According to both the Ontario Education Act and PPM131, homeschooled children are considered excused from attending school as they are receiving a satisfactory education at home.
However, occasionally, school boards may disagree that the student should be excused. This could be from genuine concern or from unfounded reports from principals or school officials, misunderstanding by the general public, or malicious reports from spiteful people. But whatever the reason, investigations and inquiries can be alarming to homeschool parents.
Investigation vs Inquiry
PPM131 says that when there is a disagreement over the satisfactory education of the student, the Provincial School Attendance Counsellor (PSAC) should call an inquiry. 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 practice, PSACs ask school boards to conduct preliminary investigations before the inquiry, to save on the trouble, expense and stress of a formal inquiry, especially when reports are made without evidence.
In the past, school boards attempted to determine satisfactory education through routine monitoring of homeschool families. Through the work of the OFTP and other homeschool support groups, this practice was discontinued. You can read about that work in our archives.
When does an investigation happen?
PPM131 does still encourage school boards to conduct pre-inquiry investigations in cases where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that satisfactory education is not being provided.
Sometimes, school boards, through both ignorance and misunderstanding of homeschooling practices, can overreach in their investigations. 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.
Your local school principal or school official or school board official does not have the authority to hold an inquiry into your homeschooling.
And no one can apply 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.
What does an investigation look like?
Investigation attempts can take many forms. School officials may request (or demand) that homeschooling parents allow a home visit, provide a homeschool plan, or submit samples of curriculum or test results for their children. They may ask (or demand) you to fill out detailed questionnaires.
Know your rights.
If any of the above happen, know your rights. You do not need permission to homeschool. Your written notification of your intent to homeschool, if you provide one, is simply you declaring your choice to homeschool your children. It is not a request needing approval.
You do not have to fill out any forms related to homeschooling. You do not have to submit curriculum, lists of textbooks, homeschool schedules or plans to your local school or school board. And you do not have to allow home visits, meet with any official from your local school board or school, or test your children to prove satisfactory education.
What to do if you are investigated
Instead, if a school or school board attempts to investigate, refer them to PPM131, especially 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.”
And 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. And 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(2)].
What if they persist?
Sometimes school and school board officials can be difficult to work with. If they insist they have reasonable grounds to investigate, you have a couple of choices.
You can ignore their efforts and not engage. They can 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.
You can respond in a non-aggressive but calmly assertive way, making 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.
No matter which option you choose, you can call upon the OFTP for assistance. We can both support you in your decision to homeschool and respond on your behalf to the school or school board. You do not need to be a member of the OFTP to access this support.
When does an inquiry happen?
Provincial inquiries are much like school board investigations. They follow the same process, except that provincial inquiries are carried out under the Education Act, rather than PPM131. Because of this, a provincial inquiry carries legal weight and does require your participation, response and compliance. 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).
How to prepare 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.
First, hold the meeting in a neutral place, without your children. Officials sometimes attempt to ask children personal or leading questions, e.g., “Do you get bored at home all by yourself?”
Second, bring observers, preferably a lawyer or an OFTP representative.
Third, record the meeting. And request a documented copy of all files, notes or records of the meeting for yourself.
What to do during an inquiry
During an inquiry, stay calm and remain respectful. Becoming hostile will only cause difficulties.
Begin by stating your formal protest of this invasion of your right, as a parent, to choose your child’s education.
Ask to see what evidence the school board has that you are not providing satisfactory instruction. If they have no documented evidence, ask why this inquiry is being held.
Ask if you can have an estimate, for your MPP, of how much this inquiry is costing the taxpayer.
Ask how many other families are presently in inquiries.
Ask how many inquiries were recently requested by school boards but not pursued.
Answer questions with the minimum required, remaining calm and respectful.
What about a “paper inquiry”?
To save time and money, sometimes the Ministry of Education will attempt to hold an inquiry on paper, instead of through an in-person meeting. This will consist of a form sent out by a Ministry of Education employee (represented by Appendix D of PPM131). This form is often used by school boards to informally investigate reports of a lack of satisfactory education.
The OFTP recommends that you reject any attempts to hold a “paper inquiry”.
The Education Act states that you are entitled to a “hearing” which this form 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.
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 filling out the paper inquiry and returning it to the Ministry of Education employee who has been appointed to conduct the inquiry, or 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 the OFTP for further information and assistance.