Myth or fact? Private schools are insular places only for the privileged. If that were true, U.S. President Barack Obama, his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, and other notable alumni who won scholarships may not have had the opportunity to get a solid private school education. With help from education experts and industry leaders, we debunk the misconceptions about independent schools.
Fact: Not just for the elite, a growing number of Canadian independent schools are trying to attract the best and brightest by beefing up their financial aid and scholarship programs.
"One of the top myths right now is that independent schools are not as accessible as they actually are," says Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), noting that millions of dollars in financial aid are distributed to families each year. "I think it's worthwhile for parents to take time to inquire about really understanding what the value is for the tuition and what kind of financial assistance is available to families each year."
In fact, 85 percent of students attending Ontario's independent schools are from lower to middle class families, according to Barbara Bierman, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools (OFIS).
Fact: Parents need to do their research to find the best fit for their child because Canada has thousands of independent schools – each one varying in character, philosophy, values, cultures, programs and missions.
"Not all schools are the same," says Kee of CAIS. "Each school has an individual vision, mission and set of values, so it's really valuable for parents to find out about the values of the school and if they're aligned with the values of the family to see if that child is going to be successful in that environment."
Just because it's an independent school doesn't necessarily mean any one will be right for your child, she adds. "Instead, parents really have to invest time in learning about the different schools and do their homework," she says.
For starters, Kee recommends finding out if the school is accredited or not, what kind of commitment the teachers have to professional development, and the qualifications of the teachers.
Fact: In most provinces, private schools that receive provincial funds must hire only certified teachers, says Michael Zwaagstra, co-author of the book What's Wrong with Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them. Many schools have their own accountability systems through a governance structure, such as a board. While not all independent schools across Canada are required to follow the government curriculum, many meet or exceed provincial standards. Since education is provincially mandated in Canada, requirements vary from province to province. However, there's a caveat for parents to do research on the schools; for example, membership to reputable associations such as OFIS, CAIS and the Conference of Independent Schools of Ontario (CIS) that require schools to meet certain standards is voluntary.
Independent secondary schools issuing credits for the Ontario Secondary School Diploma, including all OFIS schools, are rigorously inspected by the Ministry of Education, adds Bierman of OFIS. All OFIS schools have certified teachers, many of them belonging to the Ontario College of Teachers and some certified outside of Ontario.
"In fact, they are more regulated than their public school counterparts, which do not get inspected at all," she says. "All independent schools, elementary and secondary, must regularly submit to the toughest critics of all – tuition-paying parents who will 'vote with their feet' if the educational quality is in question."
Fact: In all jurisdictions where governments have financially supported school choice, they have also retained their commitment to quality public education, Bierman says.
"In North America, wherever provinces or states support school choice, over 90 per cent of all students still attend public schools," she adds. "There is a growing body of evidence which shows increased levels of student achievement and parental satisfaction in all schools, including public schools, when parents are truly free to choose."
In some cases, groups are working with public schools to help them improve, such as the Our Public School non-profit group and Private Schools for Public Purpose movement in the U.S.
Fact: More private schools are opening their doors to students of diverse backgrounds, with most offering scholarships, bursaries and financial aid.
"I've seen the involvement of students and I have the opinion that independent schools indeed participate in social responsibility leading to the public good," says Peter Froese, executive director of the Federation of Independent School Associations in Vancouver. "If you look and track the graduates coming out of private schools, they are very much involved in the political leadership of our province and our country, they are very much involved in social services, and they are very much involved in providing professional services to the community to sustain our society."