Why fewer Ontario children will return to school every September

By Iman Sheikh - Published on September 2, 2015
a child studying at home
A 2015 Fraser Institute study revealed that 21,662 Canadian children were registered as home-school students in 2012, an increase of 29 per cent over a five-year period.

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Andrew Campbell, a Grade 5 teacher in Brantford,Ont., has three sons: Kevin, Patrick and Charlie. In 2001, he returned to Canada from a teaching stint in Kuwait with his then-wife, who taught French immersion. All three of their children enrolled in a public school in Brantford. It seemed like the logical place for them until the Campbells noticed the eldest, in Grade 3 at the time, struggling to fit into the school.

“After about a year, Kevin was struggling to flourish,” he says. “Things weren’t going well for him socially and he was starting to not love school.”

The Campbells knew their son needed an environment with more personalized attention. They looked around for an alternative program for their son. None looked right.

“There weren’t a lot of public school options available because it was outside a major metropolitan area,” Andrew Campbell notes. “We looked at independent schools, but we couldn’t afford it.”

Kevin’s principal received a letter in 2002 saying Kevin, 7, would no longer be attending school. His brothers, aged five and two, withdrew shortly after. The Campbell family decided that home schooling was the best route.

“We were educators,” he says. “We worked in the kitchen and saw how the soup was made. The idea of teaching our own kids at home didn’t scare us and we were financially able to do it.”

The Campbells’ story is not unique. A recent study released by public policy think-tank Fraser Institute found that an increasing number of Canadian families are choosing to home school their children. The study, Home Schooling in Canada: The Current Picture—2015, reveals that 21,662 Canadian children were registered as home-school students in 2012, an increase of 29 per cent over a five-year period. Thousands more were likely not officially registered, with the Ontario Federation of Teaching Parents estimating the total number is around 60,000 kids country-wide. As parents slowly find out home schooling is a right, that number is expected to increase, according to Deani Van Pelt, director of  the Fraser Institute’s Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education.

“It has always been legal in every province and all the evidence points so far at a continued increase in the number of children being home schooled,” says Van Pelt, also lead author on the 2015 study.

The home schooling process is less complicated in Ontario than in provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec, where parents are required to provide a detailed written program plan, have the program monitored by a school board or a private school, and also have the program inspected or certified. In this province, Section 21 of the Education Act only stipulates that a person may not attend school if “the person is receiving satisfactory instruction at home or elsewhere.” The onus is on the parents to provide this satisfactory instruction and to notify their local school board each year of their intent to home school. Unless a school board has reason to believe a specific child isn’t receiving adequate education at home, no reviews or investigations are conducted.

The reasons for this move towards non-traditional education delivery have shifted over time, according to Van Pelt.

“It used to be more religiously or pedagogically motivated,” she says. “Parents really wanted their children’s education to have a religious perspective that was woven throughout the curriculum, and they weren’t able to find that. Then there was another movement that was more pedagogical, which believed in a less-structured approach." 

But more recently, says Van Pelt, it’s a broad change in family lifestyle across Canada that’s driving the decision to home school today. Families are travelling and using the internet more. She points to popular online resources, such as Khan Academy’s free web-based tutorials, that have changed the educational resources and learning tools available to parents and children.

Home schooling has also become a popular route for parents of children with special needs. The Fraser Institute study found higher achievement scores for home-schooled students with special needs and higher levels of active academic engagement and achievement than similarly affected students in the public schools who were getting special education services.

“The function of the public school system has changed now,” says Andrew Campbell of his experience with his three sons. “It’s not about people fitting the needs of the system, but the other way around. People are not happy having their needs met in standardized ways anymore.”In the case of his son, Kevin, it was a less-traditional school system that he felt was what his son needed to succeed.

In terms of pedagogy, many parents believe in a form of home schooling known as “unschooling”: a form of child-led education where learning is allowed to happen organically and without the use of a schedule, curriculum, testing and grades. Campbell allowed his kids to unschool when they first withdrew from the public school system.

“The basic assumption is that all kids intrinsically want to learn,” he explains. “Some school systems undermine that. The consequence of going to a regular school is that kids don’t get to learn the stuff they really want to learn about.”

With unschooling, “the kids just come and do whatever and they want,” he explains. “They start to learn about things they want to learn about so they become very engaged and they develop a lifelong love of learning. It allows kids to be in charge of their learning.” While Van Pelt agrees that some parents have had success with unschooling, she points out that Canadian studies have also found higher scores on all standardized tests for home schooled student who had more structured programs.

Kevin Campbell, now 21, is going into his third year at Wilfred Laurier University. Patrick starts first year at York University in the fall, and Charlie, who chose to go back to the public school system in 2006, is in high school and working towards graduation.

“In retrospect, it was the right decision because they’re smart, happy kids with thirst of knowledge,” says Campbell. “I’m not sure if we left them in the school system that situation that would be true for them.”  

Image credit: jimmiehomeschoolmom/flickr.com

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