The Ontario Ministry of Education (MOE) plans to address the issue of home schooling again (see “Divine Right of Parents,” The Interim, September 1990).
Malcolm Powell, Provincial School Attendance Counsellor said that work on a policy paper “to clarify both for parents and for school boards their rights and responsibilities” is in progress.
“We are looking at our options now,” he told The Interim. He declined to elaborate on what the new paper contains, but did mention some topics it will address.
Government inquiry into home schooling began in 1981 with a policy memo from Attendance Counsellor Ken Johnson. In 1988, Jake Rogers, Mr. Powell’s predecessor produced a draft for another memo.
The thrust of both documents is to ensure that “satisfactory instruction” is in fact being carried out “at home or elsewhere.” The new policy paper will try to set conditions to accommodate a wide variety of home schooling styles.
Absence of a definition for what the Ministry of Education means by ‘satisfactory instruction’ makes things unclear, “but to over-define it would lead to problems,” Powell said. He added that home schooling is an educational issue: “We clearly state to boards that unless the attendance counselor is ‘teacher qualifies’, they would not be the appropriate people to assess ‘satisfactory instruction’.”
Jack Rogers floated the 1988 policy draft among home-schooling groups, but it was never formalized. Many boards, therefore, still use the 1981 Johnson Memo, usually showing or giving parents a copy. It permits an attendance counselor to request an “appropriate supervisory officer” to investigate whether the instruction offered “at home or elsewhere” is satisfactory. A board supervisory officer may not, however, inspect a private school.
“I would hope that if we develop any new guidelines, the same thing would happen; in fact, become even more entrenched. It’s not just written for boards, but for parents as well,” Mr. Powell observed.
If a school board wishes to challenge a home-schooling family, the Memo quotes the decision of Provincial (Family) court Judge D. Kent who ruled that “educational authorities must conclusively prove their case through the introduction of substantial detail and expert testimony, if necessary.”
The Johnson Memo suggests (but does not legally impose) criteria under three headings:
• Supervision of the program.
Mr. Powell wants to circulate a draft paper “amongst the various associations that I know of. In the best case scenario,” he said, “I would hope that it might even be circulated amongst as many actual home schoolers as possible.” This way, parents themselves could help in defining the term ‘satisfactory instruction.’
On interviewing the child alone in the home as part of the assessment: “That question has to be addressed. I don’t think it was ever intended to be a dark, secretive process. I think, unfortunately, it was interpreted that way.” He considers it “a reasonable request” that an adult sit with the child during the assessment interviews, but adds, “I’m not quite sure how we’re going to deal with it.”
Mention of harassment prompted him to request specific examples. “I keep hearing this term, and every time I investigate I find it’s based on a situation of eight or nine years ago. If there is a situation of harassment, I will assist the parents.
“There have been a couple of situations where parents felt harassed because they had to let the board know at all. I think it’s a badly used term,” he said.
He expressed hope that mistrust of home schoolers on the part of school boards is diminishing, now that they see that “there are a great number of very dedicated, caring parents who are providing very good home education to their children.”
Mr. Powell would not comment on the possibility of a policy change on home schooling in view of the NDP government, indicating that he has not heard anything yet, simply because it’s a new government.
Do parents in Ontario have a right to home schooling? There is nothing specific in law. The child may be excused from compulsory attendance if, among other reasons, he receives “satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere.”
However, he thought the Ministry “would interpret it that if there’s satisfactory instruction, the parent has a right to home school.”
Brian Taylor is President of the Ontario Association for Catholic Families.