There’s a story Glen Herbert shares with parents who might be wondering if a private school would be a good fit for their kids. It involves a pair of students, a science project and the International Space Station.

The writer and editor at Our Kids Media, which tracks private schools in Canada, explains how the students spent an entire year working on a major project at their Toronto area girls school, where teachers moved heaven and stars, and even a few pesky classes, to ensure the girls had what they needed to finish their research proposal. With their teachers’ encouragement, the girls submitted their work to an international competition, and won the right to have their experiment performed in space by astronauts orbiting the earth.

“Would that have happened at a different school? Even in a different private school?”

“Probably not.”

The act of selecting the right private school for your children, one where their needs and interests will be nurtured and encouraged — in some cases beyond earthly limits — may seem daunting. By a recent count, there are more than 1,900 private and independent schools in Canada, with more than 350,000 children enrolled.1 Tuition in some cases can exceed $35,000 a year, which may not even include textbooks, uniforms, laptops, ski trips or other extracurricular costs that come with the territory. Even at the most basic level, a family could spend as much as $200,000 or more to fund a pair of children through private school from kindergarten to Grade 12. When people say our kids are an investment, they aren’t kidding.

If you’re thinking of sending your kids to a private school — or maybe you’ve already decided — there’s a lot of information out there to absorb and more than a few decisions to make. But if you’re just starting out, here are five things you may be wondering about to help you make an informed decision but also to ensure you get the most bang for your private school buck.

Is there a difference between private and independent schools?

Yes. In Canada, schools are designated as either public, private or independent. The difference, ultimately, is in how they are funded. Public schools get funded by taxpayer dollars. Schools designated as private or independent may receive funding through tuition and endowments, but only independent schools are classified as not-for-profit. For his part, Herbert tends to brush these designations aside: “There aren’t two systems in Canada, there’s one — the education system, and it includes public, private and independent education.” When it comes to choosing the right avenue for your children, Herbert suggests letting the child guide you. The analogy he uses is shopping for a pair of shoes: “Very quickly you begin asking questions, not about the shoes but about the person. Are you going to a wedding or going on a hike? Are you very young or very old?” Very different people, very different shoes, very different goals.

How do you narrow the search?

With more than 1,900 private schools in Canada, and various options for specialized curriculums, religious affiliations, boarding requirements and more, there’s a lot to consider. Some parents will simply enroll their kids in the school their mum or dad attended. Which is fine, says Herbert, but you may be missing an opportunity to find an environment that is truly built around your child’s needs. “To enter a community of people who are like them and where the kids learn in ways that may be conducive to how they thrive can be truly transformative.” Our Kids Media has a searchable directory of private and independent schools in Canada, which you can use to narrow your search by region, type, curriculum and read reviews of more than 350 schools in Canada.

When Ian Lebane, a Tax and Estate Planner at TD Wealth, was looking for a school for his two boys, Zack and Troy, he and his wife Andrea were looking for a school that would not only fit their budget but might also give their kids an understanding of their Jewish heritage. “For us it was about the culture and the background and the language,” says Lebane. Later, in high school, the boys transitioned to the public school system. “By that point they really wanted to get out of their bubble, meet new people and try new things.” It’s really about the needs of the kids, says Lebane.

What questions should I be asking?

If you ask Herbert, the best questions will begin at home: “I tend to look less for the outcomes — jobs, university, etc. — and more at the curriculum and style of teaching.” Whether you’re looking at younger grades or secondary education, most schools will offer information about their teaching philosophy, methods and degrees conferred. For instance, with younger students, Waldorf and Montessori methods are both popular. Waldorf-affiliated schools may promote individualized learning in small groups; Montessori classes tend to be larger, says Herbert, “in part due to a focus on peer mentorship and learning.” At higher grades, there are schools that follow international curriculums, confer additional internationally-accepted diplomas, or simply specialize in structured learning environments tailored for kids who are used to testing their limits (and yours).

Whatever you do, Herbert suggests you pay a visit to any school you are considering. And he offers this tip: Stay for lunch. “You’ll see what the food is like, but you’ll also get the best possible sense of the school’s culture,” he says. “Look around. See where people are sitting. Where do the instructors sit? How does the place feel?” What you see may tell you a lot about whether the school will be a happy fit for your children.

What are the financial considerations?

The costs associated with private and independent schooling in Canada can be significant. Our Kids Media suggests many schools will fall into the range of $6,000 to $12,000 per child per year, depending on the grade, region and services offered. Expect to pay much more, for instance, if boarding is included. However, there may be grants, bursaries and scholarships available that can be applied to the cost, as well as financial aid for qualifying families. “Most schools really do prefer to have a variety in the population,” says Herbert.

When it comes to paying for your child’s education, Lebane suggests exploring all financial options. There may be corporate funding available from your employer, discounts for enrolling multiple children and provincial tax benefits available. Lebane points out that some faith-based schools may allow you to claim part of your tuition as a charitable donation. As well, if your child has special needs, you may qualify to deduct some of your child’s tuition as a medical expense if attendance at a particular school is necessary to address their needs.

Another option many families consider is to establish a trust to fund their child’s education. According to Lebane, that would allow a parent to lend money to the trust and use the money it earns to pay for a child’s tuition. An option like this won’t be for everyone: Lebane points out it may require an investment of $1 million or more to generate the income required to not only cover the interest payments and one child’s annual tuition but to justify the legal and accounting costs required to set up and maintain the trust. Specialists like Lebane may be helpful when it comes to determining the right financial solution for each family and ensuring it fits with overall wealth goals. “The point is to plan for these costs,” says Lebane. “You don’t really want to be scrambling when the tuition bill arrives.”

What about university?

With so much effort toward finding and paying for private school, Lebane admits it may be easy to forget university. Considering that some private schools boast a 100% university acceptance rate — coupled with the fact university tuition has had a historical tendency to rise — you may want to start planning early. That can be as simple as contributing regularly to a Registered Education Saving Plan (RESP), a tax-efficient way to grow your savings for post-secondary education and receive government grants that can be applied to the cost of post-secondary tuition. That’s the next step for financing an education but it may not stop even there. You may also want to think about planning for several extra years of law or med school, or even an MBA down the line. Because if you’re providing for a kid who’s accustomed to reaching for the stars, you may want to be prepared to help get them there.

DAVID FIELDING

MONEYTALK LIFE

ILLUSTRATION

DANESH MOHIUDDIN

  1. “Why do parents consider private schooling?” Our Kids Media, accessed August 13, 2019. www.ourkids. net/school/about-private-schools.php