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Pear Tree, a co-educational private school in Vancouver, offers kindergarten to Grade 7.

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What is a private school and is there a difference between private and independent schools?

The Canadian Encyclopedia defines private schools as “fee-supported educational institutions at the primary and secondary level not under direct government control.” The terms private school and independent school are often used interchangeably, even in government publications and regulations.

But the Canadian Accredited Independent Schools association defines independent schools as those that are not-for-profit schools while private schools are generally for profit, according to CAIS executive director Patti MacDonald.

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How many private schools are there in Canada?

There are close to 2,000 private and independent schools in Canada.

Where do they get the money to operate?

Most private schools charge tuition and a variety of other fees. Many schools fundraise, particularly from alumni. In some provinces the ministries of education provide some degree of financial support.

“In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec, independent schools receive partial funding from the government. But in Ontario and the [Atlantic] provinces, independent schools get zero funding from the province,” Ms. MacDonald says.

There are variations in how much money the schools receive from province to province and according to their classification within the province. For instance in Alberta, schools which have only registered status receive no funding. Those which meet the standards outlined by the province for accreditation do receive funding.

Do all private schools follow provincial curriculum? Do the students take province-wide exams?

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“Each province has their own structure and guidelines for curriculum and for school operations,” Ms. MacDonald says. “In Ontario at the elementary level, students are not required to write the EQAO (standardized provincial tests) whereas in British Columbia students are expected to participate in all provincial testing.”

Schools offering provincial high-school credits usually need to follow provincial curriculum.

What types of schools are there?

There’s a broad range of areas of concentration and specialization in private schools across the country. Some concentrate on challenging academic programs, including International Baccalaureates. Others offer programs for students with special needs. Faith-based learning is available at many institutions and may be combined with a different specialization. There are all-girls and all-boys schools. And there are schools with a concentration on athletics, including elite sports academies.

Schools can be day-only or boarding, a mix of the two or include a home-stay component for students from outside the school’s region.

Ms. MacDonald says the boarding-school category has been growing and there are a number of established large boarding schools that cater to both domestic and international students.

“We see an increase in international boarding in recent years. Canada has an extremely strong market for international students. Schools see it as an opportunity. It’s not an easy market … but there are many countries in the world that look to Canada as an attractive market for boarding and for home stay. I think we’re seeing an increase in both those things.”

What are some of the advantages of private schools?

Besides the number of specializations, students often cite smaller classes as a benefit of private schools as well as more one-on-one time with teachers. Some schools also offer wider extracurricular options than are available at public schools. Large well-established schools may offer international travel as part of the private-school experience.

How do you know which school is the right one for your student?

There are a variety of websites of provincial and national private-school organizations that can help narrow down the search in terms of what schools offer and the basics of their curriculum. Our Kids Media has an extensive national website with information, as does CAIS. The Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, the Association of Independent Schools and Colleges in Alberta, the Quebec Association of Independent Schools and the Independent Schools Association of British Columbia are just some of the organizations with basic information on their sites and links to school websites.

Provincial government education ministry websites often contain helpful tips and information on private schools, while stressing they don’t vouch for the schools which they may list on the site.

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Parents need to check schools to see whether teachers have the level of certification or accreditation they would deem suitable. And schools will often indicate the success rates of their graduates going on to postsecondary educational institutions.

But the key decision-making moment, once the list has been refined, is the school visit, Ms. MacDonald says.

“The minute you walk in the door, you can feel the fit. You can feel if this is the right school.”

How much does it cost to send a student to private school?

There is an enormous range in school tuition, depending on a number of factors, including day versus boarding, travel options during the school year and the cost of operating the facilities the school maintains. Some small faith-based schools charge less than $10,000. Elite boarding schools can cost north of $60,000 in tuition. Most schools include details of basic tuition and other fees on their websites. Fees can include transportation, school uniforms, sports equipment and other administrative charges.

Is there financial aid and who decides which families qualify?

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Many established schools offer financial-needs bursaries, merit scholarships and discounts for more than one child in a family attending the school.

While schools determine how much money is available for bursaries and may make the final disposition at the board level, many schools use Apple Financial Services, a third-party assessment company, to assess needs based on a standard application.

“It allows the schools to be arm’s length in the process,” Ms. MacDonald says. “They can’t be seen as having a conflict of interest, having some kind of favouritism. It allows schools to be really clear about their role. The school may or may not offer assistance up to the level of assessment. It depends on what the endowment capacity is.”

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