To learn more about choosing a school, read our expert advice guide and parent interviews. You can also read our expert advice guide on getting into school.
1. Don’t look for the best school
Not all schools are created equal. Some are big, while others are small. Some are world famous, while others have a more local appeal. What’s more, no school can be all things to all people. Each has specific objectives, goals, and values, and aims to meet the needs of specific kinds of learners. In fact, this one of the virtues of private schools—they cater to specific types of children (and families), and often excel at doing this.
“Parents need to realize there is no longer any such thing as a typical private school,” says Judy Winberg, an education consultant. “All schools vary in their approach to teaching and learning, as well as in how they present curricula, extracurricular programs, and even the type of student they serve.” There’s no such thing as the ‘best school,’ one that works for all students and families. Different schools serve different types of families and children, and you’ll need to find one that works best for you—one that meets your most important needs (though likely not all your needs).
2. Look for the right fit
When Anne Rushforth’s son, Kenneth Gordon, was in grade 5, she overheard his teacher introducing him to another parent as “one of her slow students.” Rushforth bristled, knowing “he just needed a school to teach him in the way he learned.” She said, “I decided there needs to be a school for these children, where they’re understood.” In 1973, she founded the The Kenneth Gordon Maplewood School, in North Vancouver, BC, and designed it to meet both her son’s needs and those of others with similar learning profiles.
Finding the right school means finding the right fit for you, your family, and your child. Start with your child. How does she learn, and what are her learning strengths and weaknesses? Is she an auditory or visual learner? What is she like socially and emotionally? Is she energetic, outgoing, introverted, shy, anxious, rule-oriented, rebellious, creative, or quirky? And what other traits might she have? The more you know about your child, the better equipped you’ll be to know what schools might meet her most pressing needs—academic, social, and emotional. This is one of the first steps, and a crucial one, in finding a school that’s the right fit.
3. Visit schools
You want a school that’s the right academic fit for your child, one that meets her learning needs, goals, interests, and objectives. There’s more to schools than academics, though. They should also have a culture in which your child can thrive. Make sure to find out as much as you can about a school’s culture—its community, social life, and values.
While you can certainly ask schools about this, the best way to get the real goods is to check things out for yourself. Plan to visit each school you’re considering. Don’t just go to open houses, though: go to school events, tour the campus, and have your child attend a class or two. Ask school officials plenty of questions, but also speak to students and other parents in the school community, especially those who aren’t officially representing the school.
Observing the school up close is another great way to gain valuable insight into its culture. How do students and faculty interact in the hallways and dining hall? What do students do during recess and how do they relate to each other? What does the food taste like? This is often the best way to get a feel for a school.
Your child’s thoughts and feelings should be weighed as well. Is she excited by what she sees, or is her initial reaction to turn and run? What does she like or not like about the school? Keep in mind, though, the final decision should not rest solely with your child. “You don’t want your child to feel responsible or to blame if the school doesn’t end up working out. Children should be viewed as a ‘junior partner’ in the decision,” says Janyce Lastman, an education consultant.
4. Look beyond private school rankings
The Fraser Institute’s annual private school rankings are based on seven factors, derived from the EQAO. This test is administered by provinces to assess teaching against provincial curricular standards, and to compare schools in terms of their academics and teaching effectiveness.
These types of rankings, though, only tell us so much. While they reveal a school’s basic academic standings, they leave out its academic approach, including its curriculum and pedagogies, and how they teach learning skills (such as organization, time-management, and initiation) and ‘soft skills’ (such as critical thinking, problem-solving, resilience, and communication). They also don’t tell us anything about a school’s culture, community, support systems, resources, facilities, extracurriculars, and more.
To learn about these crucial features of schools, you’ll need to go far beyond superficial rankings. Read the school profiles here on OurKids.net. Dig deep into a school’s academic and social culture through on-campus visits, not just during open houses, but on other occasions as well. Make sure to ask lots of questions, talk to people in the school community, and involve your child in this whole process.
5. Know that you’re the expert
“I recommend that parents start by making a list,” says Winberg. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s most important to us?’ and write those things down.”
Then, look to the child. “Think about what’s working in your child’s current school and what’s not working,” education consultant Elaine Danson says. “Is there anything the child wishes he could do in school, but hasn’t been able to?” The right environment, Danson suggests, is one that supports those desires, one that addresses a child’s weaknesses and builds on her strengths. When it comes to your child, there’s no one that can know those things better than you.
Consider your family needs as well. “Look at what’s important to your family, and you’ve got to dig quite deep for that.” says Elizabeth Moore, executive director of the Independent Schools Association of British Columbia. “If it doesn’t work out, it can be rectified. But after everything is weighed and balanced, as a parent you know inside yourself what is going to work.”
Child-specific advice on school choice
For child-specific insights on choosing a school, read our guide. We explore how school choices crucially depend on kids' unique traits, such as their mental and academic focus, social tendencies, activity level, academic interests (such as art and STEM), and other attributes (such as giftedness, special needs, learning disabilities, and social issues).
To get school-choice advice customized to your child's unique traits, create a child profile through your user account and read our seven ways to choose a school based on your child's needs (i.e., overall fit, more academic challenge, social struggles, academic struggles, intensive learning interests, university preparation, and special needs.).