Looking beyond the ‘snapshot’

Once again it is that anxious time of year when parents have to start thinking about school choices for their children. At the end of March, the government released data on school performance through the MySchool website.

The data in the MySchool site is valid and can be helpful if understood and used effectively, however it is also a snapshot of performance in specific areas on a specific day – so has all the strengths and weaknesses of the five-yearly census. It is not a ranking tool indicating that school A is better than school B. Rather it is useful in considering trends in the effectiveness of school systems, curriculum design and implementation. As well as demonstrating total financial investment in schools by government, fees and fundraising.

There are important elements of school choice that MySchool, or any other such tool, cannot ever hope to capture or report against:

• Will my child be welcomed into this school?

• Will my child be encouraged to be fascinated by learning here?

• Will my child be cared for by teachers and the school community?

• Will my child be happy?

Research that is not focused on a ‘snapshot’ approach to school effectiveness suggests that the most effective learning environments are ones where the children feel valued and part of a community. Where they are able to establish rapport with their teacher, and where the context is one that encourages learning.

Speaking from some experience, the crucial thing is knowing how much structure and freedom a particular child requires. How much inspiration and perspiration is needed to ensure optimal learning, and of course, how much fun is needed.

Making choices about education is not simply about assessment and examination results – though these are important. It is also about developing humanity. Pope Francis, reflecting on the role of Mary the Mother of Jesus, said that she gave the eternal Word a human face that all of us can see. The mystery of God for Christians is one where the flesh, the very concreteness of human existence, is needed to genuinely understand God. This has parallels with education – about intellectual attainment and development of skills. To be really effective, to make a difference in the lives of children, education has to be concrete as well – enacted through communities that care and nurture, as well as stimulate and instruct.

Education is much more than learning

what something is or how it works or how to do something. It is also about why the world is the way it is and the absolute centrality of human relationships. This key element is never measured through tests and scores, it is only measured through the really important things in our lives – have I made a contribution to the world? Am I a good person to know and love? Does my presence in the world build up communities? These things are learned through good families and good communities. They are learned through example and practice. They are evaluated by the degree of happiness one instils in others and which one feels oneself. This is why choosing an appropriate educational community for children is at the heart of good parenting.

The month of May is also the month of Mary in the Catholic tradition, and coincidentally it is the month of the year when enrolments are planned. As parents getting ready to make this decision, it is worth asking yourself what kind of school will make your child happy? Which educational community will encourage your child to be a person of compassion and generosity, creative and caring? A person who cares more about relationships with others than abstract doctrine or philosophy.