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Against Private School

In the wake of scandals, we need to talk about the myths of private education.

Meghan Bell 23 Dec

Meghan Bell is a writer and editor based in Vancouver. Her work has appeared in The Walrus, Rattle, Grain, The New Quarterly, CV2 and others. Her first book, a collection of short fiction, will be published by Book*hug in 2021. Find her online at or on Twitter at @meghanlbell.

Less than two months after losing the 2019 federal election, Andrew Scheer resigned as the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada after revelations that he used funds from party members to pay for a portion of his children’s tuitions to attend a private Catholic school. It’s unclear whether this is the reason for his resignation and, frankly, I don’t particularly care. Like many, I have no doubt that this never would have come out had Scheer won the election.

Recall that Scheer won his party’s leadership on a platform promising a $4,000 tax deduction on tuition, securing him the support of many social conservatives, before he retracted the idea in the summer.

A couple months later, we learned Justin Trudeau wore brownface at a costume fundraiser for West Point Grey Academy, while he was employed as a teacher at the school.

Other recent headlines have told of private school corruption, assaults and racist bullying.

As someone who attended an elite private school in West Vancouver from 2002 to 2004 (Grades 9 and 10), I would like to reopen the conversation as to why private and independent schools are harmful to society and why it’s time to end the public subsidies they receive. I draw on research as well as my own experiences to challenge some of the myths private schools use to promote themselves.

1. No, private schools don’t necessarily expect more of students.

I was sold on going to private school because I was promised a more challenging academic curriculum than the public school in my neighbourhood could offer. There was even an entrance exam, which an administrator told me was to help the school select academically gifted students — or rather, one might infer, to exclude students who could upset the school’s rate of prestigious university acceptances, often the major selling point of elite private education to parents with the money to afford it.

Instead of a challenge, I found that the teachers were less experienced and less knowledgeable than the teachers I’d had in the public school system. And the homework and tests were easier — even comparing Grade 9 and 10 coursework to the assignments I received in Grade 8 at a public middle school in North Vancouver, one that closed a few years later due to low enrolment.

After two years, one of the reasons I asked to leave this private school to return to public school was the incompetence of the math teacher (and his defensiveness when I tried to correct his mistakes). This experience eventually came to make sense to me. Private school teachers do not need the same teaching qualifications, and in many cases are paid less than their (underpaid, in my opinion) peers in the public school system. Even when they are paid more, the difference is small — for example, St. Georges advertises that their salaries are 13 per cent higher than the public school system. In the United States, the Atlantic reported that 24 per cent of private school teachers were in their first three years of teaching, compared to 13 per cent of those in public schools.

2. No, you can’t assume private school graduates are top students.

It’s worth noting that public schools in wealthy neighbourhoods tend to be excellent (a study of Ontario public schools found that schools in affluent neighbourhoods fundraise nearly $50 for every $1 raised by a needier school), and offer almost as many opportunities for students as the most elite private institutions (e.g. AP or IB classes). So why would parents choose to pay thousands of dollars when their kids could have an equally good, if not significantly better, education for free? Tellingly, one of the reasons I most often heard parents give for sending a kid to private school was poor or average grades in public school.

Growing up, I knew multiple kids — mostly boys — who were clearly ill-suited for the educational paths and careers their parents wanted for them. Some were mediocre students in the public school system and yet accepted into elite STEM and business programs after graduating from a private school, and, in many cases, subsequently failed, dropped out, or had to retake multiple courses after failing them the first time. Motivation comes into play — if someone is pursuing a goal for extrinsic reasons (e.g. money, prestige) instead of intrinsic ones, they are more likely to take shortcuts to these goals, or to cheat (as in the recent U.S. college admissions scandal). Furthermore, wealthy children are uniquely insulated from consequences when they do so (e.g. failing a class that costs hundreds of dollars has lower stakes if your parents are footing the bill).

There is evidence that grade inflation is endemic in the private school system. In 2011, a Toronto Star reporter went undercover as a private school student and chronicled how a teacher padded her mark in a class she was deliberately trying to do poorly in, and in 2018 the University of Waterloo released a list of Ontario high schools that appear to inflate grades, based on the average grade deflation of graduates from those schools in their first year of Waterloo’s engineering program; private schools were overrepresented. In a recent interview in MoneySense, York University’s dean of the faculty of education warned: “There are private schools now that are fly-by-night places... Kids who go there are kids who are trying to bone up on their grades or their language skills, and their records show that they did very poorly in the public system. Then they go to one of these private schools, and all of a sudden their grades balloon.”

Private schools, by making good grades easier for their students to achieve and then funnelling them into “elite” post-secondary institutions, feed the primary delusion of the wealthy: that rich people are rich because they work harder and are smarter than everyone else. The smaller class and grade sizes meant more individual attention, which absolutely facilitates learning, but they also meant that there was less competition for school awards (and it was my perception that the private school I attended also offered more awards than either public school, for everything from academics to “leadership” and community involvement).

To put things in perspective, when I was a public high school student I would have been surprised to win an achievement award at the end of the year — and never did. When I was at private school, I would have been offended not to, and was called up on stage both years I was there. My resume was inflated as a result — and, far more problematically, so was my ego and sense of entitlement.

Later, I felt a deep sense of uneasiness as I filled out my university applications and realized that my two most “impressive” years on paper were also my most mediocre in terms of the education I received, and my own study habits and work ethic, and that my parents paid over $40,000 for them.

3. No, private schools do not instil better morals in students.

The other common reason I heard for kids being sent to a private school was that they had struggled socially in the public school system. “One day they’ll work for you” is a cliché often told to reassure nerdy children who are being bullied, but the phrase takes on a more sinister meaning when children who are not particularly hardworking or intelligent are laundered through an educational system designed to coddle them and fast-tracked by connections to positions of power and influence.

As inequality increases, we need to consider that, regardless of intention, wealthy parents are effectively paying for the privilege to insulate their children from the righteous frustration and anger that many working and middle-class families have toward the wealthy — in particular toward the business owners, corporate executives, bankers, landlords, and other members of the investor class whose excessive wealth is directly derived from the exploitation and marginalization of workers, renters, and natural resources in Canada and abroad.

The Atlantic article mentioned earlier also notes that some teachers choose to work in the private school system despite lower salaries because the teaching experience is easier: class sizes are smaller, there are more resources, and less red tape. This suggests that many private school teachers share their students’ class privilege — indeed, they would have to in order to be able to afford to live near most of these schools — further compounding the problem.

I’m not claiming public school children from low and middle-income families regularly bully wealthy peers for being born into money — although it might be a contributing factor in some cases. Still, it is undeniably true that a child from a wealthy family is more likely to be exposed to criticisms of that wealth and how it was obtained at a public school, especially if they are attending one that has students from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. Exposure and the opportunity to meaningfully connect is vital to developing empathy for people with very different experiences than one’s own. While there are no formal studies I am aware of comparing public and private school children in this regard, the recent flux of news stories about private school kids posting neo-Nazi content on social media and scratching swastikas on lockers, bullying and hazing each other, and committing sexual assault as well as some parents’ disturbing responses when these scandals hit the media, indicate a larger problem within these elite communities.

Furthermore, religious private schools across the country are notorious for being a hostile environment for LGBTQ2S+ students and faculty. Former students are speaking out against the institutions they attended. One wrote in the University of Manitoba’s newspaper that “private schools are havens for bigotry, hatred, homophobia, and ignorance.” Another writer described multiple appalling incidents of bullying and toxic masculinity from his time at an all-boys Catholic private school in the Walrus, stating: “Today, I believe that [St. Michael’s College School in Toronto] was complicit in systematically eliminating the faculty that is utterly necessary to be a good man: the ability to question the evils in which we’re implicated.”

4. No, you don’t meet ‘the best quality’ people in private school.

Research has found high rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse among the children of the wealthy, and rich kids are also more likely to act in grandiose, entitled, exploitative and superficial ways that could alienate other children. A 2013 study on college students found a positive correlation between higher parental socioeconomic status and narcissistic traits such as the aforementioned. I have previously written about how many of my privileged classmates believed they were exceptional without any commensurate achievements, and were prone to dismissing failures because they “didn’t try.” These are behaviours learned from parents, and ones that are normalized and spread like pathogens in privileged institutions, where an inoculation from reality is far less likely during the critical years of child and adolescent development (for more on this, I recommend checking out work by psychologists such as Paul Piff, Ramani Durvasula, and Madeline Levine).

I do not think any child deserves to be bullied. However, I also think children of people who do and say bad things deserve the chance to hear about them — as this gives them an opportunity to grow into kinder and more empathetic people than their parents. In addition, an important question to ask is who is empowered to bully, harass, and exclude other students at a small private school compared to a large public one. From a 2015 Maclean’s article: “Old boys may rule the world, but judging by today’s snarky online theatrics — post after post of dorky photographs lifted directly from the Cambridge Club’s website — it’s clear they are regarded by almost everyone outside their stuffy walls as painfully uncool.”

5. No, what’s ‘special’ about private schools need not be reserved for private schools.

Private schools do have real advantages beyond the preservation of class privilege. Class sizes are smaller, the facilities are often newer and fancier, there are typically more opportunities available for students to pursue their passions and develop their skills through electives and extracurricular activities, teachers are given more resources, and more elite schools allow students to earn college credit through AP or IB courses.* These are all good things, and things every child is entitled to, not just the children of parents with the disposable income to shell out tens of thousands of dollars.

It is appalling that parents receive tax deductions on tuition fees and on donations to these schools, and in five provinces, including British Columbia, taxpayer money helps fund private schools to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Meanwhile public schools across the country suffer from over-crowded classrooms and many are closing due to insufficient funding — and the situation is far more dire for Indigenous students living on reserves.

All children deserve access to well-supported teachers, maintained and up-to-date facilities, advanced-placement programs, and extracurricular opportunities, as well as funding to support disabled and at-risk students. Cuts to public education fuel inequality, whereas well-funded free public education is critical to class mobility and the creation of a more equitable society (the Finnish public school system offers a good example).

It is time to abolish elite private institutions — or, at the very least, the spending of public funds to support them. After all, the people who hold the purse strings and power in our country have little reason to be concerned about the declining state of public schools when they can purchase a fancier education for their children.

Let’s force them to care.

Happy holidays, readers! Our comment threads will be closed until Jan. 2 to give our moderators a break. See you in 2020!  [Tyee]

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