One of the greatest strengths of private schools is the choice they offer parents, particularly in large cities, says University of Western Ontario professor Derek Allison. "Parents have a wide set of options to choose from in private education, whether it is a faith-based school, a Montessori, a Waldorf, other specialty schools or more traditional, academically-focused schools," Allison says.
A research study co-authored by Allison for The Fraser Institute, Ontario Private Schools: Who Chooses Them and Why, was released in May 2007. Among the most striking findings: A significant number of parents who send their children to private school never attended private schools themselves. "They're making a deliberate choice."
Parents often transfer their children from the public to the private system for high school, Allison notes, in order to prepare them for university. Private high schools tend to focus on university preparation, providing many academic supports to help students excel, Allison says. Many private secondary schools embrace the slogan "The university of your choice," often highlighting the percentage of graduates accepted by their preferred universities, he says.
Middle school is another key entry point. "Parents most often list social and safety reasons for choosing private education at this stage," Allison says. Parents worry that children will choose inappropriate peer groups and be led astray as they approach their teens. "Adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time. You find that parents make the move to private education now because they have a sense that their children will have greater supervision, there will be more discipline and they will be better looked after than in the public system," Allison points out.
Some parents do enroll their children in private school early on, stating that they want to lay a strong foundation for learning right from the start. Allison thinks the average 4-year-old will thrive in most schools or preschools because young children have a natural love of learning about the world around them and a strong desire to make social connections.
However, by around Grade 3 or 4, some children begin to get turned off learning, particularly in large classes, Allison says. "And it becomes more meaningful to switch a child to a private school, if parents feel their child's needs aren't being adequately met."
At whatever stage parents make the choice, Allison says good private schools have been shown to offer children advantages in several areas.
The professor also notes that private schools find it easier to institute change or adapt. "Private schools are agile and nimble, and they can react quickly to circumstances without having to go through a large bureaucracy to get approval."
Allison has also found strong communication between private-school teachers and parents. That's partly because schools are generally smaller and partly because parents often have a strong attachment to the private school they have chosen for their children, Allison adds.
As well, the client and service-provider relationship parents have with private schools supports communication and accountability. "Parents are buying a service and private schools are accountable for the quality of education they offer."