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By Doug Sikkema
and Dr. Beth Green

More than six percent of children in Ontario are enrolled in independent (non-public) schools. In the 1960s, such independent school enrolments made up a mere 1.8 percent of the student population. Six percent might not seem like much, but the long-term trend in Ontario is a steadily increasing independent school population.

Doug Sikkema

Doug Sikkema

This is troubling for some.

That’s especially true in the context of the pervasive social problems we face across Canada, and in Ontario specifically. These include a growing distrust that threatens to undo our social fabric, a pernicious instinct to retreat into tribes of us versus them, rising inequality between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ failure to participate in civic and community institutions, and an epidemic of social isolation.

These problems make living together in Ontario increasingly difficult.

Beth Green

Beth Green

And on the face of it, increasing enrolment in the so-called elite bastions of privilege that are independent schools seems to be a clear symptom of all of our diseases.

But what if this assumption about independent schools is wrong? What if such education is good for all of us?

The recent Ontario findings in the 2018 Cardus Education Survey are helpful in clearing some of the misconceptions of independent schools. The study looks at public, separate Catholic, nonreligious independent, and independent Christian schools (both Protestant and Catholic).

Controlling for socio-economic background, the survey measures the effect of school sector on graduates. And it reveals that the graduates from all independent sectors, especially the religious ones, are a significant complement to graduates from public schools.

Independent religious school graduates report higher levels of trust in their neighbours, their co-workers, members of their congregations and in complete strangers than their peers who went to public school.

Graduates of independent schools in Ontario also cultivate a diverse network of social relationships. They have strong friendships. While the religious graduates do tend to have closer ties within their places of worship, they also establish a diverse range of social ties with differing political and religious orientations.

More important than dispositions and ties, however, are specific behaviours. And here’s where the report’s findings are most intriguing. Because while there are fears that civic engagement, volunteerism and charitable giving are all in decline, the independent school sector (and particularly the religious independent school sector) is forming graduates who are much more likely to give of their time and their resources for the common good.

Again, if our social fabric is endangered by people retreating into self-interested tribes out of fear and mistrust, such outward-facing acts of generosity are integral to a robust public life.

So what’s at stake if we’re wrong about independent schools?

There’s no funding in Ontario for independent schools even though they are proving to provide a very public good by equipping young men and women to trust, to know and to take care of their neighbours. They often do all of this to a higher degree than the public schools that receive every last dime of our public funds.

If the trends indicate anything, it’s that there is a growing demand for what independent schools have going on.

Far from the common misconceptions, these schools are helping young Ontarians become more socially engaged and more generous.

Yet the financial barriers to such education are as real as the social problems we face.

If we continue to assume incorrectly that independent schools in Ontario are the sequestered enclaves of privileged elites who don’t mix with the rest of us, we do a great disservice to the many men and women who sacrifice financially to make such schools work.

Worse yet, we risk furthering the social ills that plague us when, perhaps, the remedy is near at hand.

Doug Sikkema is a senior researcher and Dr. Beth Green is education program director at the think-tank Cardus.

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