Question and Answers

Is there a difference between private and independent schools?

Expert Answer

Some educators use the terms interchangeably, while others insist clear distinctions exist.

Evolution of the vocabulary and current usage
Thirty years ago, people did not commonly speak of independent schools; they called them private schools. Most at the time were older, established institutions and perceived by some as elite and exclusive. (It's worth noting that until the last 1800s, most schools in Canada were private institutions; only at that time were public schools formed.) The number and types of private schools have mushroomed in the past couple of decades. As groups of schools came together to form membership associations and set standards, the term independent school came into popular use.

Governance and operations
Today, a broad range of schools forms part of the private education landscape and inquiries about governance and operations typically yield the following understanding: Schools may be owner-operated or headed by a board of directors and may be not-for-profit or for-profit. They are funded by tuition and contributions from fundraising, charitable sources and/or endowments.

For-profit and not-for-profit
Private schools are generally understood to be for-profit organizations established and controlled by one or more persons. Independent most often signifies a not-for-profit school that is accountable to a board of trustees, which operates at arm's length from the administration.

Schools referred to as independent often point to their accreditation by a peer review body. Five provinces where independent schools receive public funding require that they be recognized as accredited by a government body. But in Ontario, for example, independent schools share no across-the-board accreditation.

More information on the difference between private and independent schools

Parent Answers & Comments

Robin Hinnell, Independent Schools Association of BC wrote:
In British Columbia parents value a wide range of alternatives when choosing the education for their children; however, in conversation parents are often uncertain on the simple matter of vocabulary. Are these schools private or independent and what is implied by the vocabulary used?

The government of British Columbia makes it clear that in BC we use the word ‘independent’. A school in BC established as an alternative to the public school system is required to operate according to the Independent School Act and falls within the jurisdiction of the Office of the Independent Schools. But is it private? No, but confusion exists; but the confusion lies not in bureaucracy but in vocabulary used in conversation. To assist with this let us assume that a “private enterprise” usually implies an organisation that operates for profit. There are a very few schools in BC that are privately owned but operate under the Independent School Act (these are known as Group 4 schools).

In conversation, parents frequently assign the word private to situations where they can exercise their right to choose, to elect to send their children to one of approximately 350 schools that operate outside the public school system. But there is nothing that is private about these schools. These schools operate as not-for-profit societies usually under the Society Act of BC. Governance is through a Board of Directors, leadership in education is through qualified and certified teachers and school administrators, educational programmes are guided by the Ministry of Education, and regulatory matters are clearly defined in the Independent School Act of BC. Independent schools are permitted and, in fact encouraged, to deliver the curriculum from their particular pedagogical, religious, or cultural perspectives.

The reality that parents are required to pay tuition fees for their children to attend an independent school does not make them private.

Thus we are considering a matter of vocabulary alongside school philosophies. An articulated philosophy of education does not imply that a school is private; paying for this service does not imply that the service is private; exercising the right to choose creates the sense of independence from Government; and the underlying purpose of independent schools is to ensure that there are educational opportunities for children in BC which are well suited to the philosophies, preferences and/or religious beliefs of families in BC.

One final observation: vocabulary is use across Canada

  • Ontario: The Ministry of Education uses the phrase private schools when referring to alternatives to the public school system.
  • Quebec Vocabulary used is similar to BC.
  • Real Estate agents tend to use private.
  • Private is the descriptor used for most privately owned international language schools and career colleges.

  • And to confuse matters even further, in the UK public schools are in fact equivalent to BC's independent schools!

    Robin Hinnell - Independent Schools Association of BC,

    Private School Expos

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