According to the Education Act, "a person is excused from attendance at school if the person is receiving satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere" (subsection 21.a). In the event that a school board is "of the opinion" that a child "should not be excused" from school, the Provincial School Attendance Counsellor (PSAC) may conduct an inquiry (subsection 24.a). An inquiry is a meeting to investigate the reasons for a child's non-attendance at school and to determine if the child is receiving satisfactory instruction. After an inquiry is completed, the PSAC may direct the child to attend school or to be excused from attending school.
In order to avoid provincial inquiries being called unnecessarily, past PSACs have encouraged school boards to base their calls for inquiries on evidence rather than just unsubstantiated opinion. Unfortunately, that means school boards first tried to determine (and gather evidence regarding) satisfactory instruction through routine monitoring of homeschooling families (following the directives of the Johnson Memorandum of 1981). The efforts of OFTP and other groups led to the government revoking the Johnson Memorandum (and therefore the school board policies that were based upon it) and replacing it with Policy/Program Memorandum No.131 (PPM131) in 2002. While PPM131 is intended to do away with routine monitoring of all homeschoolers, it does still encourage school boards to conduct pre-inquiry investigations in cases where there are "reasonable grounds" to suspect that "satisfactory instruction" is not being provided.
A school board's "reasonable grounds" do not always seem reasonable at all. And PPM131, while better than the Johnson policy, is still just a policy as well. Parents should be aware of the actual law and their rights as home-based educators in the event that their local school board tries to impose policies and rules which are not required by law.
Here are some examples of school board policies you are NOT required, by law, to follow (unless ordered by a court):
- you do not need permission to home school -- the letter of intent you send the board when withdrawing your child from the system, is not a request for their permission but a notification of your parental decision
- your child does not have to be tested
- you do not have to agree to visits
- you do not need to submit your curriculum or have it approved
- you do not need to submit schedules or textbook lists
- your local school board or principal does not have the authority to hold an inquiry regarding your homeschooling
- your local school board or principal should not skip straight to truancy charges (Section 30 of the Education Act) without having followed the provincial inquiry process (Section 24 of the Act) and it resulting in a school-attendance order from the PSAC with which you are not complying.
If your local school board or principal attempts an investigation (i.e. requests or demands that you agree to visits and monitoring, or fill out detailed questionnaires):
- Refer them to PPM131 where it states, "The board should accept the written notification of the parents each year as evidence that the parents are providing satisfactory instruction at home."
- Document all interaction and insist that all contact be in writing from now on. (You may want to screen all your phone calls).
If they state that they have "reasonable grounds" to conduct an investigation as directed by PPM131:
- Ask them to send you a written statement regarding what, specifically, those grounds are.
- Refer them to the section of the Education Act that specifies that, if the PSAC decides to conduct an inquiry, the PSAC is to appoint, as inquiry officers, "persons who are not employees of the board that operates the school that the child has the right to attend" (Section 24.a)
If they persist, you have several options:
- Do not respond: do nothing -- they will report their investigation attempts to the PSAC, who may or may not order an inquiry. If an inquiry is called, you will need to cooperate at that time, but it will not be with anyone from the local school board.
- Respond: in a non-aggressive but calmly assertive way, make it clear that being repeatedly asked to go beyond what is required by law is harassment, and that you will be copying all correspondence to your MPP and to your lawyer.
- Have the OFTP respond on your behalf: contact the OFTP for assistance.
School Board Investigation vs the Inquiry Process
When it comes to their purpose and the information gathered, there is currently no difference between school board investigations and provincial inquiries. Both are similar ways of attempting to determine whether satisfactory instruction is being provided -- in other words, whether or not Section 21(a) applies and the child is rightly and legally excused from attendance. The school board investigation process discussed in PPM131 is simply an inquiry-type process conducted by a local school board official who has not only not been duly appointed as an inquiry officer by the PSAC, but in fact does not qualify under the law to be so appointed. PPM131 basically delegates the inquiry-type process to school boards as a way to avoid PSAC-ordered provincial inquiries being called only to find out they weren't really warranted.
Please note the difference in legality between an investigation launched by a school board (as per PPM131) and an inquiry launched by the Provincial School Attendance Counsellor. The school board investigation does not carry any legal weight. PPM131 is a policy guide only and does not carry the force of law. There are no penalties for not following the PPM and refusing to submit to a school board investigation. An inquiry initiated by the PSAC, on the other hand, is carried out under the Education Act, Section 24(2), and does carry legal weight. You must participate if an inquiry is called on you, otherwise you could be facing truancy charges under Section 30 of the Education Act (which implies a court case).
Preparation for an Inquiry
In the event that an inquiry is unavoidable, parents should know what to expect and how to participate for the best possible outcome.
A. Have the meeting in a neutral place, without the child present. Officials sometimes attempt to ask children personal or leading questions, e.g. "Do you get bored at home all by yourself?"
B. Have observers attend, preferably a lawyer and a representative of OFTP.
C. Tape record the proceedings.
At an Inquiry
1. Calmly stating it for the record, express your protest of this invasion of your right, as a parent, to choose your child's education.
2. Ask to see what evidence the school board has that you are not providing satisfactory instruction.
3. If they have no evidence, ask why the inquiry is being held.
4. Ask if you can have an estimate, for your MPP, of how much this inquiry is costing the taxpayer.
5. Ask how many other families are presently in inquiries.
6. Ask how many inquiries were recently requested by school boards but not pursued.
7. Discuss your philosophy of education and what you are doing with your child.
A Word on "Paper Inquiries"
When Jim Sebastian was PSAC, he had a document drafted for a process referred to as a "paper inquiry." These have been conducted by a Ministry of Education employee, which is quite legitimate, but are sent out to the subject family in the form of a questionnaire. This questionnaire can be found on the OFTP website at www.ontariohomeschool.org/paperinquiry.
The purpose of a paper inquiry is to save on the cost of conducting an in-person inquiry. OFTP recommends that you reject an attempt to conduct a paper inquiry. The Education Act states that you are entitled to a "hearing" which this is definitely not. You are also not compelled to provide evidence against yourself by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in our Constitution, and this paper inquiry may be construed as an attempt to do that. Also, you have the right to cross-examine the evidence provided by the school board (if any) that satisfactory instruction may not be occurring.
It is interesting to note that the paper inquiry questionnaire has been incorporated into PPM131 in Appendix D, as a sample form that a school board may use in conducting their own investigation regarding satisfactory instruction. This highlights the fact that a school board investigation is merely the delegation of the inquiry process.
The decision is always left with the individual family to determine their course of action. If you are notified by the PSAC that an inquiry is being conducted you have the option of a) filling out the paper inquiry and returning it to the Ministry of Education employee who has been appointed to conduct the inquiry, or b) you could request an in-person meeting with this individual. At an in-person meeting you have the option of bringing legal representation with you and/or an OFTP representative. This also offers the opportunity for you to request to see the evidence against you which has led to this inquiry.
As always, OFTP recommends that if homeschooling families find themselves in this situation, they contact OFTP for further information and assistance.
How to Stay Informed as a Homeschooling Parent
- Know the law. Familiarize yourself with the Education Act.
- Keep up to date on home education issues through newsletters, conferences, the media, the Internet, etc.
- Join or start a local home education support group in your community.
- Join the OFTP.