Skip to main content
private schools: switching

Tim Peters and his son Foster, now in Grade 3, read a book in the back yard of their home in Hudson, Queb. Mr. Peters started Foster in kindergarten at a public school, but because of struggles with math, moved him to The Priory School for Grade 2.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Tim Peters, a father of three and principal of The Priory private elementary school in Montreal, thought nothing of enrolling his first-born child, Foster, at a public school at the outset of his formal learning, because the long-time educator grew up in the system himself.

However, attending kindergarten through Grade 1 at a school with more than 400 children, Foster was hitting a wall when it came to math, and it was affecting his self-esteem. As a result, Mr. Peters decided to move his son sooner rather than later to The Priory School, because he believes in the commonly held philosophy that the younger a child enters a private school, the better. However, experts stress, even high-school students can successfully make the transition from public to independent learning at a crucial time before they move on to postsecondary education.

Foster started at The Priory in Grade 2 and is now in Grade 3 at the 165-student school, and his father says the curious and adventurous youngster has made huge strides in his studies.

The eight-year-old is now in classes with only about a dozen students, compared with 30 or so at the public school, and the teaching philosophy and wealth of resources are more conducive to his learning."I think there are great, great schools in the public system, but what I did see after two years was … there was a disconnect between the child I knew when he entered school as a five-year-old and what was being reported back to me," Mr. Peters says.

"The public school teachers were fantastic and worked as hard as they could ... but Foster didn't know what kind of a learner he was in Grade 1. He used to think he was really bad in math, but [at The Priory School], his teacher helps him figure out where in his problem-solving he goes wrong."

The Priory teachers incorporate Foster's love of nature and animals into his studies, something that has made him "super-engaged," Mr. Peters says. Partly based on Foster's experience, Mr. Peters enrolled his daughter at The Priory right from the get-go, and she's now in Grade 1.

"The longer you wait [to send a child to a private school], the greater the chances are that if there is any kind of learning deficiency, or even more extreme, a learning disability, that it will go undetected. We have a learning specialist and early learning programs where we can see who is really clicking and who may need extra help," Mr. Peters says.

For parents, determining whether to send an older child to a private school is a personal decision, with various factors, including cost and policies of the school, to consider. Parents may also run into these challenges:

- Language immersion schools may highly recommend or require students be enrolled as early as preschool or at the latest in Grade 1.

- Some schools fill up fast, so your child may end up on a waiting list.

- Various schools may allow students in at only certain entry points – commonly kindergarten, and Grades 4, 7 and 9.

- Many private schools have rigorous entrance requirements, so an older student coming from another school may not be well-equipped to meet them.

However, Balmoral Hall School, for one, tends to get a lot of first-time private school students entering high school, because "all of our students are tracking to university," says Joanne Kamins, head of school at the Winnipeg private university preparatory school for girls that has nearly 500 students enrolled in preschool through Grade 12.

Ms. Kamins and others say some public high-school students move to a private school because they feel they aren't getting the challenging education, specialized programs or individual attention that can help set them up for postsecondary school success.

Many schools have programs and support systems to help older students make the transition to a private-school setting, she says. To help students settling into Balmoral Hall from public and other schools, there's also an orientation day, and they can shadow another established student for a time.

As well as getting special help from a faculty member they will stay in contact with throughout high school, new students are "buddied up" with a peer, Ms. Kamins says. "Sometimes they become fast friends and remain friends for the whole high-school experience, sometimes the support will be for a week or two, until we get a sense they are feeling comfortable."

Malkin Dare, president of the Ontario-based Society for Quality Education, believes students should enter a private school in their formative years.

Not getting a good grasp on the basics can really set back a child, she says, making it more difficult to handle a private school at an older age.

"If a child, for example, doesn't learn to read fluently, all subsequent learning is difficult, it's harder, and similarly for basic arithmetic," Ms. Dare says from her home in Waterloo, Ont. "Once those things are in place – a good vocabulary and the other fundamentals – then a child can survive even bad teaching in later grades, because to a greater extent, they can learn by themselves, versus a child who isn't a fluent reader and who will struggle."

Still, Anne-Marie Kee, executive director of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools (CAIS), says enrolling a child in a private school beyond Grade 4 happens fairly commonly.

Ms. Kee says a CAIS study found that as children get older, they themselves may come up with the idea of switching to the private system, for social, educational or personal reasons.

Although Ms. Dare is committed to the "earlier is better" approach to private school, she says there are instances when a child in an older grade in the public system may benefit from a changeover to a private learning environment. "If your child is in Grade 4 and not doing well, don't wait till Grade 6 – help them now."