Fraser Forum

Specialty education key element of independent school landscape in Canada

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Students vary in learning styles, and parents hold various aspirations for their children’s education. Consequently independent schools—also called private schools—vary in the ways they specialize to address these widespread demands of families.

Despite a common misperception that independent schools are typically elite university preparatory schools, a substantial number of independent schools in Canada provide varied learning and teaching that many students and their parents desire.

In 2013/14 parents of 99,614 students in Canada chose one of the 581 “specialty” independent schools for their children’s education, according to our recent study. Some of these schools declared a special subject emphasis in the curriculum such as arts, athletics, language, culture or science, technology, engineering and math. Others emphasized distinct approaches to teaching and learning using, for example, a Montessori or Waldorf approach. Still others emphasized serving specific student populations (i.e. students with special needs or distributed learners).

Together these specialty schools comprised 30 per cent of all 1,935 independent schools in Canada, and enrolled 27 per cent of all 368,717 students enrolled in independent schools across the country. Quebec had the highest concentration of specialty schools (44.2 per cent of all independent schools in that province) followed by Ontario (33 per cent).

When enrolments in these different specialty types are considered, Montessori schools lead with 18,882 students, followed by the schools serving students with special needs with enrolments of 9,900. Distributed learning schools—virtual e-learning schools or schools with students who studied from home—had the third highest enrolment as parents of 8,321 students chose these options. Among other more prevalent types were Waldorf schools (2,458 students) and schools that emphasized arts, sports or STEM subjects (1,366 students). An additional 58,021 students enrolled in specialty schools classified as other special emphasis schools, which included schools emphasizing specific languages and cultures. The remaining 666 students enrolled in schools that offered several specialties (i.e. Montessori schools serving students with special needs).

As one size does not fit all, many parents turn to independent specialty schools for unique pedagogy or curriculum more suitable for their children. These schools are responsive and accountable to parents who choose them and together these features create unique school environments for almost 100,000 students in Canada.


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