Myths of the private school

Six stereotypes to banish from parents’ minds

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “private and independent school”?

If you have had experience, either   attending such an institution or sending your children to one, you probably don’t need this article. You already know what a private school education can offer.

If this school system is foreign to you, however, you may be carrying around several common misconceptions that are giving you pause in considering it for the young students in your family.

Jeannette Yue, a counsellor at a long-established Toronto private school, understands what you’re thinking. She’s heard it from other parents.

“Every year I get several parents express surprise to me at the open house or during an initial school visit — or even later in the first year,” she says. “They can’t believe how open we are, how diverse our students are — economically, ethnically … every way you look at it.”

Some parents seem to have picked up notions that private schools are exclusive bastions of privilege with arcane traditions and a focus on academic achievement that warps normal social development.

“But this isn’t Goodbye Mr. Chips or Tom Brown’s School Days,” Yue says. “Our schools have changed from those ancient stereotypes and now consider themselves as leaders in social progress.

She notes that each of our schools is different, excelling in different areas, so some may be more advanced than others in certain areas. That’s why it’s important for parents to check out schools carefully to find the one that matches their own values.

But for the most part our private schools have come to reflect Canadian society as a whole, Yue says.

Here are seven such myths that our private schools have overcome.

Myth #1
Private schools are culturally monolithic

This is a polite way of saying private schools are dominated by the once dominant Anglo-Saxon majority.

But this is an old stereotype that can be debunked by my own experience covering both private and public education for many years. The broad multicultural background of students at private and independent schools has been notable. The student body truly does reflect the changes in Canada’s population over the past fifty years — as much as in our public schools.

Plus, many schools, such as Toronto’s Metro Prep Academy, offer programs to have international students from countries like Europe, Asia, Africa and South America study alongside the diverse Canadian students.

If you see the value of having your children learning with and making friends with young people from many different backgrounds, the private schools present a valued option.

Myth #2
Private schools are only for the rich

It’s true that many parents of means choose to take advantage of the benefits of private education for their children. But they are not the only ones.

Many private schools are fighting against this image of exclusivity by attracting students from families of lesser means.

And they’ve been largely successful. The Ontario Federation of Independent Schools (OFIS) has estimated that 85 per cent of students attending their schools are from lower to middle class families.

For example, Upper Canada College is committed to welcoming great students, former principal Jim Power said last year in announcing increases to UCC’s needs-based financial assistance program. The aim was to benefit up to 20 percent of students from Grade 5 up.

“It’s about accessibility and providing the opportunity for all boys with true potential to have equal access to our school,” Power said.

UCC believed the value of its education would be devalued if student admissibility were based solely on financial ability and not also on important criteria such as a boy’s character, leadership potential, values and ability to contribute to campus life.

Maggie Houston-White, director of admissions at Havergal College, added that the independent girls’ school also offers scholarships and bursaries in an effort to eliminate the tuition fee barrier for exceptional academically minded young women who will contribute to the school community and would benefit from the quality of the learning environment.

Myth #3
Focus on academic achievement creates a stressful environment

St. Clement’s School principal Martha Perry says they occasionally run into parents who are considering the school but are worried it’s a pressure cooker environment with girls who are stressed and solely focused on academics.

Although the school is renowned for its focus on academic excellence and is proud of its high standards so students gain skills and confidence needed to succeed outside of the classroom, Perry says St. Clement’s School also ensures unique support systems.

One of these tools in place for students is called LINCWell, an enrichment and support program for grades 1‑12 focused on study and problem solving skills, mentoring in areas like goal setting and resilience, and stress and time management.

“This umbrella program enhances our girls’ academic experience and offers guidance for all students,” she says, adding they also offer programs and speakers for parents and the broader community. In previous they’ve hosted Dr. Wendy Mogel, author of Blessings of a B-, who spoke about the necessity of letting children stumble so they learn from mistakes and failure and Rachel Simmons, an educator and coach who helps girls and young women grow into authentic and emotionally intelligent and assertive adults

Another attractive aspect of St. Clement’s is the spirit of community and pride, which they attribute to being a small school where girls from grades 1 to 12 work and play within the same facility, sharing many common spaces, Perry said.

“This contributes to a school environment that is fun and engaged and exudes a vibrancy and positivity that is regularly noted by visitors to the school. The opportunity to laugh together is an important support for the students, and sustains them in the challenging work they undertake in the classroom.”

Myth #4
Private schools cloister students away from society at large

This is one myth that most annoys Yue. Her own school is fully engaged with both the immediately local community and with the wider society of Canada and even internationally, she says. She reams off a long list of projects her students have been involved in, ranging through joining in local environmental clean-ups, helping with charity fundraising drives, hosting meetings on issues of the day and field trips in Canada and abroad.

And these are typical of her fellow independent schools, she says. In fact, several outreach projects have involved joint work with students from others schools, she notes.

Myth #5
Boys-only and girls-only schools reinforce gender stereotypes

A co-educational environment in private schools help prepare students for future studies and employment in a world in which the sexes are equal — and many private schools do a very good job of that. But if you are leaning toward thinking your child would  be better off being educated in a single-sex environment, you shouldn’t be scared off by some old misconceptions — namely that such environment necessarily promote old stereotypes of male superiority or female timidity.

This is certainly not the case with our boys’ schools says Geoff Roberts, former headmaster at Crescent School’s headmaster. In fact, he says, any such perpetuation of the such stereotypes is not only dishonest, but also dangerous for boys.

“Boys’ schools are faced with new challenges in today’s world,” Roberts says. “Boys are more anxious now about their futures than ever before and their parents share that worry.

“Boys’ schools are positioned magnificently to address this anxiety by intentionally and explicitly building the boys’ confidence authentically, by valuing their achievements and demanding they meet consistently high expectations. We expose the myth of their supposedly inherent superiority by insisting that achievement is gender blind.”

According to Roberts, a boys’ school can present and discuss reactionary responses in students, the ever-evolving image and emerging reality of manhood and the complexities of male gender roles openly and directly.

“In the absence of girls, our boys have more opportunity to speak about the gender stereotypes that surround and can consume them,” he says. “They are freed from the real or imagined hindrance of social disapprobation in a co-educational classroom and encouraged to explore the nuanced intricacies of what it means to be a man in their complex world.”

As for girls’ schools, there are many opportunities for the young women and men who attend single-sex schools to interact beyond the classroom, Houston-White says.

She cites the Coalition of Single Sex Schools of Toronto, which works deliberately to organize co-ed opportunities in academics, athletics, the arts and community partnerships to ensure that students collaborate throughout the school year.

“At Havergal, girls have the benefit of both an academic program that is based on substantial research on how girls learn best and a co-curricular program that allows for co-ed collaboration,” she says.

Myth #6
Private school teachers are just not as good

You know the myth: the only teachers in the private school system are those who couldn’t land a job in the public system.

To banish this misconception, you have only to speak to the private school teachers who are passionate about their work — as we have. You’ll find that especially those who have had experience in both environments appreciate the rewards of teaching in private independent schools. They cite smaller class sizes, more attentive and devoted students, the drive for excellence in all subjects and extracurricular activities, the freedom from the province’s educational bureaucracy, and the ability to fashion their teaching to the needs of their individual students. They are passionate about developing students in an all sided manner to become the productive and creative citizens of the future. These are all achievements that public school teachers often despair of never approaching.

Independent secondary schools issuing credits for the Ontario Secondary School Diploma are rigorously inspected by the Ministry of Education and all schools belonging to OFIS have certified teachers. OFIS argues that their schools are actually more regulated than public schools counterparts, some of which do not get inspected at all.

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