Fee-supported educational institutions at the primary and secondary level not under direct government control have existed in Canada from the earliest years of white settlement to the present day. Until the 1830s, most schooling was private. Today, although the private schools' proportion of total enrolment is very small (5%), their appeal to Canadian society continues to give them significance.
During the first centuries of settlement, education was still considered the responsibility of the family and the church (see Education, History of). Local clerics or parents taught some children to read and write. Other children attended schools founded by enterprising individuals as private ventures, and yet others remained illiterate. A handful of grammar schools and denominational institutions also existed. A collège classique, or academic secondary school for boys, was founded by the Jesuits in Québec City in 1635. King's College School, also restricted to boys, was begun by an Anglican missionary cleric in Nova Scotia in 1789.
The movement away from a reliance on private education began in the early 19th century with the growing recognition that all children, not just a select few, should receive some formal education. The governments of British N America began assisting some existing schools and created new ones, mainly at the elementary level.
The emergence of free public educational systems did not, however, spell the demise of all private schooling. By the terms of the Constitution Act, 1867, education was placed under provincial control with the intention that patterns of schooling officially recognized prior to Confederation should remain in place. Québec, Ontario, and later Saskatchewan and Alberta accepted Catholic and nondenominational Protestant schools (under certain conditions) within their provincial systems. Manitoba did so originally but in 1890 defied legal rulings to join the Maritime provinces and BC in supporting a single nondenominational public system (see Manitoba Schools Question).
The private schooling that remained differed among the provinces. All Catholic schools in the Maritimes, in Manitoba after 1890, and in BC, were in effect still private. So were all schools, in whatever province, that were affiliated with other religious denominations. Ontario's acceptance of Catholic schools into its public system originally included only those at the elementary level, but has now been extended through grade
Not surprisingly, when the first federal statistics on private education were compiled in the 1920s, it was determined that the proportion of children in school who were being educated privately varied from about 10% in Québec to 3-5% in provinces where Catholic schools were excluded from public systems to 1-2% in the remaining provinces.
As well as retaining a religious function, private education continued to play a role in class differentiation. Early tuition-free public systems centered on the elementary level, which meant that families desiring more advanced schooling for their offspring had to be able to afford a private institution or the fees of a public secondary school. The identification of private education with socioeconomic status was reinforced by developments in Great Britain, where during the second half of the 19th century the middle and upper classes had opted almost exclusively to retain their traditional commitment to private education, treating the emerging state system as a visibly inferior alternative serving only families unable to afford anything better.
Numerous boys' and girls' schools in the Maritimes, Ontario and Québec, many of them established as Anglican or other Protestant denominational institutions, began consciously to identify with their British counterparts and to take on a distinct class character. Toronto's Upper Canada College, for instance, began terming itself "the Eton of Canada."
Additional schools on the British model also appeared, both in eastern Canada and in BC. There, a massive influx of British middle-class settlers, who arrived during the halcyon years of Canadian immigration preceding WWI, provided both the organizational impetus and the clientele to sustain several dozen new schools adhering to the principles and practices of British private education. It has been primarily the existence of schools in this British tradition that has prompted such general assessments of Canadian private education as that by John Porter in The Vertical Mosaic: "The acquisition of social skills and the opportunities to make the right contacts can be important reasons for the higher middle classes to send their children to private schools."
Several important shifts in private education occurred in the decades following WWII. Increasing prosperity and a general mood of egalitarianism encouraged governments to upgrade public systems. Some private schools found it difficult, even impossible, to compete with higher teacher salaries, updated curricula and improved physical facilities, particularly in the sciences. Others fought back. Private schools in the British tradition abandoned the self-appellation "private," with its implication of exclusivity and private profit, in favour of "independent," which was thought to suggest most of the schools' nonprofit status and their independence from government control. The Roman Catholic Church undertook a major fund-raising campaign to improve and expand private schools under its control.
The recovery of private education was facilitated by the appearance of a new dynamic. Of the immigrant groups entering postwar Canada, Dutch Calvinists most keenly felt that existing public systems did not serve their special needs and so established their own "Christian" schools. Concentrated in areas of Dutch settlement in Ontario, Alberta and BC, Christian schools have been characterized by a very strong moral and religious base. In addition, the widespread dissatisfaction of the 1960s and early 1970s brought a proliferation of alternative schools focusing on the uniqueness of the individual child; however, most of them soon disappeared or became part of public systems (see Education, Alternative). From the 1950s onward, both new and older private schools began lobbying their provincial governments for financial assistance to allow them to compete more equitably with public systems. Success eventually came in Alberta, Québec, BC and Manitoba, and in Saskatchewan at the secondary level. In these provinces private schools meeting designated standards of personnel, curriculum and facilities receive an annual per capita grant out of public monies. In contrast, Québec's classical colleges were integrated into the province's public system in the late 1960s.
The growing conservatism which has characterized the last three decades across North America has had its effect on private education. Enrolments have risen steadily from 2.5% of all children in school in 1970-71 to 4.1% in 1980-81 and an estimated 5.2% in 1995-96. Ironically, provincial funding may not be a significant factor in this growth, for proportions have risen as much in Ontario (2.1% in 1970-71 to 3.5% by 1993-94), where schools receive no assistance, as they have in Alberta, where schools do receive assistance (1.3% to 3.5% by 1993-94). Rather, it would seem, the search for more traditional values, concern about the preservation of ethno-cultural and religious traditions, and disillusionment with the public system have turned many families both toward existing and newly formed private schools. Most of these schools are small, with three-quarters having fewer than 200 students, and reliant on fees for over 70% of their revenues. In particular, a new type of Christian school has developed in the last two decades. Generally small independent entities, affiliated with local evangelical churches, these Christian schools have proliferated largely as a result of the development in the US of self-directed, highly religious curriculum packages, the best known being Accelerated Christian Education, which can be purchased individually as pupils enrol.
Private schools have appealed and will continue to appeal to a minority of Canadians who are convinced that their children's special needs outweigh the benefits accorded by participation in the common socialization experience that is public education. A few private schools offer training in such specialized areas as dance and remedial education at a more intensive level than is generally available in the public system. Adherents to a variety of denominations believe that education must be more firmly based in morality and in religious belief than is possible within a single public system that serves pupils of all faiths and backgrounds. Of the more than 1500 private schools existing across Canada in 1993-94, about 50% were non-sectarian while the remainder were mostly Catholic, or Calvinist or evangelical Christian.
The development of the Charter School movement in Alberta and British Columbia in the 1990s also addresses family concerns for a traditional curriculum. Charter schools are schools within the public education system that are directly funded, and operated by a board of trustees. Each charter school determines the type of program it will offer and hires teaching staff directly to meet its program goals. Although they are popularly perceived to bridge the private-public divide, charter schools are not private schools, but attempt to serve differing or enhanced services within the public school system.
As well, the tendency of many private schools, particularly the 50 or more schools in the British tradition, to focus on traditional academic subjects leading to university entrance, appeals to many families, including recent immigrants who want to ensure their children's integration into Canadian society. Enrolment in these schools increased by 16% between 1983-84 and 1992-93. Increasingly, these schools, many of which were founded as single-sex institutions, have become coeducational at the secondary level.
Even at Upper Canada College, the private school most often cited as maintaining the generational continuity of Canada's social and economic elite, many of the pupils enroled come from families who arrived in Canada since WWII. More generally, the appeal of private education may simply be that because access is restricted by fees, by academic entrance examinations or some combination of factors, the desire to partake increases on the assumption that the product being offered must almost by definition be superior to that freely available.