How to choose the right school for your child

Choosing a school comes with a flood of emotions (for parents and kids) – anxiety, fear, sadness, nervousness, and hopefully a little excitement too. Then there are the logistics – distance, zoning, travel, legalities, and whether or not you have other children to consider. There are so many questions and considerations when it comes to managing your child’s needs and your expectations, and there isn’t really a lot in the way of ‘how to’s’ to help you out.

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Before you begin this process you should pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself – if your child is at the age where you need to be thinking about schooling, then you have already made it through some tough decisions and come out the other side. Let’s face it – you’ve already done the cloth or disposable nappies, the cot or your bed, the childcare or no, the bedtime and food decisions. You’ve got this.

Take the pressure off

Undeniably, part of the pressure comes from outside your family. The moment your child turns four, there seems to be a constant stream of, “So which school will they go to?” questions. There is a lot of pressure on parents to get it right, made even harder by the fact that there are so many schooling options these days. This is a process that needs to be worked through. There is no right or wrong way to make this decision – only you will know what is right for your child.

Having said that, thinking about it earlier can take the pressure off. For example, the preschool / kindergarten / childcare provider you choose for your child while they’re young may impact your decision on where to send them to school later. Your child will build relationships with the children and teachers they spend their early days with, and having familiar faces and friendships could help ease their anxieties when they start ‘big school’.

Unless zoning is really strict, or there are cultural reasons – for example, some kura kaupapa will only accept new entrants who have attended total-immersion Kōhanga Reo – there shouldn’t be any obligation to send your child to the school their childcare is linked to. It is just something to think about in the early days.

Should my kids go to the same school?

If you have more than one child, depending on the age difference between them, you may want your kids to attend the same school. This can help younger siblings settle more easily as there will always be a familiar face on the playground. This won’t work for everyone though – if there is a history of strong sibling rivalry, this could be amplified in and out of the home environment. Likewise, if your children are emotionally dependant on each other, you may wish to take this as a chance to help them build their own confidence and enrol them at separate schools. Sometimes the reality is that different kids will need different schools.

School options in New Zealand

Just remember, what works for another family may not work for you and your child. Take your child’s personality and their needs into account. In New Zealand, these are some of your options.

State schools

Nearly 85 percent of NZ children are enrolled at state schools across the country. While these schools are publically funded, parents may still be required to pay an enrolment fee or parent contribution.

State-integrated schools

Less than 10 percent of NZ children attend state-integrated schools. These are also publically funded but separated from public schools on special character i.e. they may be religion-based, or have special education methods like Montessori. Fees are generally higher than state schools, and can be anywhere up to $1,500 a year.

Private schools

Private enrolments account for around five percent of school-aged children. The fees are substantially higher and some private schools offer the option for students to board. There are girls or boys-only, as well as a few co-educational options. Typically the class sizes and enrolments will be smaller than publically-funded schools.

Charter schools

Governments provide a level of funding to charter schools, but they have applied to be exempt from the rules around NZ curriculum and legislation. They may be faith-based, or just have a special character that doesn’t fit a traditional curriculum delivery. They are new in NZ and relatively untested in terms of teaching and educational quality.


Less than two percent of NZ children are homeschooled. Homeschooling can be an option for a number of reasons – access to school (for rural or remote areas), religious or personal reasons. Homeschooling can also be an amazing tool to helping a child with learning disabilities. There are great teaching resources available for parents looking to homeschool, but keep in mind you will be responsible for your child meeting other kids.

When should your child start school?

Our New Zealand culture is geared towards children starting school on their fifth birthday. But from a legal perspective, any time between five and six is fine. Often the decision is taken out of your hands – your new five year old may tell you in no uncertain terms that it is school time!

In many other countries, children won’t start school until they are six or seven and there are studies that show that children benefit from the extra year or two spent in more informal learning environments like kindergarten. While it may mean that your child will be a little older than some of the other children in the class, not all children are emotionally prepared to step into a classroom when they are five.

You know your child better than anyone – so if you feel like their confidence levels and emotional capabilities would benefit from an extra year spent outside the classroom, that is totally your decision. It may also be a lifestyle choice – you may wish to spend some time travelling with your young family, or you might still have reservations and uncertainties around schooling and not want to rush your decision – again, it is entirely up to you.

Talk it all through with people in the know

Speak with other parents in your area about what school they are planning to send their children to and why. Often the other parents at your child’s kindergarten or childcare centre are going through the same motions and emotions and it’s great to hear from people who understand. Speak with the ECE teachers too – they may be able to offer really great insights into the local schools.

Online parent support groups can be a wealth of helpful information, but be wary of using community social media groups to ask for advice. They often become a contest. It’s better to ask parents you know personally. Remember to weigh each comment in relation to what you already know about that parent and child.

Once you start looking, you’ll realise there are so many schools in our country – we really are spoilt for choice. You may live in an area – particularly rural areas – where you only have one or two options, but if you have a few choices in mind, make a list and then get ready to do a few school visits.

What should you be looking for in a school?

Trust your kid’s instincts

Always take your child with you when looking at schools. Kids have great instincts and you want to know if the school is an environment they feel comfortable in. It’s always a nerve-wracking experience being somewhere new – or for parents being back in the principal’s office! Try and look past the initial nerves – you’ll be able to tell if your child is coping.

It’s also good not to base your feelings on one teacher. Your new entrant teacher is an important part of your child’s life, but they aren’t all you need to care about. If you feel good about the school, but not about a particular teacher, just ride that year out. Stability in one school is better than chopping and changing every time you get a teacher that seems like the wrong fit for your child.

All New Zealand schools are governed by the same curriculum and learning levels. While the teaching methods will vary from school to school, and teacher to teacher, the format should be the same. Education levels in New Zealand are well-developed and the school will be able to give you an outline of the curriculum, what is expected of students, and what your child will be learning.


Location is another influencing factor. In highly-populated areas, schools are zoned. This means if you live within that particular school zone, your child will automatically be eligible to enrol. If you are outside the zone, you will need to apply to enrol and you won’t be guaranteed a placement, unless there is sufficient space.

It also pays to think about how your child is going to travel to and from school each day. Some schools offer bus services, and others may be within walking distance of your home. You may be planning to take your child to and from school each day. Again, it’s up to you – you just need to make sure that the location of the school is accessible and convenient for you.

Planning ahead can help ease the financial pressure

The first year at school can be very expensive for parents. There’s the need for school shoes, a backpack and lunchbox, it’s your first time ordering stationery, and there are the school fees and camp costs.

Having to buy a uniform on top of all of this can be really tough. While uniforms can be a costly investment, they really do help keep your child safe and make a great visual aid if anything happens – especially on the commute to and from school each day. Most – if not all – schools are now implementing uniforms, so preparing for this cost ahead of time can help take a little of the stress away.

Once you have decided what school your child will be attending, it might pay to start looking at second-hand uniform options – there are stores devoted to second-hand uniforms and kids grow so quickly they’re often in great condition. Or perhaps start putting a little money aside each week to help cover the cost.

You know what is best for your child

At the end of the day, this is a decision that can have an amazing impact on the development of your child, so take the time to ensure both you and your child feel comfortable and secure with your decision. Let your child have a little input too. They may tell you that they want to go to the same school as their friends – and that’s okay. Let them know you value their input, and let them feel a part of the process too.

Remember, while school is a big part of our lives, it’s not all of it. Our time as a family before school, in the evenings and during the weekends and holidays is what really shapes our children. School just amplifies what you have already begun to develop in your child. You were, and will continue to be, your child’s first teacher.

Attend a Toolbox parenting course

Toolbox courses inspire and equip whānau. They are bursting with great advice, humour and encouragement, offering practical strategies and insights into developmental stages. Parents leave reassured that challenges are common to all families and that they’re not alone on their parenting journey. The courses are run over a number of weeks in a relaxed and conversational small group setting with a trained facilitator. The five courses – Building Awesome Whānau, Baby and Toddler Years, Primary Years, Intermediate Years, and Teenage Years. Find out more and register here.