THE AGE Newspaper article of Monday October 24th 2005.
Exercising a right to choose
Schools must present well to attract increasingly discerning parents, writes Margaret Cook.
Parents are becoming more selective about choosing primary schools, says education consultant Kathy Walker. She has already spoken to 35 parents' groups this year about how to make the right choice.
"Now they often ask 'Should I choose government or private or Catholic?' and 'Could you tell me about Steiner or Montessori schools?'," says Ms Walker.
This has put pressure on all schools to market themselves and examine how well they respond to their local communities, she says.
"It's very positive because it has encouraged schools to ask 'What makes us different? What is our philosophical position?' Also, parents are more aware that education is a serious business and that every school has its own flavour and emphasises certain things."
Nowadays primary schools run various promotional activities to boost prep enrolments, such as open days, information nights, principals visiting local kindergartens, billboards outside schools and advertisements in newspapers.
"My sense is that state schools aren't spending more money, but they're taking a more professional approach to marketing," says Ms Walker. "For example, they're jazzing up their webpages and putting out glossy publications with colour photographs, rather than photocopied black-and-white sheets."
Sue Arnts, the principal of Beaumaris Primary School, has received calls from prospective parents since the start of the year.
"They usually visit two or three schools, and it's important they're happy with the one they choose," she says. "They look for a variety of things, such as the teaching, facilities and specialist programs."
Prep enrolments at Beaumaris have been steady at 70 to 80 children for the past six years, with about 75 per cent coming from the local area. Mrs Arnts expects to run three or four prep classes next year, and says local schools work co-operatively, rather than in competition.
Bayswater South Primary School will run two or three prep classes in 2005, says principal Mary-Ann Williams.
"We visit local kindergartens to promote our transition programs and what we're doing so we can get an idea of next year's enrolments," she says. "We get a lot of inquiries and people often come in for tours. There are quite a few schools around this way, and parents tend to look quite widely."
Mrs Williams welcomes this trend because it means families find the right schools for their children. She says a drawcard for many parents is Bayswater South's German immersion program, in which science, SOSE (Studies of Society and Environment) and visual arts classes are taught entirely in German.
Changing demographics can affect enrolments, positively or negatively. Port Fairy has experienced the "sea change" effect in recent years, although Michael Keyburn, the principal of Port Fairy Consolidated Primary School, says many new arrivals to the area are older or childless people. "Our numbers have been steady and we run one to two prep classes each year," he says.
The school places advertisements in the local newspaper. "It's not so much to market ourselves for enrolments but to maintain our profile," says Mr Keyburn. "Also, it's part of our ethos to form links with the community, and there is a push for more accountability from schools. We want to tell people about the good work we're doing and lift our image." According to the Education Department, children have the right to go to their nearest government primary school but can enrol at others if there are vacancies. The Catholic Education Office says children who have been baptised Catholic are given priority at their nearest school, although children who live further away, and non-Catholics, can also apply. Both sectors will take prep enrolments throughout 2004, but prefer them earlier so they can plan for next year.
Private schools' enrolment dates vary, with some taking prep students at short notice and others with long waiting lists, says Michelle Green, the chief executive of the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria. "Principals are increasingly impressed by the level of research that parents are undertaking to find the right school," she says.