Parents love to talk schools. Which high school your kids will attend is a hot topic on soccer sidelines, at school assemblies and over Friday wines. As parents of a nine-year-old boy, my husband and I are finding that the secondary school debate is becoming less hypothetical with every passing school term. I had assumed he would, as I had, go to the high school down the road. However, my husband, who went to a private boarding school, has other ideas. Choice can be a tricky thing.

As I read Bali Haque’s book, New Zealand Secondary Schools & Your Child: A guide for parents, it occurred to me that we weren’t thinking about schools in the right way. Had we even asked the nine-year-old which school he would like to attend, and why? Had we visited the schools to get an understanding of what they offered and how they operated? Had we bothered to get involved from the outset?

For some reason, Kiwi parents – although this isn’t a problem unique to New Zealand – often become more disengaged from their child’s education as they progress to high school.

“Something happens to kids as they transition to secondary school – obviously – but something also happens to parents. They feel far less inclined to get involved with their child’s education at the secondary school level,” says Haque.

Haque puts it down to the heightened complexity of secondary schools. Unlike their primary and intermediate counterparts, secondary schools are often big organisations. Suddenly a child has up to eight or nine teachers, and access to the teachers and principal becomes harder. The curriculum is different and the NCEA assessment process can be difficult to grasp.

As the title suggests, Haque’s book is like a manual for parents; I think it should be issued to every New Zealand parent of every year 8 child about to embark on the exciting and somewhat daunting world of secondary school.

His book starts with the basics, with a run-down on different types of schools, and then explains how parents can navigate their way through schools’ ERO reports, NZQA assessment reviews and curriculum guides; their approaches to streaming, multi-culturalism, discipline, homework and special needs.

It also provides the clearest explanation of the NCEA system I’ve come across, to help guide a generation of parents who grew up with School C and Bursary. School reports and parent interviews are discussed, and there are a few trouble-shooting chapters for when things go wrong.

Haque has purposely kept the book fairly short and the language accessible, with no education jargon.

Perhaps one of my favourite parts of the book is the section that includes a series of fictitious teacher profiles. It is here we meet Miss Napa, the young science teacher with an innate grasp for how to incorporate digital technology into a school-wide field study; we meet history teacher Mr James, whose talking-at-students method was well received by some students but loathed by others; we meet Mrs Gavinder, whose group work assignments are a flop. These teachers have been included to highlight that a one-size-fits-all approach does not apply in the classroom. What works for one teacher may not work for another, depending on their students and their interactions with the students.

Haque is quick to emphasise that they are examples only. He says he deliberately chose mainstream examples, not teachers who were exceptionally innovative or questionable.

“Most teachers are doing a good job, and most want to do an even better job. The issue for me is: how do we support them to do this?”

He thinks breaking down the barriers between parents and teachers is part of the answer. He acknowledges that this is perhaps rather idealistic, but points out that many schools now have learning advisors assigned to each student, to personalise their learning goals and bolster those connections between the school and family.

While parents are the primary audience for the book, Haque suspects that teachers and principals will also find the book useful to remind them of how the system appears from the parents’ perspectives. He hopes teachers will view the book as supportive, rather than encouraging parental interference.

“The issue probably is that in a busy secondary school, although teachers want parents to be involved, they can sometimes forget to view things from the parents’ perspective. Even teachers who are parents themselves do this. I always try and encourage teachers to imagine that their son or daughter is in their class.”

Haque has been careful to keep the book free from advocating for any particular system or from any political discussions. For example, he made the conscious decision to omit any discussion about alternative assessment systems like Cambridge Examinations or International Baccalaureate, as it would be too controversial. It is primarily a book about navigating state education.

Haque is also mindful that things move quickly in education. He would like to keep updating the book, so that it remains current.

I hope New Zealand Secondary Schools & Your Child: A guide for parents will become a useful resource for parents – and I expect it shall. Anything that encourages a stronger bond between school and home has to be a good thing.

New Zealand Secondary Schools and Your Child will be published by Bateman on 14 August.


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