When Tina Woodside was researching private schools for each of her three children, she looked at small schools, large schools, old schools and new schools, but there was one criterion on which she wouldn't budge: accreditation.
In Ontario, private schools have little to no oversight from the ministry of education, and Ms. Woodside, a Toronto lawyer, wanted to be sure someone was holding her child's school accountable. So she looked at schools that were accredited by the Canadian Association of Independent Schools, which recently merged with another group to form SEAL Canada, Standards in Excellence And Learning, an internationally recognized association of private schools.
"I think this is one of the issues that parents don't necessarily know about: who is looking out for them. So it is a bit of a 'buyer beware' market," said Anne-Marie Kee, SEAL's executive director.
From ivy-covered towers to church basements, there are thousands of private schools across Canada, and the degree of oversight from provincial ministries is scant and widely varied. This can make finding an independent and impartial assessment of a school difficult and leave parents scratching their heads and wondering: How do I know this school is the real deal?
Finding out whether a school is accredited by an organization like SEAL or through a respected program like the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) is often a good start.
"Being a member of an organization like SEAL says a lot to me about a school in terms of their commitment to constant improvement and being a really top-notch school," said Ms. Woodside.
It's helpful to do some research, to learn what criteria these organizations look for and how they do it. Some groups will look only at academics or classroom dynamics, but others will also ensure that a school is viable in terms of finances and governance.
"Schools join professional organizations for support, but also for accountability to themselves, each other and their parents," said Katherine Poyntz, executive director of the Canadian Council of Montessori Administrators. "So the parents feel more secure knowing that there is a body, that their school isn't just operating as a business in a bubble."
In provinces like British Columbia, where private schools receive some public funding, they are subject to province-wide testing. These standardized test scores can provide some insight into the school's academic program.
When available, parents should look at a school's scores over time, identify red flags like low or highly variable scores and ask school leaders why they might exist, said Peter Cowley, an education policy researcher at the Fraser Institute.
Some schools might have low scores because they focus on students with learning disabilities, or variable scores might reflect a relocation, tragic event or other phenomena worth knowing about, he said.
But in some provinces, like Ontario, most private schools don't participate in testing, and, even when they are available, these scores provide limited insight.
"They're one source of information on how schools are doing academically, and how an individual school compares to all the rest in the province ... and that's it," he said. "They don't speak to whether [a school has]a good fine arts program, it doesn't speak to whether they encourage their kids to get involved in sports ... it doesn't speak to whether the school builds good citizens."
Ultimately, speaking to staff and parents at the school can be the most informative step a parent can take, according to Mr. Cowley.
The website for Ontario's Ministry of Education has a list of helpful questions that parents should ask school administrators. They include whether or not the school does background checks on its teaches, what protocols are in place to handle parent or pupil complaints and whether or not the school has liability insurance for accidents involving pupils.
Parents can also check with their local consumer protection agencies to see if there are any complaints against the school, but once those checks are done, the most important step is visiting the school.
"My feeling always is visit the school and see what the ambience is," said Ms. Poyntz. "Do you like the feeling? Is there respect in the air? Is there warmth? Are those teachers qualified? Are they accredited? Do they allow parents to observe in the classroom. There are a lot of questions you could ask."