Six years ago they chose a high school. Now it’s over, was it the right decision?

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Well before high school begins, many parents agonise over waitlists, interrogate single-sex or co-ed options or run the numbers on the cost of years of private schooling.

As 68,689 students finished 13 years of schooling last week, we asked families to reflect on their school of choice. This is what they said.

Choosing co-ed over all-girls

Suzy Bessell never planned to send her daughter Emilie to a co-ed high school.

Redlands HSC student Emilie Bessell with her mother Suzy Bessell Credit: Janie Barrett

“The boss I had when I was pregnant had missed out on getting [his son] into a particular all-boys school and he said to me if you have a child, you have got to put their name down when they’re born,” she said.

The plan to send Emilie to the local public school before going to a single-sex private high school from year 7 came unstuck after they enrolled her for preschool at Redlands in Cremorne.

“We loved all the extracurricular opportunities and the whole kind of Redlands atmosphere and community and so then we’re like, ‘OK, well, that makes sense to leave her there’.”

The school’s academic record appealed to her, as did the diversity of the school community and the fact it had the option of doing the International Baccalaureate.

On reflection, Emilie, 17, said going to a co-ed school was important for her preparation for studying at Davidson College in the US from next year and eventually the world of full-time employment.

“I feel I’m going to be studying in university and working alongside guys in the future – so why spend six years just with one gender, rather than opening myself up to that environment now,” she said.

Her favourite thing about school was sport – especially basketball. She said the school had offered her leadership positions including being a sports captain where she had to work closely with people of other genders to make decisions.

“Redlands also has a very big focus on the arts. I’ve enjoyed and participated in saxophone and piano … I think that’s also just helped to develop a really well-rounded skill set,” she said.

Leaving a private school to go selective

Since kindergarten, teachers had told Jimmy Ho that his son Jordan was gifted. He went to a couple of different public primary schools before they enrolled him at Trinity Grammar, which he attended until he was in year 6.

Jimmy Ho wanted his son Jordan to go to a selective school because kindergarten teachers had told him his son was gifted.Credit: Nick Moir

However, the goal was always to get into a selective school. He did some online practice tests prior to sitting the selective entrance exam, but did not pay for external tutoring before he received an offer to North Sydney Boys High School.

“I remember that moment. I was grateful, it was exciting, it was a big dream to get into the best school in NSW,” Ho said.

He had kept Trinity Grammar as a back-up option but always believed the competitive environment of a selective school would challenge Jordan.

“All the teachers are teaching really well. We picked the right one,” he said.

Jordan, 18, said he liked the competitive environment but there was a lot more to the school than just high achievement.

“There is a focus on academics and the stereotypes are true to some extent, but our lives aren’t entirely focused around that,” he said.

Despite students at the school coming from all over Sydney, he would spend time with school friends on the weekends and said the school offered a wide range of sports. He also represented the school in the volleyball team, was in the basketball and tennis club, represented the school in regional competitions and went on a biology summer camp.

“I think it is about creating a well-rounded student – opportunities for leadership, for sport, it creates a person who is disciplined.”

Rejecting a selective school in favour of a public comprehensive

New father Peter Gurry and his wife had an important decision to make about 17 years ago when their daughter Cameron was born: where to send her to high school.

The couple, originally from Western Australia, said their Sydney friends had put their children on waitlists at numerous private schools. So they did too.

Peter Gurry said while they weighed up private school, they realised the top-performing comprehensive near their home was the best option for his daughter Cameron.Credit: Nick Moir

“A lot of our friends have sent their kids to private schools so we were probably caught up in making sure we had things covered off,” he said.

They moved to the lower north shore after buying a house in Willoughby and sent Cameron to the local public school. When it came to high school, her name was down at private girls’ schools including Queenwood, Wenona and Roseville College.

As the start of year 7 drew closer, the decision became increasingly complicated. They realised they had inadvertently bought a home in the catchments of one of the top-performing comprehensive schools in the state: Willoughby Girls. The school offered a suite of extracurricular activities such as touch football and had a school band. Plus, it was close to home.

“We had dropped off on Queenwood because of the location, because it is challenging to get to. We agonised about this a lot,” he said.

Complicating the decision further, Cameron had sat the selective schools’ entrance exam and was accepted to North Sydney Girls – which last year ranked fourth out of hundreds of NSW high schools in the HSC. While he believed his daughter would have performed well at that school, he was not convinced the highly competitive environment was the right fit for her.

“We were under the impression that the kids at North Sydney Girls were all tutored; that was something we thought about too,” he said.

Cameron, who is now 17, said she was not challenged enough by the work in primary school so actually wanted to go to a selective school at the time, but was happy with her parents’ decision to send her to Willoughby Girls.

“But I was definitely glad I went to Willoughby because I still got all the higher level academic stuff I would have learnt at North Sydney Girls, but I got to participate in sport and music,” she said.

One of the best things about the Willoughby Girls was the teachers, she said, and the fact they often had them for more than one year.

“In maths for example, one of the teachers I had in years 9 and 10 and year 12, and they get to know us and how we learn,” she said.

She said a ski trip to Thredbo in year 8 helped strengthen bonds of friendship with her peers, while she also joined the Department of Education’s Symphonic Wind Ensemble and was promoted to being a prefect.

“Being a prefect meant learning how to co-operate with other people, work in a team,” she said.

“For me, the most important thing in a school was the friends I made and relationships, and the leadership positions I was in.”

When sport matters

Jennifer Kingston can remember when the talk of choosing a high school for her son, Joshua, started.

“At the beginning of primary school there was panic talk around waitlists and people putting their kids’ names down on a lot of schools like Shore, St Ignatius and Joeys,” she said.

Kingston did not get swept up in a panic because she struggled to see how tens of thousands of dollars in fees would translate into a superior education.

Jennifer and Michael Kingston with their son Josh.Credit: Jessica Hromas

“I didn’t feel the pull. I grew up in country NSW, I don’t like the idea of elitism. I was thinking about what school would suit our family and have a good balance … I had a core belief that good teachers are good teachers,” she said.

By the end of primary school, Joshua had developed a keen interest in rugby league and so she looked for a school offering that sport, settling on Marist North Shore College, a low-fee systemic Catholic school in North Sydney.

“It just felt like the right fit culturally for Josh and his interests. It had a warm vibe and it felt balanced,” she said.

Joshua, 18, loved the past six years thanks to “good teachers and good friends”.

He said camps during year 7, year 9 and year 12 helped him get to know the other 120 pupils in his year. He said the school had a great gym he could use before and after school, while the school continually went above and beyond.

“This year in particular we’ve had the library open Monday to Friday until 7pm and staff who stay back and assist us, and that’s an opportunity open to year 11 and 12,” he said.

“The school supports students.”

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