“This can’t possibly be the title of your article.” My stylish and articulate friend, whose boys happen to attend an elite Toronto private school, looked up in indignation upon glancing at my article. “You’re lumping all private schools together, which is wrong. You can’t even begin to compare a top-tier school such as Trinity College School, with some so-called ‘schools’ consisting of five kids in someone’s basement.”
She’s not too far off the mark. Indeed, anyone can effortlessly register a private school in Ontario. All it takes to start up a private school is an easily completed Intention to Operate form, five-hundred dollars, and enrollment of at least five students. There is practically no jurisdictional oversight for curriculum and teaching qualifications. Private schools are exempt from any other regulated educational practices, such as anti-bullying policies, release of students’ personal information, and criminal background checks for teachers, operators, and staff. Theoretically, your kids could be spending their days in someone’s basement, learning how to do floral arrangements with a previously convicted criminal for a teacher. Or worse!? The pendulum of a mother’s imagination swings fast and wide… The Ministry of Education may inspect such a school, but only if the school grants Ontario Secondary School diplomas. While all private schools must meet zoning, fire, health, and building code requirements, the Ministry conducting the inspection will still allow a defected school to operate. There is no formal process in place to document these or any other concerns, or to inform oversight agencies such as the Ministry of Labour, Children’s Aid, or even the fire department. The majority of private schools in Ontario are not degree-granting schools and are not inspected. Tellingly, a critical 2013 Auditor General Report concluded that Ontario has one of the least regulated private school sectors in Canada.
So, how does this all apply to you—a parent who may be dissatisfied with the quality of education/bureaucracy in the Ontario public school system, and considering an alternative? Or perhaps, you’re a parent looking for a school with a similar moral/religious background to your own. Maybe, you’re somebody seeking prestige and the right social circle for your prodigy. You may be toying with the idea of sending your child to a private school, arguing that there is no need for Big Brother oversight, and that market forces will take care of any hiccups. They may or they may not. As for anything else in life, there are no guarantees. The Ontario Ministry of Education stresses the latter with a disclaimer on their website, urging parents and guardians to do their research before registering for private schools. So, before you commit to a private school and fork over the big bucks, YOU BETTER DO YOUR HOMEWORK. There are some world-class private schools in our province, and there are others you are better off staying away from.
Issue 1: Accountability
As a parent in this “buyer beware” market, you want to see that the private school you are registering your child for is somehow accountable to itself, other private schools, parents, students, and the public at large. The first thing that you should be aware of is the difference between “private” and “independent” schools. While private schools can be run by a single person with zero accountability, independent schools are non-profit organizations that report to a Board of Governors. They usually belong to a larger association of private schools that require their members to meet and exceed rigid academic, operational, and financial standards. Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario (CIS) is a particularly well-regarded association of independent schools that is made up of 47 independent schools, serving 27,000 students. All CIS schools are accredited by CAIS (Canadian Accredited Independent Schools) and maintain high standards through a re-accreditation process. There may be other associations the school belongs to, that act to ensure there are additional checks and balances in place, such as Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators, Association of Waldorf Schools or affiliated umbrella associations for religious schools. Some of the questions you may want to ask are: Is the school inspected or accredited? If so, by whom and how often? Is the school an affiliate member of a recognized professional association?
While being a member of an organization like CIS says a lot about a school in terms of their commitment to constant improvement, sound governance, and quality of education, a lack of affiliation doesn’t necessarily mean that a school is disreputable. It does, however, mean that you have to inspect it even more rigorously before entrusting your child in their care. You may want to ask how a school demonstrates its accountability and financial soundness. Many private and independent schools are registered charities and provide publicly available financial statements. The school should have no qualms in answering your questions on teachers’ salaries, annual operating and facility maintenance costs. Those of you who believe this sort of vigilance is overkill—just remember that Pushkin Private School (1998-2008) declared bankruptcy mid-year, putting the students at academic risk and leaving their parents on the hook for prepaid tuition fees. Pushkin was in no way unique—the Ministry of Education’s data indicates that 235 Ontario private schools ceased operations within the last five years, and frequently, during the academic year.
Issues 2: Quality of Teaching
I don’t have to tell you that good teachers change lives. Quality of teaching is one of the most important factors in student success—accounting for a significant variation in student achievement. What influences the quality of teaching? There are obviously some immeasurable factors such as passion for teaching coupled with specific set of pedagogic skills. You can gauge it by touring the school and observing teachers in action, as well as by chatting with students, teachers, and other parents. More objective criteria include teaching credentials, subject knowledge, professional development, and experience. Private schools have the advantage of being meritocratic and quickly disposing of ineffective teachers. I do, however, wonder why a qualified and experienced teacher would forego the benefits of job security, top-ranked salary relative to other OECD countries, and Cadillac pension plan in favor of working in the private sector. “True passion for their work, ability to side-step layers of bureaucracy, smaller classes, freedom and ability to make a difference” are some of the responses I have heard. Touché. Yet, I can’t qualm a nagging suspicion that the inability to find a job in the public sector may be a less noble factor for some. After all, in Ontario, principals and teachers in private schools are not required to be certified by the Ontario College of Teachers. Once again, qualification requirements may depend on whether the school is part of an association. Practically all of CIS teachers are members of the Ontario College of Teachers. CIS independent Schools typically pay teachers at the same level or at a higher level than public school teachers. The majority of CIS schools contribute to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan or another retirement plan for their teachers. During your school visit you should get the facts about teacher training and qualifications and verify it on the OCT’s public register at www.oct.ca.
Finland, a stunningly successful education superpower, demands a master’s degree, minimum, to enter the profession. The country’s teacher training programs are amongst the most selective professional schools in the nation. Professional development in teaching staff is equally crucial. The Finnish “educational miracle” is built on a heavy investment in teacher education and training. Ontario public schools provide four to eight days a year for professional development. I urge you to research what your potential private school does to ensure teachers are aware of the latest educational trends, and of course, the school’s level of commitment to professional development.
Issue 3: Quality of Education
Most of my friends whose children go to private schools cite quality of education (or lack thereof) as one of their top reasons for choosing to educate their children outside the public system. This is consistent with a Fraser Institute survey, where 94% of parents choose private schools due to disappointment with public or separate schools. 80% of surveyed parents believe that private school students have superior academic performance. Yet, just because you paid a lot of money for something, does not necessarily mean you paid for better quality. If your child is intellectually curious and hardworking, it may not matter much where they receive their education. One of my friends received the majority of her education in a low ranking public school (5.2 by the Fraser Institute, to be exact), and didn’t have fancy tutors. Today, she has her pick of Canada’s top law schools. Granted, her success may be attributable to the efforts of her parents, influence of peers, or perhaps, to the high-ranking (7.8 by the Fraser Institute) public high school she attended later. What I am trying to emphasize, is that her formative years occurred in a low ranking school located in a lower middle-class neighborhood, and this did not impede her development or success in later life.
Standardized testing is one of the means to gauge education quality. Unlike public schools, private schools are not required to participate in standardized EQAO Grade 3 and 6 tests. Yet, for the 112 private schools that voluntarily participated in these tests, a smaller percentage of students achieved the provincial standards, than public school students. The cost of administering the test should be considered in a school’s willingness to participate. These results are heavily influenced by outliers, and only pertain to 10% of private schools in the province, and therefore, should not be used to draw generalizations. However, unlike EQAO, Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) is mandatory and free of charge for all high school students that receive high school credits, resulting in a 100% participation rate among private schools.
In 2012, 82% of public school students passed the OSSLT compared to 73% of private school students. In both EQAO and OSSLT, the results for these schools varied considerably, from well below the provincial average to 100%. The EQAO website compiles the results for all Ontario schools, just type in the name of the school in the green search box. There may be reasons for exceptionally low results and you would be wise to investigate it further.
If the private school you are considering doesn’t participate in EQAO testing, likely because these tests are expensive, the schools nevertheless should be administering some kind of standardized testing. Canadian Achievement Test (CAT) and OECD PISA for international student assessment are some of the better known tests private schools do administer. Ask for the results. If you are told that there is no testing, or if the test results are withheld, and academics are important to you, look for another school.
Most private and independent schools flaunt their student university admission rates as an objective way to measure the success of their academic programs. “The private school that I went to boasts 100% university admission. Academically, it is an exceptionally strong school. I had it all made, getting admitted to McGill’s engineering programming was a piece of cake.” Paul laughingly recalls his experience graduating from a top-tiered private school. “The first year was a shocker though, and my grades took a huge plunge. It was this whole transition from an incredibly sheltered environment with small classes and individualized attention to a 500-person lecture hall where nobody gave a damn.” As an all-girls school graduate, Anna agrees with Paul, mentioning that there is a lot of handholding. The school went as far as completing all of her university admission paperwork. Many of her former classmates who did exceptionally well in school struggled in university. Anna and Paul’s experiences are not unique, there have been a few studies showing that public school students are better prepared for university. One of the explanations for this counterintuitive results is that once the discipline of private school and parental oversight are taken away, the former private-school students at university have less capacity for self-motivated study.
Thus, when considering a private high school, ask for additional measures of their graduates’ success. For example, since 2006, a small number of Ontario CIS schools participate in the National Tracking Project where they track data on their graduates’ university grades for the duration of their undergraduate degree program. According to this tracking project, their first-year students only had a 3.6% grade drop average compared to a more typical 10% percent drop.
One of my biggest questions was whether there are any long-term career advantages to private school education. While there has not been many longitudinal studies in North America, the subject generated a lot of interest in UK and Australia. Surprisingly, the studies concluded that there is no long-term employment advantages for private school students, with public school graduates earning just as much in equally prominent jobs.
In the last few years there also have been many reports of Ontario private schools, artificially boosting students’ high school grades to ensure university admissions. All of these “credit mill schools” flagged in the investigation are vastly different from the legitimate and reputable private schools, but even the latter may succumb to grade-inflating pressures. “My son got an A in his first grade English class even though he could not read yet” recounts Maria who happens to be an elementary school teacher, herself. “I went to speak to his teacher, incredulous at how he got this grade and she was telling me what a sweet and curious child my son is–I took him out of this private school and now he is in the public system.” Unlike Maria, many engaged, tuition-paying parents expect to see high grades. As one public-turned-private school teacher explains in his Parents Canada article, “Report cards in private schools are more stressful. I have actually had parents remind me that their child is applying to a certain school and to keep that in mind when I am writing the report.”
Issue 4: Social Environment
All of the parents I spoke to emphasize the value of other factors in taking the plunge into private education, such as: reputation, convenience, discipline, safety, good social value system, and character development. Few openly admitted making choices based on the peer group they were hoping to select for their kids. “It’s not what you know but who you know and the sooner, the better” explains one father regarding his decision to put his son into an all-boys boarding school. “I want my son to mix with the right people.” Most elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity, race, and religion. With respect to class, these schools are largely homogeneous. Some pick candidates based on the special attributes (or assets) of their parents. Many are selective about the type of child they are willing to accept. Getting admitted to these top-tier schools may involve in-depth applications with multiple interviews, essays, and testing. Some parents want to capitalize on that beneficial peer effect that comes from higher socioeconomic background almost always associated with private schools. They want their children to belong to this private club, “the old boys/girls network.” Of course, this isn’t always a good thing. “It is very disturbing to hear my daughter constantly whining about other kids having bigger houses, going on exclusive vacations, and giving out Ivivva scarves in loot bags,” one mom worriedly confides in me. “We sacrifice everything for Jessica’s education and it’s pretty hard to keep up with the Jones’.”
For other parents, the perceived “snob factor” is a strong deterrent of private education. They want their children to be exposed to a more diverse community–both ethnically and economically. For them, there is more to education than what is being taught—there is also life preparation, perhaps the more subtle education your child receives in school. It is about socializing with kids from all walks of life- poor kids and rich kids, smart kids and not-so smart ones, troublemakers and nerds. It is about overcoming difficulties, learning through trial and error, being mixed with the good and the bad and building yourself based on your experiences without the benefits of a safety net. They believe private school students get a very limited glimpse of the real world because they exist in this “privileged bubble.”
Some good schools are sensitive to this criticism, embracing a culture of inclusiveness, character-building and all-round education as an essential adjunct to academics. Problematically, these concepts become omnipresent catchphrases that dilute their underlying meaning. How do you discover the school culture? Sometimes it is very evident, as in the case of my friend who discovered a well-known York-region private school was opening its Toronto location near her. Any desire to enroll her three kids in that school vanished, when the administrator told her that if she’s asking about tuition cost, the school is not for her. Other times you have to play detective- visit the school but not just during the organized tours. Go to a school fair, charity function, or sporting event to get a true sense of what the school is like. You can see how happy children are, and what the school values. Observe at drop offs in the morning and see for yourself. Notice how children get to school and who they come with, as well as, who greets them. Is the head of the school meeting the children out on the steps or is it an assistant? Are the kids running towards or away from him/her? Being there helps clarify what you are looking for and whether or not your family’s values and your child’s learning style fits with the school’s practices.
There is much to consider, and if you had to pick one thing to take away from all of my musings, I hope it’s the importance of thorough research. If you decide to invest into private education, I urge you to invest informatively and wisely! Neither you nor your child (ren) will ever collect any dividends on years spent in a wrong school! Search online, visit and observe the school, talk to everyone you can—teachers, parents, students, alumni, anyone. If you are pressed for time and uncertain, hire an educational consultant. At the end of the day, the best school for your child is a highly personal decision based on your family, values, and most importantly, the special needs, personality, and interests of your child. For example, a child who is a free-spirit may not thrive in a restrictive, traditional, and perhaps, uniform-wearing school. A highly-gifted “Type A” child may not necessarily thrive in a Waldorf type of school.
There are times when I think that our parents had it much easier. They were not faced with the plethora of school choice. My parents sent me to a local school (only in Canada did I find out it was actually one of the worst schools in my city), because that’s where we lived. And they weren’t too worried about it. In our competitive and driven society, we are constantly worried about giving our child the best we possibly can—from clothing, toys, education, and extracurricular. Many are convinced that it’s the parent’s job to ensure they’ve placed their child in the best learning environment. And yet, I have a sneaking suspicious that my kids will probably do just fine without “the best”. At the end of the day it comes down to whether they became better people. I hope so. But that’s the lottery of life and school only has so much to do with it. There are other factors that will shape them as they grow older.
Irina Ovis is an experienced researcher and a mother of two boys and a girl, all under the age of 10. In her free time, Irina enjoys cooking, hosting dinner parties, nature walks, speaking French, and sharing big ideas. She lives with her husband and children in Thornhill.