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Canadian Independent Schools

Independent Schools

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No longer are school options confined to private versus public.  Independent schools offer an alternative for parents looking for an educational institute that provides greater flexibility, small class sizes, academic superiority and a philosophy of education that forges close relationships with parents and alumni.

When Anne-Marie Kee, Executive Director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), was deciding upon a school for her daughter, she took into account a number of factors. “I wanted her to have an opportunity to excel in arts and athletics [and] I wanted her to have teachers that were engaging and that were going to challenge and support her in different ways on a daily basis,” explains Kee. She settled upon an independent school not only for the academic and co-curricular opportunities that would be available to her daughter, but also for the culture independent education fosters. “I think the difference with an independent school is you have parents [and kids] who have chosen to partner with the school and that choice process is really important,” she says.

Independent schools are not-for-profit and are overseen by an elected board of directors as opposed to a public school board. Their charitable status means donations are eligible for tax receipts, however tuition fees are considered a service and are not eligible for tax receipts. These schools are licensed by the provinces in which they operate and comply with provincial education standards; however because of their independent status, they have the freedom to be innovative and create programs that are designed specifically for the students they serve while adhering to high academic standards.

There's a lot to consider when examining an independent education.  We've highlighted some key factors here.

Types of independent schools:

Independent schools vary in the programs they provide and the educational philosophies they embody.  Some schools may offer International Baccalaureate or advanced placement programs.  They may follow Reggio Emilia, Waldorf or Montessori philosophies, may be co-educational or single-sex, boarding or day schools or a combination of both, and offer a range of co-curricular opportunities including arts, athletics, community service programs and international travel opportunities. Some independent schools have opted to become accredited by CAIS (Canadian Accredited Independent Schools), who hold schools to an internationally recognized standard of excellence.  "An accreditation process looks at all aspects of programs and operations,” says Kee. Accredited schools go above and beyond the ministry's expectations.  "If a school meets the CAIS standards, parents can expect to see excellence in all areas of programs and operations and a real celebration of learning," says Kee.

Is there a difference between an independent and private school?

All private schools and preschools operate within a budget and are supported largely by private sources, largely independent of government budgetary changes.

Funding for most independent schools can be obtained from governmental and private sources, depending on the province they operate in and the regulations set by their Education Act declared by their Ministry of Education. But most importantly, they are all non-profit organizations, whether they are religious or community-based, address special needs, teach in a specific method, or are home-schools. ( On this website, we use the terms private and independent interchangeably, and encourage everyone to ask each school and program about their governance, accreditations and grant options.)

Most independent schools are affiliated with associations, such as the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS) or the Federation of Independent School Associations (FISA). Associations demand specific standards of their members, and all schools must meet those expectations in order to be members.

Benefits of independent Education:

In addition to a quality education, many parents select an independent education because of the freedom these schools have to pursue progressive approaches to learning.

Independent schools are able to select faculty and staff who come from varied educational backgrounds and may have industry expertise or PhDs and are able to offer a broader range of experience to students. Teachers who work in independent schools are passionate about education and are often looking for greater challenges and the freedom to be innovative in the classroom.

Specialized teachers, a low student to teacher ratio and involvement of parents in education mean students receive close personalized attention. Because independent schools are supported by tuition as well as donations by parents and alumni, they often have a close knit support group that have a vested interest in creating a positive learning environment for current and future students. This strong network of alumni and teachers means students can feel supported through their educational pursuits beyond the school, as they move through university and beyond. The pursuit of higher education is a priority. CAIS reports nearly 100 percent of their 45,000 students are accepted into the university or college of their choice.

How to choose an independent school:

With a wide variety of independent schools, choosing the one that’s right for your child can be a challenge. Kee advises parents considering an independent education to first look at whether the school is accredited to ensure it’s up to high standards. Next, take into account the child's interests, intellectual ambition and personality. "I believe there is an independent school for every child," says Kee. Consider the curriculum approach of any preschool (Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, Montessori, etc.) or school, and whether the learning environment created by the school matches your child's intellectual and emotional needs and whether the school offers programming that suits your child's interests. Finally, consider what you may be expected to pay beyond the cost of tuition.

Applying to an independent school:

While application processes will vary from school to school, in general, the application process begins in the fall of the year prior to the desired entry into the school.  Most will require an application form, an application fee, prior academic records and references from individuals close to the child.  Some schools may require applicants to take an entrance exam and participate in an in-person interview.

Costs of independent schools:

Fees at independent schools vary widely depending on the programs offered, grade level and the amount of donations the school receives.  However, many schools have scholarships available.  CAIS schools make a concerted effort to ensure students have access to financial assistance.  Their website states that over 6,000 students receive financial aid each year.  In the 2011-2012 academic year, CAIS schools disbursed $53.1 million to students.

Related resources

—Lisa Evans
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