Six keys to making high school choices

An article on my research in the Sun Herald, Sydney, 7 Aug 2016

Understanding the behavioural economics behind choosing a school can save parents a lot of time, writes JAMES MELOUNE

Education is the bedrock of a prosperous society. However the responsibility for getting education “right” and wealth of school choices can be bewildering for some parents.

The behavioural economics behind decisions parents make has prompted Sean Leaver, a former banker, to survey parents. Leaver, a PhD candidate at Melbourne’s RMIT University, has surveyed more than 800 families. His thesis, Behavioural Economics and the Complexity of School Choice, has found there are six keys to high school choice.


Leaver’s study found that parents fall into one of five groups, based on what they feel is most important for their child’s development.

“One group of parents is after academic excellence,” he says. “There’s a group who prioritise particular cultural, social, or religious values. Another group looks for pastoral support; these are parents who are unsure about their child’s ability to cope in the system and they prefer schools that have the resources to support their kid.

“Other parents look for schools that focus on building confidence and self-esteem. And the final group is seeking subject choice, such as a specific sport, language, arts, science or music program. “The trick is knowing what you want and then getting your choices down to a small selection of schools.”


From the Federal Government’s MySchool to NAPLAN primary school results to HSC league tables to school websites and brochures, open days and social networks, the tide of information can feel overwhelming.

Leaver’s advice is to save time and money by winnowing information sources. “School open days are critical. Parents get to talk with teachers and principals, understand what’s on offer, get a feel for the school, and make themselves more confident in their decision.”

For parents seeking pastoral support for a child, open days are an excellent way to determine if the resources are there to help a kid if they start to struggle, he says.

For parents whose primary concern is academic excellence, Leaver recommends they study the annual HSC school ranking published by the Sydney Morning Herald education/hsc-results-2015-find-out-how-your-school-ranked-20151216-glosos.html.

Leaver’s study found that not many parents are using MySchool. “MySchool data reflects kids coming out of year 12. If you’re placing your kids in year 7, it will be another 6 years before [reflective MySchool ratings] come out,” he says.

“If high scores have led to increased demand, it will be a while before you see this impact the scores. As a consequence of a strong MySchool rating, some parents ended up sending their kids to a school that was overflowing.”


Sourcing “inside information” from parents with “skin in the game” is vital, Leaver says. And significantly saves you time. “You don’t really know if the school is a fit or not until it is experienced. One way to get around this is by social learning – look at someone who has a kid that is similar to your child and see how their kid has experienced the school.

“Social learning makes it a lot easier to join the dots and make a projection about whether the school will be a good fit for your child. If there is a better way to do things, it is to speak to as many people as possible who have made choices themselves.”

Of the parents Leaver interviewed, most spent about three months working through the decision, but some took up to 12 months. While each family faces a unique set of circumstances, Leaver found that “the parents who spend 12 months are usually the ones collecting all the information by themselves. The parents who make quicker choices tend to use social learning.”

And if one parent has an analytical approach and collects data, while the other parents relies more on gut instinct and networked views, there’s potential for conflict.


Parents usually make decisions about choosing a secondary school when their child is in years 4-5 at primary school, however Leaver Suggests parents should start thinking about it “as soon as your kid starts school, but not to the same level of intensity. “That means starting the social network in kindergarten years “so when you get to the right point you’ve got the network built to find the information you need”. “It might be sport or music, anything that gives you a wider network of parents with children at a range of schools,” Leaver says. “Sometimes parents stick to a single social network and as a result their information is actually quite limited.”


Deciding which school to send your child to may raise other questions that need answering simultaneously. “You might find a school which is a really good fit but it’s halfway across the city,” says Leaver. “This adds a heap of auxiliary decisions, like ‘should we move closer to that school?’ “And this is where timing becomes important. If you leave it too late, you might be forced to make other auxiliary decisions very quickly as these impact your [school] choice.”

The impact such a decision might have on your other children, now and in the future, also arises. Will it change the dynamic in your family? What are the implications for subsequent decisions, such as which school your younger son or daughter might attend?


In behavioural economics costs include your time. Parent interviews, school plays, recitals, weekend sport and other extracurricular elements will have you at the school grounds more often than you might think. Leaver calls this the “hassle factor,” and urges parents to consider their capacity to organise the logistics. “Is the school close enough so you can do the morning drop-offs, evening pickups and weekend activities, while you have to manage your work schedule?”

The time cost is not limited to you, either. How long will your child spend travelling to and from school? An hour’s transport each way adds up. Before and after school music or study group, or sport practice can see children leaving home at 7am and returning at 6pm or later. When it comes to finances, “the real issue is that this is a commitment for six years,” Leaver says.

Many of the benefits of attending an independent school are associated with the final years of schooling, yet parents are concerned about the possibility of “abrupt events” such as job loss or divorce, Leaver says.

For some parents, “it might be better to take the risk of hanging back and going for year 9, 10, or 11… get the results from the public school system, then go for the private school if your child is a high achiever”. If you considering this, there’s both the impact on a child from changing schools and the possibility the school of choice for senior years is booked out.

Note: I had to make corrections where the journalist stated I had interviewed 800 parents when he should have written I had surveyed 800 parents.

six-keys-to-school-choice pdf

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