Linda Quirke is a doctoral student in sociology at McMaster University. She is completing her dissertation on new private schools in Toronto.
Scott Davies is an associate professor in the department of sociology at McMaster University. His specialty is sociology of education, and he is currently researching emerging types of private education.
Over the last few decades, private school education has become a way of life for more Canadian children. In 1970, only 2.5 per cent of Canadian students attended private school, compared with nearly 6 per cent in 1998 (see graph). Our research points toward two trends to account for this rise: Greater parental expectations for education, and a broadening array of private schools.
Today's parents are arguably more savvy and discerning than in years past. They have more formal education than previous generations, know more about education systems and are consequently more demanding and less deferential. They have fewer children and focus on their children's needs in ever more elaborate, individualized and specialized ways, cultivating a taste for education that is enriched and customized. Many parents are less concerned with tradition, prestige or religious instruction and more concerned about finding a particular educational approach that suits their child.
Not surprisingly, educators are picking up on these changes. Private schools in Canada historically meant reform schools, local church-run schools and a select number of established independent schools. Today, parents can choose from a much broader range. Since 2001, we have been collecting data as part of a larger, ongoing study of private education at McMaster University. To date, we have collected data on 82 private schools in Toronto, including 45 site visits and interviews with principals at schools that have opened in the past 15 years.
Through our research we have encountered a wide breadth of educational wares. Dozens of schools specialize in a variety of unique instructional themes including intensive academics, women-centred studies, liberal arts, social justice and environment issues, museum-based studies, multiple languages, core knowledge, accelerated learning and a few alternative schools. Others are distinguished not by their curriculum, but by special services. Some schools offer alternate hours or high school courses on a per-credit basis, catering to part-time students. Still others cater to diverse student populations: gifted students, athletes, dancers, those with particular ethnic origins or those with special needs. In urban areas like Toronto, parents have never had as much choice.
As Canadian parents' expectations and preferences change, educational entrepreneurs are responding with a variety of services, forming what some dub a "new education industry." Alongside new schools are emerging services, such as private tutors and educational consultants. More parents are turning to tutors to help boost their child's grades. Learning centres now number in the hundreds throughout Canada. In Ontario alone, the number of tutoring business locations has swelled by more than 60 per cent since 1997. Private tutors may be licensed teachers, university students or university grads. We have found at least 10 private schools in Toronto that started as tutoring businesses.
Offering an even more personalized service, educational consultants are a new breed of professionals who help parents. Often former educators or psychologists, educational consultants use their intimate familiarity with local private schools to guide parents to the school that best suits their child. These consultants can be particularly helpful to those new to a city, providing insider knowledge of an otherwise unfamiliar menu of available schools. They can help navigate an educational pathway tailored to the unique needs, personality and interests of individual children.
The infusion of these new players in private education ultimately means more choice for parents. Perhaps the attraction of these schools is the small, intimate environment. All principals reported that private schools are growing in appeal because parents want personalized treatment for their children. Many of the schools we visited are small, often enrolling less than 50 students, with class sizes of about eight to 10. Many "classrooms" are the size of offices, with a large table surrounded by chairs. Only those few schools that rent school buildings have classrooms large enough for more than 10 students.
New private schools pride themselves on customer service. The principals we interviewed emphasized that their classes, markedly smaller than the public school norm, offered a more attentive, individualized education. These principals claim to know each student by name, to answer the phone themselves, and to meet personally with all parents. Regardless of their history, they see customized attention as the backbone of their school. Small class sizes, along with their openness to parents are seen as their distinctive advantage: "Parents know what's happening in our school, and we make sure they know," says one principal. "We're very much under a microscope. And we want to be under a microscope. It's a microscope of our own making - Parents look at what they're getting for their money, and they should. They're aware because we've made them aware."
As parents face more options, providers are responding with a new service ethic, changing the face of education.