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Private school or independent school: Does the language help or confuse?

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Private school or independent school? Here are a few comments to unravel some of the confusion.

In British Columbia, parents value a wide range of alternatives when choosing the right education for their children; however, in conversation parents are often uncertain on the simple matter of vocabulary. Are these schools private schools or independent schools and what is implied by the vocabulary used?

Photograph by Christinne Muschi

Independent Schools in British Columbia

The government of British Columbia makes it clear that in BC we use the word "independent." A school in BC established as an alternative to the public school system is required to operate according to the Independent School Act and falls within the jurisdiction of the Office of the Inspector of Independent Schools.

But is it "private"? No. However, confusion still exists - not in the bureaucracy itself but in the vocabulary used in conversation.

Group 4 Schools in British Columbia

To assist with this let us assume that a "private enterprise" usually implies an organization that operates for profit; there are a few schools in BC that are privately owned but operate under the Independent School Act (these are known as "Group 4" schools).

What Parents Mean When They Say Private School

In conversation, parents frequently assign the word "private" to situations where they can exercise their right to choose, to elect to send their children to one of approximately 350 schools that operate outside the public school system. But there is nothing that is private about these schools. These schools operate as not-for-profit societies usually under the Society Act of British Columbia.

When it comes to an independent school:

  • Governance is through a Board of Directors
  • Leadership in education is through qualified and certified teachers and school administrators
  • Educational programs are guided by the Ministry of Education
  • Regulatory matters are clearly defined in the Independent School Act of British Columbia
  • Independent schools are permitted and, in fact encouraged, to deliver the curriculum from their particular pedagogical, religious, or cultural perspectives
  • The reality that parents are required to pay tuition fees for their children to attend an independent school does not make them "private."

Thus, we are considering a matter of vocabulary alongside school philosophies:

  • An articulated philosophy of education does not imply that a school is "private"
  • Paying for this "service" does not imply that the service is private
  • Exercising the right to choose creates the sense of independence from Government
  • The underlying purpose of independent schools is to provide educational opportunities for children in B.C. which are well suited to the philosophies, preferences and/or religious beliefs of families in BC

One Final Observation: Different Vocabulary is Used Across Canada

The fact that different provinces use different vocabulary doesn't help with the overall confusion:

  • Ontario: The Ministry of Education uses the phrase "private schools" when referring to alternatives to the public school system.
  • Quebec: Vocabulary used is similar to British Columbia
  • "Private" is the descriptor used for most privately owned international language schools and career colleges.
  • In the UK "public schools" are in fact equivalent to British Columbia's independent schools! And they are certainly not considered "private"

This article courtesy of

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