Is Private School in Canada Worth the Investment?

Parent Resources

Even if you’re a believer in the importance of public and universal education, it’s hard to shake the feeling that private schools may offer a superior alternative.

Private schools advertise exceptionally high university placement rates and parade their now-rich-and-famous alumni to engender a sort of promise of success. It’s reassuring to think that a hearty investment, if you can scrape it together, might mean the chance for your child to attend one of the country’s finest universities and go on to become a thought leader or corporate wunderkind. Often, parents of private school students are not just paying for smaller class sizes or greater breadth of extracurriculars; they’re paying for peace of mind. 

More simplistically, there’s a perceived “security” in choosing exclusive, expensive products and services perceived to offer greater value and less risk. That psychology extends to education as well. After all, if it costs as much as $80,000 to $100,000 per year, it must be superior, right?

Let’s examine whether the lower risk, higher cost promise of the private school system truly delivers. When is private school worth the investment?

Do private schools offer superior education?

If you, like many parents, have looked to the annual Fraser Institute school rankings you might see that many of the highest “ranked” schools are private schools. However, many well-run public schools have also earned prestigious 9.0+ ratings over the past few years. For decades these annual rankings have influenced real estate trends and parenting choices, but very valid criticism has been made about the legitimacy of these rankings, as the only material used to evaluate the schools are student averages in standardized tests.

Moreover, Statistics Canada published research in 2015 stating that, while private schools may tend to produce higher academic performance than public schools, on average, this disparity is due to the fact that private school students tend to be from wealthy families equipped with social and economic privileges associated with academic success. “Studies so far have shown that there are no particular advantages of studying in private school,” says Parisa Mahboubi, a senior policy analyst at the C.D. Howe Institute.

American research confirms the same equity in the quality of education offered by public and private schools. When test performance is controlled for socioeconomic condition, academic performance is the same in public and private schools.

Is private school better for children with learning disabilities?

Though the quality of their curriculum and teaching appears to be equal, private schools offer one thing most public schools these days cannot: smaller class sizes. For children with learning disabilities, the power of more one-on-one time with a teacher cannot be overstated. Many educators endorse smaller class sizes for all students, citing higher test scores, greater overall learning, better in-class behaviour and a greater ability for teachers to individualize learning for a student’s specific needs and interests. 

Additionally, private schools can offer specialized instruction and infrastructure not always available at public schools. Recently, private schools dedicated to focusing on specific or general disabilities have become more common. If you’ve struggled to get an IEP or to get updates to your child’s IEP, you’ll see the lure of private and independent schools which specialize in working with children who have disabilities, learning or otherwise.

Finally, private schools typically offer a greater breadth and variety of instruction in religion. For those who prioritize religion in their child’s education, private school may be the only option for instruction in their particular faith.

Does private school increase the likelihood of university admission?

University placement rates are private school bragging rights, and are advertised at some of the most exclusive schools to be as high as 100% placement. When we understand the enormous privilege most private school students have over the average public school student, we are reminded by the research that this success rate is related mostly to the wealth of these students not the quality of education received.

Furthermore, because many private schools uphold such high standards, they are able to hand-pick a student body from among a surplus of lesser qualified applicants. And, because they assure prestigious university placement, they attract families and students who prioritize post-secondary education. It is the culture, not the quality, of private education which is associated with higher rates of university admission.

Is private school worth the investment?

At $35-40,000 per year, on average, private schooling is a major investment for even a single child. That’s just tuition, mind you. Registration fees run as high as $10,000 for new students. Then there are extracurricular activities, uniforms, school trips, and supplies, often billed separately to parents. Thinking of boarding? You’re looking at up to $100,000 per year, per child.

Choosing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on your child’s education is no snap decision. Perhaps religion or a specialized approach to working with your individual child makes the choice an automatic one for you. But if your primary interest in private schooling is based on the assumption that your child will be better prepared for post-secondary studies and a successful career, the research suggests you might better spend that money elsewhere. Particularly if your child already tends to  excel at school, statistically, it seems they would fare just as well in either environment.

A final question to ask about the investment in private school is whether there might be other, more effective spending priorities or manners of offering experience and education to your child. Could music lessons, one-on-one tutoring, and other extracurriculars and hobbies be a better use of that investment? That’s a choice only you and your family can make.


What do you think? Does private school offer superior education?  Share below!

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