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Private education or public? What's the best choice for your child?

On the public side, parents worry about an education system facing cutbacks and criticism.

On the private side, there's the cost. What are parents really getting for their money?

In Britain, many middle class parents would not dream of allowing their children to attend state schools. In Canada, thank goodness, it has not come down to a war of the classes. Our system is more about choice and some families "like ours" may choose to enrol one child in private school and the others in public schools, depending on the aptitudes and preferences of the children.

Parents are showing "increasing interest" in the private option, however, according to Janet Lewis, executive director of the Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario.

David Foote, author of Boom, Bust and Echo, is not surprised. The children of the baby boomers - the so-called "echo" generation - are swamping the school system. If boomer parents see a "perceived advantage" that will later give their kids a leg up in the competitive job market, "they're willing to pay for it," Foote says.

So is the private advantage real or perceived? There are no clear figures. But family background and a homebred love of learning play a major role in children's eventual success, whether they attend private school or public.

Private schools offer a clearer education choice, whether it's Landmark East, a Nova Scotia school tailored for children with learning disabilities; one of the religious schools that make up half the private schools in Canada, or a traditional, academic boarding school where going on to university is almost a given.

As well, private school classes are often smaller, and boarders especially have a chance to forge lifelong bonds. Uniforms, too, allow children to express their personalities in other ways than through fashion; some public schools have also discovered this.

And as the public sector slashes many arts programs, private schools still can offer well-funded music, theatre, arts or science courses.

Continuity, too, is a factor. Lewis mentions students whose parents and even grandparents attended the same school. As to the claim that independent schools are the exclusive domain of the white and the wealthy, many now have well-funded bursary and scholarship programs to assist families with more moderate incomes. As well, a large influx of students from overseas and from immigrant families are changing the face of Canada's private schools.

The public system, for its part, may be under attack but it's fighting back. Edmonton, for instance, is famous for its tailored-for-your-child charter schools, specializing in various arts, and even including a Christian school under the public umbrella. Cities like Toronto have small alternative schools to spark the bright student or the disillusioned one. And when kids attend the local school, it builds ties in the neighbourhood.

"One of the main pillars of a society is a solid public education system that responds to all our citizens, regardless of their income or background," says Fran Parkin, principal of Toronto's Harbord Collegiate Institute.

Fine, say some parents, but does my child have to be a guinea pig for a public system that may be underfunded and over-politicized?

"I admit we're stretched," Parkin says, "but there's wonderful teaching going on in the public schools right now. I am not convinced that by paying large sums of money (for private school) the quality of education is better."

Public boards require stringent qualifications for teachers and regular testing of both students and teachers. In the private sector, Lewis says, schools have greater freedom to hire "the best person for the job."

Public school students, argues Parkin, are just as likely to find that outstanding, life-changing teacher. She is proud of her ESL (English as a Second Language) and special education programs.

"We want all our students to be successful," she says.

Parkin herself is the best advertisement for the system. "I could have been long retired," she says. "But this is a wonderful school with great kids. There's that kind of energy."

In the end, the trick is to find the school where your child will be happiest and most productive. And then, both sides agree, the important thing is for parents to stay involved in their child's education.

Ultimately, the decision is a purely personal one. So I asked my daughter, Fazia, who attended a small private secondary school, what she plans for her year-old daughter, Devon.

If she's a real scholar, public or private, it won't make much difference, Fazia says. If Devon is average, however, Fazia says from her own experience that a private school at the secondary level will keep her focused. In that setting, "it's hard not to succeed."

We also feature other discussions of the question of private school or public.
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