviously but you can maximise the chance of your child being as happy as possible by selecting the right school.”


Yvette Vignando: Erin Shale is a teacher and a career counsellor based in Melbourne and her most recent book is The Best School for your Child which is about selecting a high school for your child that matches your child's needs.  Erin has also co-authored a book with Michael Carr Gregg called Adolescents and two other books about adolescents and getting the most out of their high school life. Erin you've told me you're absolutely passionate about adolescents getting the most of their high school years. Can you tell us something about your background and what has fuelled your passion for this topic?

Erin Shale: I guess having worked in schools for well over 20 years, you get to see the best and the saddest. You see students who are flying along absolutely loving school, on top of the world, and they actually look forward to coming to school. And others you can see dragging their feet as they leave the school gates every day.  And it's just amazing the difference that the type of school they attend can make. 

I’ve taught in a number of different school settings: private, co-ed and single sex schools. I really believe it’s possible to get a good match between a child and a school, the best possible match.  There's no one best school in the world obviously but you can maximise the chance of your child being as happy as possible by selecting the right school. 

So by the right school you're talking about a school that matches your child's particular talents, strengths, perhaps your family's values?

All of that. In writing The Best School for Your Child I start with looking at your child - I think that's something that a lot of parents don't do. They're caught up in looking at school reputation and academic results and they forget to look at that little person who's going to be in the school.  Lots of parents have said, “I never actually sat down and thought John is actually pretty shy and I enrolled him in a school of 1,800 students and we thought he'd be happy. The programs were fantastic, we loved the teachers, we loved the atmosphere but we never actually thought  - maybe putting him into a school of 1,800 when he's coming from a primary school of 400 or 500 might be just overwhelming for that particular child.”. 

I really think it's very important to look at what they're good at, their talents, what their strengths are. Some kids are naturally musical or they love hands-on activities. If that’s the case, does the school have practical vocational courses?  Or does it predominately have more traditional academic subjects? Some kids are social butterflies, they'll just love a large school of even up to 2,000 students and they'll make friends. I've put strategies in the book to help parents stand back and have a look at their child and their strengths and their needs. But even if you have children who are very shy or who don't like large environments, there are ways that you can help them become more accustomed to bigger settings. 

That sounds so important and something that a lot of parents are talking about. I know that many parents feel a lot of pressure to send their child to a particular school, whether it is a private school, a public school, a single sex school or a school with a particular facility.  And so many parents seem to be choosing schools these days based on what their expectation of the academic outcomes for their child.  Do you think that's a good approach?

Obviously all parents want their child to do well academically, it is important.  It's not the only thing though, that a school provides. I think there is far too much emphasis on looking at the academic results - sometimes that is the prime motivational factor for choosing a school and I think a lot of parents put pressure on their friends to send their friend's children to a school with high academic results.  They may not have considered the other programs, school climates and school culture enough.

If a child is unhappy in a school, even a school with the best academic results in Australia, they're not going to do well or they may do well academically but the price they pay is very high.  I've seen children in school that have graduated from a high school with terrific academic results, they haven't enjoyed those six years at a high school,  so they've left with a wonderful piece of paper, great results but they haven't had a particularly happy time.  They haven't been miserable but they just haven't really enjoyed or loved school and I think that's too high a price to pay. 

I think if you sent them to a different school they could still achieve perhaps the same academic results because they're happier, or maybe even achieve more highly because they're in a situation where they feel more at home.  I've seen students in schools where they've walked out the door with glowing results but they've paid a high price, they've been stressed right through school.  I've actually seen students with grey hair in like the fourth or fifth year of high school, I mean more grey hairs than I have sometimes. At the end of the day what are they going to remember? Five, ten, 15 years down the track, these are not going to be the best years of their lives, when they look back.  All they're going to remember is the hard slog.

And those six years from a parent's perspective, just go by so quickly! Yet from a child's perspective that's almost half of their childhood spent at a high school that perhaps doesn’t meet their particular social and emotional needs?