Lucelia Ribeiro via Creative Commons
Source: Lucelia Ribeiro via Creative Commons

Question: My child is exceptionally curious and keen to learn. Should we save to send her to a private school?

Answer: No! Every situation is different, but the best place to start is your local publicly funded school.

There are political reasons for my opinion: our society thrives when parents who care about education send their kids to public schools and support those schools in providing a high quality of education. Concomitantly, the social fabric deteriorates when the most highly motivated parents pull their kids out of the public system.

Another reason to spend your money on other activities and experiences—or avoid the stress that comes from being in debt or tightly budgeted—is that public schools do at least as good a job of educating kids as do private schools. International studies show that any advantage private schools might have in university entrance rates or test scores is a function of demographics rather than the nature of the schooling itself. Kids from more privileged backgrounds tend to have more educational support at home, and to have better educational outcomes, whether they attend private or public schools.

And in addition to these political, economic, and educational reasons for choosing public schooling for a child who shows promise of being an exceptionally good student, there are physical, social,  psychological, and intellectual reasons to start with the local publicly-funded option:

1. Short and easy commute. That sounds like a benefit for parents (which it is) but being able to get to school in a short time has even more benefits for a child:

  • more of the day for play and reading and other good things
  • less stress with traffic and other commuting worries
  • sense of independence and autonomy—the child has a sense of how to get home on her own if she needs to do that
  • physical health—taking a walk in the neighbourhood is a great way to start and finish the school day

2. Community engagement. The people your child meets at the local public school (kids, parents, teachers) are the same ones she meets in other settings.

3. Friendship-building. It's a lot easier to organize playdates in your neighbourhood than somewhere farther away.

4. Financial savings. There are almost always better ways to spend your money than on school fees, ways that provide the child with more quality-of-life enrichments than a private school (less financial stress on parents, more opportunities for travel and adventure, more cultural opportunities).

5. More diversity. Publicly-funded schools are more inclusive, pulling together kids from a wider range of backgrounds and interests. This opens children’s minds to a wider range of experiences and possibilities.

6. Less entitlement and elitism. Most private school kids come from more privileged backgrounds, with parents who 'want the best for their child.’ That can be a good thing, of course, but it can also mean more entitled parents and kids, and an elitist attitude.  

7. A better education for smart, curious, idiosyncratic kids. Over decades of working with exceptionally capable learners in a wide variety of school settings, I’ve learned that the more exceptional the child, the more likely it is that public schooling will offer the range of learning experiences the child needs, adapting more flexibly to the child’s abilities and interests.

There are some wonderful private or independent schools out there, and there are some troubling public education situations, so public schools are not always the best option. There are kids whose learning needs are best met (in the short term or the long term) by private schools or homeschooling, but my advice to parents is to start with the local public school, and see if you can make that work for your child. If your child doesn’t thrive there—and can’t be helped to do so with your intervention or supplementation—then it’s time to investigate other options.

Note: I am writing this in Toronto. Ontario has one of the best public education systems anywhere, and Canadians in general see the importance of good publicly funded education, so this position is easier to take here than in some other locations. However, research shows it also applies pretty well everywhere else in the developed world.

For more on these ideas:

‘Do Private Schools Provide a Better Education?’ by Sachin Maharaj  

The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, by Christopher and Sarah Lubienski

People for Education

"Private Schools: Who Benefits?" by Programme for International Student Assessment

To see some thoughts on the other side of the argument: ‘Private Schools Versus Public Schools’ by Our Schools: Canada’s Private School Guide  

Joanne Foster and I have written about school decision-making in Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, and in Being Smart about Gifted Education

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