One of the biggest jobs parents face is setting up their children in the right school. Those who succeed believe they are providing those children with a head start in a competitive world. Extraordinary steps are being taken to gain that advantage. Some are using fair means and foul to get into a desirable school zone. Others are sending children as young as three to private preschool classes.
This practice was highlighted in our three-part education series "Top of the Class", which concludes today. It underscores the significance of statistics that show education is one of the biggest concerns for parents by the time their children reach the age of 2. Finding the right school is not an easy task. There are many complications, not least the relevance of much of the data available on each school, and ongoing debate about the value of the qualifications they offer.
Many parents make the mistake of placing too much reliance on a school's decile ranking.
That is intended to determine how much additional public funding a school needs. It is arrived at by examining socio-economic factors such as household income and welfare benefit levels.
But it does not divulge how good a school may be, including, importantly, the ability of its teachers to engage and enthuse. Therefore, it is not a predictor of pupil achievement. As much has been emphasised by the Education Review Office, which no longer includes decile rankings in its school reports. Similarly, the internal assessment involved with the NCEA and the different assessments used for National Standards make tables and data associated with them unsuitable as a best-school guide.
There is just one way parents can judge what is right for their children: visit the schools to check out the classrooms and facilities and talk to the principals, teachers and pupils.
The problems in gauging performance are not helped by the confusion that can arise from the qualifications that some schools offer. They boast of their success in different frameworks like the NCEA, the British-based Cambridge International examinations and the Geneva-based International Baccalaureate. The consistency and comparability of an exam-based alternative to the NCEA are advanced as major pluses. Noticeably, many of the severest critics of the NCEA model when it was rolled out 12 years ago have now softened their stance.
An unequivocal vote of confidence has also been given by the Employers and Manufacturers Association. It says that NCEA qualifications "give employers a more detailed picture of what kind of skills a person has, rather than just that they are good at certain academic subjects". That amounts to a signal to parents that the NCEA is the best option if their children want to enter the job market or attend a university here. Cambridge exams, however, are obviously a valid option if a child plans to enter, say, Cambridge University.
Such a distinction will not be made by the marketing machines of schools that provide qualifications other than the NCEA. Much will also be made of occupying a lofty position in NCEA tables or National Standards data, and nothing too much may be said to dissuade parents from placing a strong emphasis on a high decile ranking.
There is just one way parents can judge what is right for their children: visit the schools to check out the classrooms and facilities and talk to the principals, teachers and pupils. Schools want to build a sense of community and will welcome the interest. And it will cost parents nothing, a far cry from the expense involved in some of the more desperate steps to get children into popular schools.