10 things private schools won't tell you

10 things private schools won’t tell you

Some private schools deliver great educations. Others are major disappointments. We set out to discover what really goes on behind those ivy-covered walls.


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Like most parents, you’ve probably wondered how much private school really costs. Maybe you’ve even done a little nosing around on the Internet, and discovered that sending your son to Upper Canada College, the most prestigious boys’ school in the country, will set you back about $35,000 a year. While the left side of your brain says you can’t afford it, the right side of your brain counters with the very compelling argument that hundreds of rich, influential and wildly successful men have graduated from this place: Galen Weston, Michael Ignatieff, Robertson Davies. Putting your kid in the midst of such esteemed company has got to be worth 35 grand a year. Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. It all depends on who your child is, and what kind of education would suit him best.

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READ: More on private schools from the September/October 2014 edition of MoneySense »

“There are many people who have a ‘dream school’ in mind, which may or may not fit their kid at all,” says Catherine McCauley, a Toronto teacher and guidance counsellor who has worked in both the public and private school systems. “Think of your child first and what their needs are — social, emotional, physical, intellectual. Start by trying to find a school for your child, not trying to make your child fit a school.” You don’t have to be an expert like McCauley to find the right school for your kids; you just have to know your kids. Recognize that they’re individuals with their own specific strengths and interests and you’re halfway there. The how-tos in this article, culled from education professionals and veteran parents, will take you the rest of the way.

“Private” doesn’t always mean “better.”

Too often, parents jump the gun and pay for tuition, assuming that all private schools are preferable to public ones. Not so, says Judy Winberg is a special education teacher and guidance counsellor for almost 30 years, whose Toronto-based Options in Education consulting firm helps parents find the best school program for their children’s needs, in both the public and private systems. “What you’re guaranteed when you go into private is you’ve got teachers who are there by choice, as opposed to being placed there [as they often are in public school systems]. And your class size is going to be smaller — they put a ceiling on class size, and they don’t go over it because they’re accountable to a board. After that, there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees at all.”

Our academic record may be meaningless.

Be especially wary of schools that promise to improve your high-school-age kid’s grades just in time for the university application deadline. “There are private schools now that are fly-by-night places. The universities don’t even know much about them,” warns Paul Axelrod, dean of the faculty of education at Toronto’s York University. “Kids who go there are kids who are trying to bone up on their grades or their language skills, and their records show that they did very poorly in the public system. Then they go to one of these private schools, and all of a sudden their grades balloon.”

Inflated grades may help the grads of these spurious schools to get into university, but it won’t help them get a degree. The well-respected private schools that boast 100% university acceptance do so not by giving away good grades, but by making them more difficult to achieve. “I often had kids who would say to me, ‘my friend who goes to public school has a higher average than I do and I work so much harder’,” McCauley recalls from her years as a private school guidance counsellor. “We were really helping prepare them with a lot of the skills that will not only help them get into university, but stay in university: the study skills, the organization, how to write. All of that, it was tougher for them.”

That said, while you may have dreams of raising a Nobel laureate, sticking your kid in a school with the best reputation for high-performing students may not help her bring home good grades, even if she is exceptionally bright. If the school’s teaching style doesn’t match your child’s learning style, she may have trouble absorbing her lessons.

So how do you find that perfect match? To a certain degree, you can rely on the admissions department to determine whether the school and your kid are made for each other. “If they get a reputation as having a school that families abandon ship from, that’s a problem. It’s as important to the school that it’s a good fit for your family as it is for you,” observes Michaéla Koch, a Toronto parent who’s been through the admissions process twice with her kids. That’s why, in addition to having their academic record looked at, children are often asked to write essays and sit through personal interviews before a school gives them the green light. Those steps can be essential to finding the right fit, especially in schools where the number of applications far exceeds the number of empty desks. (At the renowned Upper Canada College, for example, only one out of every four boys who apply is accepted.) But they can be tiring and stressful for your kid, not to mention expensive for you — private schools charge a fee for each application, which means that putting your kid’s name in at a half dozen places could set you back close to a grand. So before you apply, narrow your top contenders down to a shortlist of two or three schools. For tips on how to do that, see Class distinctions.

“Private” and “independent” schools aren’t the same thing.

Any school outside the public system tends to get labelled as “private,” in the same way that we tend to refer to all tissues as Kleenex, or all bubbly water as Perrier. In fact, there are two kinds of non-public schools out there — “private” and “independent” — and there are important distinctions you should be aware of before enrolling your kid in either kind. Independent schools have boards of directors they are accountable to. “There are checks and balances in place,” is how Winberg puts it. Private schools, on the other hand, can be run by a single person with no accountability. Now, that doesn’t mean a school without a board is necessarily disreputable; but it does mean you have to check it out even more rigorously before entrusting your child.

Some of our teachers aren’t certified.

With only a few exceptions, including in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, independent schools are not required to hire certified teachers. And even certified teachers don’t necessarily have a degree in education.

Because the rules on certification and training vary widely across the country, and even within provinces, the best way to find out if a school’s teachers are up to scratch is to ask. (Some schools save you the trouble by putting information about teacher credentials right in their brochures.) But there’s no shortage of well-trained educators in this country, so regardless of the rules that prevail in your area, you should insist on a school where teachers are not only certified, but have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education as well.

If our teachers don’t “click” with your kid, forget it.

Almost as important as the teachers’ training is their desk-side manner, so to speak. Do they have a good rapport with students? The only way to find out is to visit the school and see for yourself, as Michelle Wille did when scoping out St. Margaret’s, the school in Victoria, B.C., that she ultimately decided on for her daughter. “We’ve been there many times for open houses,” Wille says. “The teachers are all well-dressed, well-spoken, and they’re strong women — and those are the kinds of people I want to teach her.”

Nancy Ng had a similar experience on a tour of La Citadelle, which nailed the decision to enroll her son, Ian, in the Toronto school’s pre-Kindergarten program. “I loved the environment,” she says. “I loved when a student was sitting in class in Grade 1 and he was upset about something, and the teacher, instead of getting mad at him, excused all the kids to go to their table and do some reading, and she sat down on the floor with him and just talked him through what he was upset about. I thought, Holy God, you just don’t see that anymore.”

In addition to observing them in action, you can also chat with the teachers to get a sense of not only their philosophies on teaching, but their level of contentment as well; when teachers feel valued and happy in their jobs, they’re more effective in the classroom. If that contentment is missing, or their outlook on teaching doesn’t match what you have in mind for your kid, you’ll be able to tell very quickly in the course of even a casual conversation.

If your child is entering Grade 5 and up, it’s important to get her take on the teachers, as well. After, all, she’s the one who’ll be sitting in front of them seven hours a day. “The biggest mistake is probably deciding on what school your kid will go to without involving your child in the process,” says Judy Winberg. “Make sure the child goes for a day visit or whatever the school allows.” McCauley agrees: “I was a classroom teacher in the private system, and had kids come and sit in my classroom for a day. They either felt really good, or they decided it wasn’t for them. But at least they knew.”

Almost anyone can open a private school. Shockingly, there are no laws in place to stop a person with zero educational training to hang a shingle outside their door and start enrolling students. “If you have five kids and a toilet that flushes, you can open a school,” Winberg says wryly. “There aren’t a lot of requirements.” She’s commenting specifically about Ontario, but the similarly lax regulations exist across the country. In other words, you could be paying for your child to receive a lesser education, in poorer conditions, than she would receive in your neighbourhood public school.

In the three years she has worked as a consultant, Winberg says, “What scares me is I’ve seen schools opened and I’ve seen them close. And I have to say these people who are opening them are well-intentioned. They’re doing it for noble reasons. But [they’re failing] either because they’re not businesspeople or because they’re not educators. To run a school, you’ve got to be both.”

The good news is that with a little effort, you can find a high-quality school, and protect yourself and your child from such fly-by-night operations. First, make sure any school you’re considering has membership in a national or provincial association that enforces strict educational standards, such as the Canadian Association of Independent Schools. Before receiving CAIS accreditation, schools must undergo a detailed assessment that examines everything from curriculum to facilities to administrative operations. To find CAIS member schools in your area, log on to www.cais.ca and click on Listings. This feature offers names and locations, as well as links to the schools’ own Web sites, many of which are packed with information.

You can also do a curriculum check yourself, to ensure that the independent schools you’re considering follow courses of study that are the same or better than their public counterparts in your province. Independent schools often outline their students’ courses of study right on their Web sites or in their brochures.

“I got the glossy stuff,” says Michaéla Koch, referring to the information package she requested from the school both of her children attended starting in pre-Kindergarten. “And inside the glossy stuff was a bunch of photocopied stuff: the complete curriculum for the two-year-olds. The books they were going to read, what different courses of study they were going to be at — this is what we will cover in sciences, this is what we will cover in language arts. For the two- and the three-year-olds! I was duly impressed.”

We may run on a shoestring budget.

Contrary to popular belief, most private schools are not crammed to the rafters with state-of-the-art computers and Guadagnini violins. “It costs parents a lot to send their kids and they might think therefore that those schools are just flowing in resources, but generally they’re not. They’re run on a shoestring,” says York University’s Paul Axelrod. “The facilities, the resources, can be fairly basic in those schools.” Even elite schools fundraise furiously, claiming that tuition fees cover only annual operating costs, and that they need more money to maintain the facilities and purchase new equipment.

Before you enroll your child, make sure you’ll be getting your money’s worth. Many private and independent schools are registered charities and, as such, are required to divulge their financial statements. The admissions office should not hesitate to answer your queries on how the school spends its money. How much are teachers paid? If it’s less than the salaries of public-school teachers in your area (a figure any private school should also know), be suspicious. What types of resources — musical instruments, computers, athletic equipment, science labs — are available to the students? Is the campus safe, pleasant and well-maintained? Take any school that doesn’t satisfy off your shortlist.

You think tuition is pricey? Wait till you see what else we charge for.

Private school is a money pit from the moment you apply to the day your kid closes her last book. For starters, you have to pay about 100 bucks for the honour of filling out a pile of paperwork that puts your kid in the running for a place at the school. Then, of course, there’s tuition: a hefty $9,000 to $35,000 a year for day students, or up to $65,000 a year for boarders.

And keep that chequebook handy. Most schools levy a one-time, nonrefundable “registration fee” or “new student fee” of up to $9,000 the first year your child is enrolled. On top of that, some also require you to make a “loan” to the school help pay for upgrades and maintenance of the facilities.

Need bus service? Count on another couple grand. After-school supervision for your eight-year-old? Ditto. And those fantastic athletic programs or music facilities that sold you on private school in the first place? They may not be included with tuition, so getting your kid involved could cost you extra.

When you add in books, uniforms and lunches (which sometimes cost extra), a year of private school for a student within daily commuting distance can easily inch towards $40,000 a year. If you start your kid in Grade 7, you’re looking at a $200,000-plus investment in his education — before university. Start your kid in kindergarten, and you’ll be out a quarter of a million dollars by her high school graduation.

“For parents who are so committed to the private school system and have three or four kids, the financial burden, unless you’re really well off, is extraordinary,” observes York University’s Paul Axelrod. “What else are you sacrificing in the life of your family to do that — and even in the life of your kid?” If paying for private school means you forgo life-enriching family outings and vacations, maybe it’s not worth the sacrifice.

If you’re convinced that a private-school education is the best thing for your little learner, you’ll be relieved to hear that some of the expenses can be recouped on your income tax return; see a short course in writing it off. And families with lower incomes or academically high-performing kids may qualify for scholarships or bursaries directly from the school, usually covering half the cost of tuition; ask the admissions office for details on how to apply.

You can shop around for public schools, too.

Before you turn your household upside down and relocate three streets over in a quest to place your child in a more desirable school district, know this: most school boards will entertain a request for your child to attend a school other than the one they’ve been assigned to geographically. “In the public system, people shop around too, especially at the high school level,” says Paul Axelrod, Dean of the Faculty of Education at York University. “If they find a school doesn’t meet their child’s needs, then they look elsewhere, and not necessarily in their own neighbourhood.”

Keep in mind that the degree of flexibility to jump into a different district varies with the number of students enrolled from year to year. And if you’ve heard of a great school in your city, other parents have heard of it, too. So be prepared to plead your case. Make an appointment to speak to the principal at the school, and arrive armed with several very good reasons why your child should be allowed to make the switch.

If you don’t like your kid’s private school, move on.

Enrolling your child in any school isn’t a lifetime commitment. Over the years — or sometimes overnight — your child’s needs could change. It might be as dramatic as the discovery of a gift for music that you want to foster, or the diagnosis of a learning disability that needs special attention. Or it might be as subtle as faculty changes that result in your kid being less enthusiastic about learning. Whatever the case, don’t feel as though you have to stick it out. “If the school isn’t working out for your kid, then you find another one,” advises Catherine McCauley. Changing schools won’t mar your child’s academic record, and it certainly won’t call into question your ability as a parent.