Independent Schools Have an Advantage in Forming Good Citizens

June 30, 2021 Updated: June 30, 2021


What makes a good citizen? Or, to put it differently, how are good citizens formed? This at the heart of both our democracy and the original purpose of our education system. In light of Canada Day celebrations and recent calls to reflect on Canada’s past injustices, such questions deserve reflection.

How do we educate the next generation to join the community of citizens in a way that strengthens our democracy and our social cohesion?

Some argue that only the state can deliver such education. They believe uniformity is the key. This is not only the rhetoric we hear from teachers’ unions but it is the reality in only a small number of countries, for example Mexico, Brazil, and Bulgaria.

Others argue only individual families ought to decide such questions. But is there any modern-day democracy with a truly individualist school system? Let me know when you find one.

The global norm is a pluralist approach, where the state funds and holds accountable a wide diversity of education options—both government-run (commonly called “public” in Canada) and independently owned-and-operated schools. Why?

Democracy assumes a diversity of perspectives. Educating for a strong democracy requires no less.

The research bears this out. In fact, a new study by think tank Cardus shows that independent schools (i.e. ones not run by governments) do a better job of forming good citizens than their government-run peers.

For example, in one analysis, 34 quantitative studies on the effects of independent and government-run schools’ civic outcomes yielded 86 separate statistically significant findings. Of those, 50 showed a clear independent-school advantage, 33 found neutral effects, and only three showed a government-school advantage.

The contest is not even close.

And let’s be clear about the kind of effects we are talking about. The list includes political participation. It includes political tolerance—specifically, respect for the speech, liberties, and opinions of those you most strongly disagree with. It covers things like imparting both civic knowledge and skills, so that students know how to engage the political process and have the relevant context—in terms of history, geography, and processes and structures—to do so effectively and for the common good.

Bottom line: Individually and collectively, on almost every measure, independent-school enrolment not only enhances civic outcomes but does so more effectively than enrolment at government schools.

Previous research bears this out as well. The largest data set of independent school graduate outcomes—the Cardus Education Survey—also finds independent schools overcontribute to forming tolerant, civically engaged citizens. Most recently, we’ve seen this in Ontario and British Columbia specifically.

I wonder how much of this ties into not only the content being taught but the school culture and climate in which it takes place? (After all, values are ‘caught’ more than they are taught.)

Look at how independent schools responded to COVID lockdowns.

Another new Cardus study reveals that, in Ontario, while most schools were missing in action for the first leg of COVID—very little, if any, meaningful education took place from March to September 2020—independent schools pivoted on a dime and continued educating. Almost half surveyed never missed a single day of instruction. On average, independent schools lost just three days or less transitioning to emergency remote instruction.

Why the rapid response in one sector and the exact opposite elsewhere?

Independent schools are designed on a human scale. They are not only small in size—making them easier to pivot in a crisis—but their very approach to education is more akin to a garden than a factory. They are nimble and responsive because they are designed to be. Most importantly, independent schools are profoundly accountable to parents. This leads to rapid and attentive response rates.

It also leads to a particular kind of formation. All education is formation. But how are students being formed? Are our schools enculturing an attentive, responsive, and flexible generation that embraces challenges courageously and creatively? Or do our school cultures implicitly teach—through our actions (and inaction!)—not rising to the challenge but settling for the whims of distant, rigid bureaucrats and union bosses?

Is it any wonder independent schools have an advantage in forming good citizens?

It is time we stop taking them for granted and encourage policies that will allow more families—especially the socio-economically disadvantaged—to find their school of fit, to be formed into the best community of citizens they can be.

So, amid celebrations of history and new reflections on past injustices, let’s take advantage of every opportunity to help form young Canadians into good, productive citizens.

And that means community, academic, and political leaders will need to have the courage to stand up for independent schools and to advocate for their proper role in public education.

David Hunt is the education program director at think tank Cardus.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

David Hunt
David Hunt
David Hunt is the education program director at think tank Cardus.