Switching to Home-Based Learning in the Teen Years in Ontario

When parents start considering homeschooling a child who is already in middle school or high school after years of school attendance, it’s usually because of difficulties the teen is experiencing in school. There could be any number of issues:

  • struggling to keep up academically
  • experiencing bullying or discrimination
  • experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression
  • or a medical issue that leads to frequent absenteeism.

Sometimes it’s not an issue of struggling but rather a need for greater accommodation of talents:

  • greater flexibility as they pursue a career in the arts or athletics
  • less boredom for a bright or gifted student

What families often don’t realize is that there are a number of home-based learning options besides homeschooling. Homeschooling is the only option that does not lead to an Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD). This is not necessarily a problem, as we’ll explain below. However, the OSSD factor can be an important part of deciding whether or not homeschooling would be the family’s preferred choice among their home-based learning options. This is why we’ve made it Step 1 in the process of deciding which home-based educational path to take in the teen years.

Step 1: Determine if an OSSD is necessary

You can, of course, decide to get an OSSD even if it’s not necessary for the teen’s plans for the future. But it can make a difference, both psychologically (stress and anxiety) and in terms of planning (flexibility to change plans), to know whether it’s a choice or a necessity.

Whether the plan is to pursue post-secondary studies or go straight into the job market, often people have the misconception that a high school diploma is a necessary goal as a prerequisite step on the path to a teen’s studies, employment, or career goal. That's not necessarily the case:

  • There are plenty of universities and colleges that have alternative admissions policies for homeschoolers and anyone else who hasn't obtained a high school diploma. (See https://universityadmissions.ca). Before you assume an OSSD is necessary, first find out what the policies are at the specific post-secondary institutions at which the teen would like to seek admission. Then you can prepare the prerequisites accordingly.
  • If post-secondary academic studies are not part of the mandatory path for the chosen career, then whether or not an OSSD is necessary depends on what the career is and what its specific entry requirements are. For instance, a self-taught computer programmer will likely have no problem finding a job once they’ve reached a certain level of mastery, even if they have no diploma or formal education, not only because of the current high demand for programmers, but also because many employers in that field don't care about official credentials, only about actual knowledge and skills, and the proof of that is in the applicant's portfolio and job interview testing.
  • If the chosen career is a trade, the post-secondary path to it may involve attending a trade school. Again, before you assume a high school diploma is necessary for gaining entry into the school, first find out what admissions policies the specific trade school has. Some might require an OSSD, but some might require only certain high school courses as prerequisites (for example, to prove proficiency in English) but not the whole OSSD. Some just have an admissions test and an interview.
  • For trades, sometimes direct arrangements for apprenticing can be a way in.
  • Entrepreneurs are subject to government rules about business and the industry they’ve chosen, but high school credentials are not part of that equation.

The other thing to consider is that the immediate goal may not be about careers.

Step 2: Determine what’s most important

Even if an OSSD is necessary for the chosen career path, is it really necessary to obtain it by a certain date? Sometimes mental health, or the development of maturity, or some other life factor, is more important than staying on a conventional timeline for taking the path to the chosen career.

Current needs and wellness

As mentioned above, many families who haven’t thought of homeschooling during the elementary grades start considering home-based education during middle school or high school if their teen is suffering from an issue that’s either caused by a situation at school, exacerbated by school attendance, or prevents the teen from attending:

  • bullying
  • stress
  • depression
  • anxiety (social anxiety, performance anxiety, existential anxiety, free-floating anxiety)
  • low self-esteem
  • identity issues
  • or a combination of the above.

Even when the chosen home-based learning option involves getting the OSSD, it’s important to take into account any mental health needs that might make it appropriate to take it slower than the standardized pace.

Life goals and readiness

Another reason for re-thinking the conventional timeline for career preparation is that the career may not yet be chosen and more time may be needed to explore and discover what that choice might eventually be.

Also, a teen is not just preparing for work, they’re preparing for life as an independent adult. From a practical point of view, adults need to know how to cook for themselves, budget their income, pay their bills, file their tax returns, register to vote, etc. Ideally, a newly independent adult should also have a certain degree of social and emotional maturity: knowing how to troubleshoot problems, negotiate agreements, resolve conflicts, navigate relationships in a healthy way, etc.

So even if you’ve determined that the OSSD should be part of the plan, the focus of a teen’s education needs to be broader than just studying for a diploma. Paper credentials cannot replace resourcefulness, resilience, and know-how.

The big picture

The purpose of determining what’s important (step 2), is to guide the planning of what needs to be done (step 3). Before taking any practical steps towards a change in the teen’s educational path, take time to look at the whole person and the whole picture of where they are and where they want to go, as well as the very notion of education.

The whole concept of dividing knowledge and skills into subjects and grades, and advancing through them at a specific pace through a specific curriculum, is rooted in the standardization of institutional education, based on the logistics of mass instruction. It’s not based on what's best for any given individual, nor is it the essence of true education and learning.

So challenge any assumptions you might have about what education is for and what it’s supposed to look like. Re-think the relationship between education and learning. Figure out, parents and teen together, what you believe education’s purpose and role is, what you believe its place is in the grander scheme of things, and what the personal short-term and long-term goals should be, to which the education should be tailored.

Step 3: Determine your action plan

Depending on what the short-term and long-term goals are, it may be helpful to have an action plan that explicitly spells out those goals and the sequence of practical steps to be taken. Having a plan before taking action can ensure that you don’t inadvertently take a misstep and have to backtrack or catch up in some way.

Your decisions and action plan will depend on your path:

  • Path A: to get an OSSD — you will need to choose among several school-dependent home-based learning options
  • Path B: not to get an OSSD — you can homeschool however you wish, choosing whatever approach is the best match for your beliefs, values, goals, and your teen's abilities, learning style, and interests

Path A: choosing among home-based learning options for getting the OSSD

If the career goal (or a personal preference) involves the need for an OSSD, then the only way for the student to obtain that, is to be enrolled in a certain number of OSSD credit courses through an Ontario-accredited school or course provider.

  • It doesn’t have to be a brick-and-mortar school, it can be online, or a combination of in-person and online, or a combination of several course providers. But each of the 30 credits required for an OSSD does have to be granted by a course provider that’s accredited for that purpose by the Ontario government.
  • The student doesn’t necessarily have to take a course for each and every required credit. Some schools are willing to grant some credits through Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR). However, they’re only allowed to grant 23 of the 30 credits in this way. At least 7 credits must be obtained through completion of credit courses.

There are several home-based learning options for teens who are already attending (or registered to attend) the local middle school or high school. You’ll want to become aware of them before taking any practical measures towards any given home-based option, in case a different option would be a better solution in your circumstances:

Part-time attendance

If full-time attendance is a problem but the teen is willing or eager to continue attending school if it were part-time, i.e. fewer hours a day or fewer days a week, it may be worth finding out if the principal would permit it. It’s allowed by the Ministry of Education, with pro-rated funding to the school based on the pupil’s average daily number of hours of attendance (see http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/extra/eng/ppm/131.html under Clarification of related policy > Funding for Part-Time Attendance), but it’s at the discretion of the principal whether or not to grant permission. Many principals are resistant to it, and sometimes, even when a principal does allow it, it can happen that their decision gets overruled by the school board. Nevertheless, it does sometimes happen that the school and school board are both accommodating, so it’s worth asking about it, if it’s something that your teen would find suitable. (https://ontariohomeschool.org/legal/parttime/)

Home instruction

Home instruction may be available if there is a physical or mental health issue that makes school attendance difficult or medically impossible. [See Regulation 298 subsection 11(11) – https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/900298#BK9]. Home instruction is not homeschooling and not eLearning. Rather, it is an accommodation of the student, who remains enrolled in their school, to receive instruction at home from a teacher assigned by the school for that purpose. The idea is to keep the student in sync with their classmates through providing similar lessons to what the class is receiving, brought by the assigned teacher into the student’s home. The teacher’s visits are not daily.

Home instruction allows the student to stay enrolled, which allows the school to continue receiving funding for that pupil. It allows the student to continue to progress towards the OSSD credits associated with their existing courses.

In order for home instruction to be granted, however, at least two criteria must be met:

  • the family must provide a letter from the doctor stating the necessity or importance of the student’s non-attendance;
  • the school or school board must have the means to accommodate the request (sufficient funding, an available teacher, or such). It has sometimes happened that home instruction has been theoretically granted but the teacher visits have been too delayed or infrequent to be of much use.

Prolonged temporary absence

Under the same rules that allow a principal to sign off on a student’s prolonged absence for a family vacation or other such matter, a principal has the authority (but not the obligation) to grant a prolonged temporary absence for any other reason at the parent’s request. This authority is given by Subsection 23(3) of Regulation 298 (Operation of Schools – General). (https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/900298#BK20)

Permission for a prolonged temporary absence allows the school to retain its funding for the pupil, as long as certain criteria are met. They’re outlined in the Enrolment Register Instructions: (http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/forms/enrol/enrolment_register_instructions.pdf under MAINTAINING THE REGISTER AND ATTENDANCE RECORDS > Absence > Excused Pupils)

  • the parent’s request must be provided in writing;
  • the request must specify the exact time frame of the absence (i.e. it can't be open-ended);
  • the planned absence can be more than 15 consecutive school days if the parent provides “appropriate supporting documentation with the time frame of their absence explicitly stated”;
  • “the school must provide a program of study for the pupil” (defined as “an academic program to help the pupil fulfill curricular expectations during the period of absence”).

As with home instruction, this is not homeschooling but rather an accommodation of the student to receive the same program of study as their classmates. Instead of a teacher visiting, however, the implementation of the program is left to the parent and student.

Distance schooling

Another home-based option that is still part of the school system, i.e. not homeschooling, is distance schooling. Decades ago, there were correspondence courses available by postal mail. Nowadays distance education is usually provided entirely (or almost entirely, depending on the course provider) online. (Some also involve the use of printed textbooks.)

The public education options have no tuition fee for Ontario residents, just a nominal administrative fee per online course ($40-$50). The publicly funded providers of online high school credit courses in Ontario include the following:

  • the Independent Learning Centre (ILC) — run by TVO on behalf of the Ontario government and serving all of Ontario; accepts both school students and homeschoolers; year-long registration;
  • the Avon Maitland District Elearning Centre (AMDEC) — run by the Avon Maitland District School Board but they also accept students from other school boards; only accepts school students, not homeschoolers (homeschoolers must first enrol in a day school); some courses are semester-based; limited window for registration (September – mid-February) even for “continuous intake” courses;
  • the Virtual Learning Centre (VLC) — run by the Trillium Lakelands District School Board but they also accept students from other school boards; accepts both school students and homeschoolers; semester-based courses with limited windows for registration;
  • board-specific eLearning options.

There are also a number of private online schools that are accredited to grant the OSSD credits and diploma, including the private Virtual High School (VHS), not to be confused with the public Virtual Learning Centre (VLC). See the description and link for VHS and other private course providers on the OFTP’s Resource Directory page of Correspondence Schools and Virtual Schools. Private options usually cost around $500 or $600 per course.

Before you take action for distance schooling...

If distance schooling is the option that seems most suitable in your family’s circumstances, the first thing to decide is which distance learning provider to choose, since different options have different requirements that determine the steps to be taken and what you can and can’t do.

(Note: Most of the following only applies if your teen is already attending high school rather than in grade 8.)

  • The high school where the teen is currently enrolled may have eLearning agreements with online course providers that are not listed on the OFTP website, so before you make your choice, you may want to ask the school what’s available through them.
  • If you choose AMDEC, then the student needs to stay registered in their current school and ask the principal's permission to switch to the online courses offered by AMDEC. The school may or may not have an agreement with AMDEC, may or may not permit the switch for this student or at this time, or it may be too late to register for a given semester; but asking for permission would be the first step.
  • If you choose ILC or VLC, you’ll want to find out whether the current school has an acceptable arrangement with them or whether you’ll need to withdraw the teen from the day school first so as to enrol them in online courses as a homeschooler with greater flexibility. VLC is semester-based, so it’s not always available as an option for a given time of year.
  • If the school doesn't have an eLearning agreement with your chosen provider, or doesn’t permit eLearning for this student or at this time, or it’s too late to register for that option this semester but the teen needs to stay home right away, or if you choose a private online school instead, or you’re starting home-based learning before grade 9, then the next step is to withdraw the teen from the day school through the parent’s Letter of Intent to Homeschool sent to the school board (see the details at https://ontariohomeschool.org/legal/letter-of-intent/) and then enrol the student in the online courses as a homeschooler.
    Note: Be aware that the only online options available before high school are private schools ($500-$600 per course), so if you’re planning to use online credit courses for the OSSD but you’re withdrawing your teen from school attendance in grade 8, you can postpone distance schooling until grade 9 and just use your homeschooling time to make sure your teen is at grade level in time for their grade 9 online courses.

Any steps beyond that will be given by the course provider.

How it’s not homeschooling

In all of these options (part-time attendance, home instruction, prolonged temporary absence, distance schooling), the student remains in (or returns to) the school system:

  • you don't choose the materials for a given course, they are chosen for you; in distance schooling, they may be supplied online or you may be given a list of books or other materials to buy;
  • the parent doesn't do the grading, the course provider does that;
  • there is usually teacher support;
  • the OSSD credits earned get added to the student's transcript and either the day school or the online course provider issues the OSSD.

Path B: choosing homeschooling and no OSSD

If the goal is not the diploma but rather a more satisfying education that's custom tailored to the teen’s own unique needs, abilities, and interests, then you can choose actual homeschooling, and do so in whatever way and at whatever pace works best for the teen (within the criteria of the goals you’ve decided upon in step 2). Ontario homeschoolers are not required to follow the Ontario curriculum nor the educational methodologies of the school system. As with homeschooling younger children, the choice of methods and materials is up to you.

There are, however, some ways in which homeschooling in the high school years is different from homeschooling in the elementary grade years:

  • Even more so than when your child was younger, this is the young person’s own life, so the decisions about their education and future should not be made without them.
  • In fact, if they haven’t been given much charge of their own life until now, this is a good time to start trusting them and help them move into more independence, choice, and freedom.
  • If the teen’s career goals make post-secondary studies necessary, some of the high school years will need to be spent acquiring any mandatory prerequisites. Since prerequisites and admissions policies can vary from one university or college to another, you’ll need to find out what they are for the specific institutions to which you want to apply. You’ll want to gather that information early enough to form a step-by-step plan with enough advance to implement it and be ready by the time you want to start the post-secondary admissions process.
  • Even when you’re not aiming for the OSSD, online credit courses are an option if you want or need them. You can use them selectively as a supplement to independent homeschooling, either for the sake of the learning itself (without concern for credits), or to meet limited prerequisite requirements for admission to a chosen post-secondary institution.
  • Some amount of record-keeping is worthwhile, in case the teen needs a portfolio later on, whether for post-secondary admissions or some unforeseen reason. It doesn’t have to be intrusive; the parent can be the one to keep notes on what the teen is learning and through what resources (e.g. list of books read, software used, courses taken, etc.), and have a box, folder, or binder, in which to save copies or photos of any work they’ve done (copies of writing or art, photos of larger projects or activities).
  • The decision not to aim for an OSSD is not irreversible. If need be, it can simply be postponed.

Withdrawing your teen from school to homeschool

If you’ve chosen the path where you’re not going to worry about getting the OSSD, you can go directly to withdrawing the teen from the school system through a Letter of Intent to Homeschool sent to the school board (https://ontariohomeschool.org/legal/letter-of-intent/), and start homeschooling in whatever way is best suited to your teen’s current needs (https://ontariohomeschool.org/about-homeschooling/teaching-methods/). As mentioned earlier, the reason this is a possibility even if they want to go to university later, is that there are ways to get into university or college even without an OSSD. (https://universityadmissions.ca/)

Still hesitating?

Leaning towards a custom-tailored education but still hesitating about letting go of the OSSD? These resources might help deschool your mindset:

What’s more important?

It bears repeating: the options depend not only on your teen’s career goals but also on their life goals and personal needs. You can safely allow current needs to shape the path to future goals, knowing that there is always more than one path, or one timeline for a given path.

Is it more important for your teen to follow the standardized path so they can get a diploma and not have to take too much of an unconventional path to where they want to go?

Is it more important for them to shape their learning to who they are, and to what they want to be and do in life, in the way that's most suited to their own well-being and ability to thrive? Are they comfortable finding their path to that even if it's unconventional and doesn't involve a diploma?

Only you and your teen can decide, together, which option is the most likely to be a good fit. Hopefully, the above has given you enough facts and food for thought to make your decision an informed one.


© Marian Buchanan, 2020

Marian joined the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents a couple of decades ago, around the time PPM131 was being negotiated. Her unschooled son is all grown up now, but she remains involved in the homeschooling community through her volunteer work with the OFTP as well as running several homeschool-related websites, including the Canadian Home Based Learning Resource Page, University Admissions in Canada, and the Homeschool Media Network. She also offers a few downloadable activities for children through her Kids and Caboodles site.




Topics: Distance Education, High School, Part-Time Homeschooling