Part Academic hothouse, part country club, private schools are enjoying a boom

VICTOR DWYER May 15 1995


Part Academic hothouse, part country club, private schools are enjoying a boom

VICTOR DWYER May 15 1995




At 8 o’clock on a brisk April morning, the tiny limestone chapel of Lakefield College School is full of rows of sleepy, fresh-scrubbed teenagers, quietly gathering for morning assembly. As the last coed wedges into a back pew, a wiry blond teenage boy takes the podium—and the rock music begins to blare. In 18-year-old Todd Lamont’s eyes, Aerosmith’s Walk This Way is a perfect prelude to an emotional speech about his five-year journey at the picturesque Ontario school. He tells of hiding under a pile of laundry to avoid being caught in the all-girl dormitory—after curfew—and of camping trips “that developed personal leadership and lifelong skills.” There are tributes—to close friends and to a favorite teacher named Richard Life, “a supportive, compassionate human being who encouraged individuality and self-assurance in his students.” And in an impassioned

closing flourish, he speaks of his own relief at having become “a wellbalanced young man,” before imploring those in the audience to take good care of “the destiny and precious future of a school I have grown to love.”

At a time when one in five teenagers fails to finish high school—and when those who do often graduate from a world of crowded classrooms, overworked teachers and peer pressure to be mediocre—the private-school option has become increasingly attractive to Canadian parents. Many are choosing Christian schools, drawn by the sense of order and academic rigor (page 48). Others have trained their sights on the Ivy League of private schools: roughly 70 institutions that were built on the model of British grammar schools. Steeped in tradition, those schools have a huge drawing power for middle-class Canadians, many of whom are making financial sacrifices to place their children in

Part Academic hothouse, part country club, private schools are enjoying a boom

a world where both individual attention and an intense push to succeed are paramount. “Our parent profile is considerably different from just a generation ago,” says William Mitchell, headmaster of Selwyn House School in Montreal since 1985. ‘We’re seeing far more two-career families on the lookout for value-added.” Mary Percival Maxwell, a professor of sociology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., cites smaller families as a major factor in the willingness to take the private-school plunge. Says Maxwell: “The newest wave of parents are people with all their eggs in one basket, and they can’t afford to drop it.”

Enrolling a student in the world of kilts and blue blazers has undeniable appeal: student-teacher ratios of 6:1 at Monierest School in Toronto; one computer for every two students at St. Andrew’s College, in Aurora, Ont.; white-water rafting, rock climbing and cross-country skiing on the 1,000-acre campus of Sedbergh School in Montebello, Que. But the move is not to be taken lightly. Fees are prohibitive, with annual tuition at a minimum of $4,000 and running as high as $14,500 for a day pupil, plus roughly another $10,000 for those who board. As well, there is the incalculable cost of entering a community that is equal parts country club and academic hothouse. Standards can seem unreachable— and competition is fierce. There are unique social pressures when money, for some, is no object. And despite their best efforts, private schools have not escaped the social challenges that increasingly face the public system: racism, drugs, teenage sex.

But for many parents, the negatives are outweighed by their disillusionment with the public school system. “Knowing their children would do better than they did has always motivated the middle class to support public institutions,” says Heather-jane Robertson, co-author of Class Warfare, a defence of Canada’s public schools. “These days, parents don’t think their children will do better, and so they find themselves looking for ways to get their kids over the backs of other kids.” Susan Hunter of Halifax transferred her twins, Peter and Christine, now 15, to RCS Netherwood, 210 km away in Rothesay, N.B., when they were in Grade 8. “I would have loved it if my kids could have been successful in public school,” says Hunter. “But they just needed more attention than they could get in an underfunded, understaffed system. In the end, for better or for worse, they had to be my first consideration.”

Having wrestled with that same dilemma, many parents are taking out second mortgages or postponing the fruits of material success to give their children an educational edge. Others are even dipping into university trust funds. “Parents increasingly see the make-or-break years as coming much sooner than university,” says John Messenger, headmaster of 206-year-old King’s-Edgehill School in Windsor, N.S. “They tell us they will just have to worry about university when the time comes.” Douglas Blakey, principal of Toronto’s Upper Canada College (UCC), also sees more parents making sacrifices than in the past. “They will buy the Chevrolet

instead of the BMW, or put off getting the summer cottage.”

The resolve to provide an educational edge has created some unlikely converts. Joan Barrett of Bancroft, Ont., describes her husband, Ted Moores and herself as “typical kids of the Sixties,” who run a small boat-building business. As their elder daughter, Daisy, made her way through public school, Barrett watched her become bored, both by her school and friends, “who were not very intellectually challenging.” By the time Daisy entered Grade 8, recalls Barrett, “she was getting the message that it was cool to be a goof.” Lakefield, 80 km away, Barrett found “a place that looked like it would make Daisy push herself.” Now in Grade 12, Daisy has been joined her younger sister, Jennifer. Although both girls get partial bursaries, Barrett and Moores have had to “work around the clock” to increase their earnings from $35,000 to about $55,000 annually. And, she says, they have almost no savings, no RRSPs, and never eat out. “It has been terrible, hellish, painful,” says Barrett. “But when we began to see

Daisy being challenged and her needs being met, there was no turning back.”

According to Nova Scotia’s Messenger, the shift from public to private schools represents a “fatigue with faddism.” Parents, he says, are frustrated with public school policies, such as child-centred learning, multilevel grades and open-concept classrooms, “made by educational theorists and faceless bureaucrats.” Instead, parents want a greater say in their child’s education—a notion that the private schools themselves have had to adjust to. “Go back 40 or 50 years, kids were dumped off here and did not see their parents for two years,” says Michael Miller, a teacher at UCC and master of Wedd’s House residence. “They figured they had found a suitable school and that that was the end of it.” Today’s parents, says Robert Napier, headmaster of Ashbury College in Ottawa, “vote with their feet. We know we have to satisfy them.” For their part, parents talk in terms of good returns on their investment. ‘When you are paying for your child’s education, you buy the right to involvement,” says Hunter. “If you are inclined to complain about the service, you should get results.”

Among the parents most often drawn to private schools are those, like Barrett and Hunter, with children poised at the brink of adolescence—when the public system in most

provinces collects them into so-called middle schools or junior highs. “Rightly or wrongly, those schools have a reputation,” says Nancy Hamm, who has two sons at Upper Canada College. “You have 12and 13-year-olds who are not leaders and not being led, who are putting in time at an age when they need strong direction and incentive.”

UCC, like many private schools, places a premium on extracurricular activities, especially sports: Grade 9 and 10 students are required to take part in an after-school athletics program that utilizes the school’s four gyms, five squash courts, six tennis courts, a year-round hockey arena and an indoor pool. Many private schools are also highly competitive in interscholastic sports. With only 525 students, The Crescent School in north Toronto sports 47 teams. Appleby College in Oakville, Ont., requires all kids to clock in a minimum of 60 hours a year on extracurricular activities. And beyond those demands, schools now routinely insist that students commit several hours annually to community service. “Private school does not end at 3 p.m.,” says Heather Hedges, a former public school student now in Grade 13 at Lakefield. “It ends when you fall asleep.”

nd with those busy schedules comes a high level of supervision. In the British tradition, the schools ensure that every student becomes a part of what Lakefield assistant head Susan Hazell calls “a web” of adults—housemasters, dons, teachers and counsellors—as well as fellow students, through house and prefect systems. Predictably, that attention can seem stifling. “Everything is so regimented that it takes the decision-making process away from us,” says Alice MacLachlan, in Grade 11 at Halifax Grammar School. Others question the effects on those who do not fit in. “There is much offered at the point of sale, but the experience is not for everybody,” says Daniel Borins, who graduated from UCC in 1993 and is now at McGill University in Montreal. “I survived nicely, but what is the experience for someone who needs their own space, who just does not respond to all the stimulation? They probably would see themselves as an utter failure.” Old-school traditions can make for a decidedly rarefied atmosphere—one that many parents perceive as a key component of what they are purchasing. “People would never be explicit,” says UCC’s Blakey, in an office that boasts two chandeliers, plus three A. Y.

e dipping into university trust ive their kids an educational edg

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Jackson paintings—gifts to the school from former graduating classes. “But the attraction of Upper Canada College is that your child will be going to school with kids who are going to be successful, because of hard work and family background.” At George’s in Vancouver, headmaster Gordon Atkinson says that “parents are applying for an educational package—they are looking for a whole cultural ambience.” But while the schools trumpet their clubby feel, students from lower income brackets can find the experience alienating. “It is hard at times to accept that your peers go skiing at Christmas, to Bermuda for March break, that their parents drive fancy cars,” says Lakefield’s Hedges, whose mother is a social worker, father is a carpenter, and who has partial scholarship from the school. “If you can’t deal with that, Lakefield can be hying, emotionally.”

In most private schools, that social pressure is matched by a commensurate academic challenge. At Stanstead College in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, students write three full sets of exams a year; those at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ont., are given formal academic assessments every five weeks. And at UCC, it is mandatory for students to write the American Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT). With those challenges, come unique opportunities. Several West Coast schools have active exchange programs with counterparts in Japan. Students at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto ten spend two terms studying at a French lycée.

Such high standards can catch some students by surprise. John Wiens, superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division Winnipeg, says that many parents believe that a simple transfer

to the private system will solve their child’s problems.“But if your kid is not going to make the grade,” notes Wiens, “private schools do not have to keep him.” Sociologist Maxwell, who has interviewed hundreds of private-school parents, says that a growing emphasis on merit, rather than family connections, has led to increasing numbers of students being “cooled out”—“quietly asked to leave in order to purify the academic atmosphere.”

“The purchase of peers,” as Lakefield headmaster David Hadden calls it, is a primary reason many parents turn to private schools. As more provinces move to include learning-disabled children in regular classrooms, and as Ontario de-streams Grade 9, Hadden says that “parents have become afraid that their kids are getting lost in classrooms that are trying to do too much.” Although Toronto’s Monierest, for one, offers a special program for students with learning disabilities, most private schools gear their teaching and curriculum to the academically strong. “We have no basic or general kids—all our kids are headed to university,” says Nanci Smith, dean of students at Toronto’s all-female Branksome Hall. Increasingly, parents are hiring tutors to prepare for entrance exams: at the country’s most academically exclusive private institution, the University of Toronto Schools, only one in nine applicants is accepted.

Private-school their discriminating administrators standards—saying are unapologetic that such about selectivity merely reflects the philosophy of the clientele. “Our parents are often very enlightened,” says Rachel Phillips Belash, headmistress of Branksome. “They agree with the idea of equity in principle. But they are skeptical about it working in practice.” It was just such pedagogical pragmatism that convinced feminist author Michele Landsberg and her husband, former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, to send their son Avi, now a reporter at Toronto’s City TV, to UCC in 1976. According to Landsberg, the couple made the choice after finding that the public system of the time did not offer enriched classes for intellectually gifted children. “It was against our principles to do it,” says Landsberg. “But you do not sacrifice your kid to political principles.”

For the most part, private schools accept the central task of steeling students for the rigors of university. The library at

Lakefield is open until 11 p.m. every night of the week, and most schools insist that students study at least two hours each evening. “I would go home and cry every night,” recalls Andrea Iaboni, 18, of her first year at University of Toronto Schools. “It was that much work.” Several schools, including Brentwood College in Vancouver, Balmoral Hall in Winnipeg and Montreal’s Lower Canada College, strongly encourage senior students to take so-called advanced placement courses—equal in difficulty to first-year university credits. And determined to prove their academic mettle, a growing number of private schools are converting to the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. Administered from central offices in Switzerland, the program combines a rigorous curriculum with external examinations. Currently offered at both Ashbury College and Elmwood School in Ottawa, as well as at

Halifax Grammar and The Toronto French School, the program comes on-stream at UCC in 1996, and is currently under consideration at Branksome and Lakefield. ‘The IB is hard currency,” says UCC parent Hamm. “I see it as a way that the school is sayJ ing it is accountable to the outside g| world and to me.”

For parents, the 'purchase of peers' is a major drawing card

It is not surprising that the close § supervision, heavy workload and I extracurricular demands drive some u students to buck the system—especially those who board. “It was horrible—really, really strict,” recalls Sabrina Mitchell, 28, a 1986 graduate of Branksome, whose father, James, is Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Mitchell and other boarders were expected to study for three hours every weeknight. And she insists that “the endless restrictions” of boarding life “forced a lot of the girls to be wilder and freer than public school girls.” Recalling joint dances with boys from Lakefield and St. Andrew’s, she says that “the bushes outside would be very crowded.” Mitchell and a group of fellow boarders had their own method of releasing pressure. “On Saturday nights, we would pretend we were asleep and then climb down the fire escape and grab a taxi to the clubs down on Queen Street,” she recalls. “There, we would do drugs for hours, before sneaking home at around she.” Branksome is doing away with weekend boarders starting next fall. “The location, two minutes from Yonge and Bloor, is a weakness,” concedes Belash.

In fact, it is the potentially isolating nature of the boarding school—and the distance from home and family—that continues to color many people’s image of private institutions. Toronto writer James FitzGerald’s Old Boys: The Powerful Legacy of Upper Canada

College, published last November, was a best-seller—and a public-image setback for UCC. A collection of 71 memoirs of life at the school, its darkest chapters tell the stories of former students who felt utterly alone in residence, who were physically abused by the “heads of the house”—older boys assigned to look after them. And FitzGerald says that Volume 2, which he is currently editing, will include a revelation by Patrick Johnson, principal from 1965 to 1974 and now deceased, of the rape of one boy by a master in the early 1970s. The student had a nervous breakdown as a result, Johnson told FitzGerald, but the incident was never made public.

Author Michael Ignatieff, a student head at UCC’s Wedd’s House in 1964, recalls “the dreadful cocoon” of boarding-school life. “The school gave me an awful lot of authority and it brought out the fascist in all of us,” says Ignatieff. “It gave me a lifelong aversion

to the exercise of authority.” And it was not just UCC where some boys saw might as right. “The prefects were always caning us,” recalls writer Ron Graham, who graduated from Bishop’s College School in Lennoxville, Que., in 1964. “The school was just its own universe—every rule seemed sacred, and it never occurred to you to question them.” Touring Wedd’s House now, where posters of rock stars Kurt Cobain and a naked Madonna preside over unmade beds, the atmosphere is decidedly more casual. As the world outside has changed, private schools have relaxed many of the rules that once went unquestioned. At Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont., the student handbook refers to the grave consequences of misbehavior. Still, most misdemeanors, whether missing breakfast or skipping class, are met with a “quarter”—fifteen minutes of running or working. And administrators sound almost as resigned as their public school counterparts to the existence of drugs and alcohol. “What flows through the school in any day is what is out there in society,” says Vernon Mould, UCC’s director of planning and development. “The degree to which the school can influence that is probably more limited than we would like to admit.” At Lakefield, Hadden recalls that “it used to be

that if you got caught drinking you risked it all.” Now, he notes, “our policy is still strict, but we look at each case.” Still, there are limits: two years ago, Hadden expelled six senior students caught smoking marijuana, some of whom had previously been warned about using drugs and alcohol.

Some wonder just how much private schools continue to influence the society outside their doors—and to what extent the best schools give students an entrée into Canada’s ruling circles. Twenty years ago, in his book The Canadian Establishment, Peter C. Newman wrote that “UCC commands the respect of generations of Canadian prominenti in business, culture and public service.” Now, he says, “the importance of private schools has waned.” The reason: “The world economy has become too global, too competitive. The days when you were granted a desk at Wood Gundy just because you went to UCC are over.”

"T"ot everyone agrees with

I that assessment. Sociol-

-A_ ^1 ogist Maxwell insists

that Canadian private schools continue to play an important role in “differentiating” the country’s elite—removing it from the mainstream and providing it a place to get acquainted. Such schools are able to do so, she adds, largely because Canada has no well-defined layer of upper-crust postsecondary institutionto compare with the U.S. Ivy League, or Cambridge and Oxford in Britain.

In fact, Maxwell maintains, the changing ethnic profile of Canada’s private schools demonstrates their power to reflect the country’s evolving elite—

As the world has changed, private schools have relaxed their rules

one now vast firstand second-generation Canadians.

Although private schools claim not to track students by race, Maxwell has observed that between 35 and 40 per cent of students attending member institutions of the Canadian Association of Independent Schools belong to visible minorities. The vast majority are of Asian descent—a reflection, she says, of the comparative wealth of Asian Canadians and of the private-school traditions of such countries as Hong Kong and India. Suresh Bhalla, whose son Amar is scheduled to graduate from UCC this spring, confirms that notion.

“If there is a legacy the Brits left behind, it is that parents should send their kids to private school.”

At times, the influx of new Canadians has engendered resentment on the part of old-guard WASPs—and public debate over quotas and curriculum changes. In 1989, St. George’s headmaster Alan Brown felt compelled to address public charges that the school was admitting proportionately few applicants of Asian descent “It is not true that we would resort to a quota system,” he wrote in The Vancouver Sun. Rather, he explained, several newly landed immigrants had difficulty passing compulsory entrance exams in English. More recently, Toronto’s Havergal College experienced what headmistress Priscilla Winn Barlow describes as “a brouhaha” over its attempt to introduce a mandatory course in Mandarin Chinese, which was already offered as an elective in upper grades. In the end, those against the change won their fight

Equally contentious have been efforts to turn single-sex schools

______coeducational. When Lakefield announced its decision to

accept girls in 1987, an organization of angry mothers, calling itself “Save Lakefield,” launched a vocal campaign against the move. Hadden says that Lakefield made the switch largely to increase the pool of applicants—and the quality of the student body. That, in turn, has caused some minor resentment on the part of others in the private school community. At nearby Trafalgar Castle School, which remains all female, headmaster Craig Kamcke acknowledges losing 10 girls to Lakefield the first year—and says enrolment has dropped at least another 10 since Trinity began accepting girls in 1991.

But Kamcke insists that his school will try to hold out as a single-sex academy. “It is a matter of principle,” he says. ‘We are 121 years old. We have been doing this a long time.” At Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s School in Montreal, meanwhile, headmistress Michèle Gorry

says parents are seeking its all-female environment for their daughters. “People are more aware of the research on how girls benefit from having female role models, and how they are able to build self-esteem without boys around,” says Gorry. At Branksome Hall, Belash says that focusing on young women allows the school to channel its resources effectively. This year, for example, she hired a guidance counsellor with expertise in mediating verbal conflicts. With girls, you don’t have to talk over a punch in the

face, because that is not how they fight,” explains Ruth Ann Penny, head of the junior school at Branksome. “It is a different kind of nastiness that we work on resolving.”

Certainly, the few remaining bastions of male privilege are showing

little inclination to open their doors to the opposite sex. Many boys say they enjoy the ability to build friendships without the pressure of flirting and dating. “I think the relationship you have with your friends is a lot stronger,” says James Hepburn, a Grade 12 student at all-boys St. George’s. “And,” he adds, “if you don’t have girls, you don’t have to be macho in front of the girls.” Others display a hint of chauvinism in their defence of the old order. “Staying all boys has saved our school,” says Kevin Colbert, in his final year at UCC, over a lunch of shepherd’s pie and Kool-Aid. “You look at some schools that have let in young women. I wouldn’t say they are exactly going down-

hill, but____” He hesitates for a moment. “The reason most

bring in girls is financial,” he continues stiffly and confidently. “If it got to that here, the Old Boys would help out.”

In the end, whether all-boy, all-girl or coed, private schools offer a distinct—and highly attractive—alternative to the besieged territory of public education. For those weary of the battle on the public front, the rewards justify the sacrifice. “It was really a toss-up whether I should spend my time trying to change the public school system or put my energy into my own skills and see if I could make private school happen for the kids,” says Lakefield’s Joan Barrett. “The choice wasn’t easy,” she adds, “but it was the only one to make.”

With CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver, LUKE FISHER in Ottawa and JOHN DeMONT in Halifax