Choosing your child’s first school

Deciding which school to send your child to can be a daunting experience. Kerry McArthur asks the important questions and offers useful guidelines to help parents choose the right school for their children.

Choosing your child’s first school and sending them off to preschool and Grade R is not to be taken lightly. You will be trusting someone else to look after your ‘heart’ for anything upwards of five hours and because this time will be spent out of your control, the person you choose should be someone that you know can look after your little one as if they were their own child.

Finding a school or person like this is daunting, but not impossible.

How to know if you’ve found ‘it’
Remember that ‘not every school is for every child’ – in other words, don’t think that because a school was great for your nephew that your child will be happy there.
The first and most important step in choosing a school is research. Spend time visiting schools and getting a feel for the different options. Your best indicator of the right school is how you feel when you are there. If there is any niggling doubt then don’t assume it will go away; follow your instinct.

Visit all the potential schools
Make some time to visit each of the schools you’re considering for your child. If you want to see the principal, then enquire about a general time in which it’s convenient to see them. Alternatively, visit the school and make an appointment in person for
another day.

Guidelines for your school visit
When visiting a school for the first time, the following may be useful points to guide you through each visit.

General Points

  • Avoid visiting before 8:30 as most preschoolers will be arriving at that time and the teachers will have their hands full settling them down. Similarly, the normal nap time for preschools is between11:30 and 14:00, so you won’t be able to see much of the routine or the classroom.
  • Visit a school between 8:30 and 11:00. This way you will be able to see the teacher-child interaction, the general discipline in the classroom and the flow of the routine.
  • Don’t spend more than five minutes in a classroom as it is disruptive to the class and it isn’t fair on the learning process for you to linger. Follow the lead of the person allocated to showing you around the school.

Specifics to watch out for

  • Insist on seeing both the kitchen and toilet facilities – this will tell you a lot about the general hygiene of a school. I hope you are asked to put on a hair net to enter the kitchen (if they are preparing food) as this is a basic requirement.
  • Always ask questions regarding the evacuation procedures, and security and illness policies. Take careful note of how easily these questions are answered as it will tell you if staff members are fully aware of the school policies or if an answer is being ‘made up’.
  • Observe the classroom lighting. A dingy classroom does not help learning and demotivates the children and staff. Lots of natural light is best, but where this is not possible, good quality electrical lighting is important.
  • Ask about the staff-to-child ratio; is it within reason? Remember that a big class is not necessarily a bad thing as long as there is the correct staff complement. For example, it’s reasonable to have 14 learners per Grade R teacher, but it’s not okay to have 28 learners with one teacher and a general helper.
  • When walking around watch the children and the staff. What are the interactions like? Are the children happy? Do they gravitate towards a teacher or staff member, or tend to shy away?
  • One of the most important aspects of a preschool is that your child should feel loved and valued; an attribute that comes directly from the behaviour of teachers and staff.

Readily available info

  • It is important to find out if the school is registered with the appropriate body; specifically the Department of Education and Social Development. The school should be able to provide you with documentation to prove this registration. Just asking the question will tell you if you need to ask for proof. A school that fumbles over the answer probably isn’t registered, which ultimately means that they are not accountable
    to anyone.
  • Ask to see the Food Safety certificate if food is prepared on the premises. This certificate should be displayed in the kitchen.
  • Check that the fire extinguishers have been serviced within the last 12 months.
  • Ask about the curriculum: all the Grade R facilities should be following a registered curriculum and should be able to provide evidence of this.

The best for your child
While a lot of these points may seem like overkill, you can’t be blasé when it comes to the welfare and education of your child. Your instincts will guide you to the best decision, so if you or (more importantly) your child are not comfortable with a school then keep looking. Making the wrong choice and then moving your child out of a school could be as stressful for them as a death or divorce in the family. They go through the same grieving process and it takes away a lot of valuable development and learning time.
Find a school whose principal and teachers you can trust; who are as enthusiastic as you are about open communication and who are committed to forging a path with you and your child.

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