As students across Canada wrap up another school year, we know that some of them won’t be back in the fall. They may be barred from schools because of striking teachers. Or they may be home – in school.
With an average growth rate of more than 5 percent per year, home-schooling in Canada is on the rise. For example, from 2006 to 2012, home-schooling grew by 29 percent while government school enrolment fell by 2.5 percent.
In a recent Fraser Institute study, during that same six-year period we found that nine of 10 provinces showed increases in official home-school enrollments. And even in British Columbia, which showed declines, distributed learning enrolments – a substitute for home-schooling in some households – grew by an average of 14 percent annually.
It’s worth asking, first of all, why families are increasingly choosing this option. A few decades ago, the main drivers were ideology and religion – meaning that families wanted their education to better reflect their beliefs. Not so much anymore. A recent review of the research found that families are choosing home-schooling for practical reasons. It just fits the way some families live and raise their children nowadays.
For example, some have more intensive extra-curricular involvement in athletics or music. Some travel frequently or live remotely. Others have more home-based lives, with more living and working in the home. Still others want the unique learning and behavioural needs of their child met in more attentive ways.
And not only is home-schooling practical for some Canadians, it’s now, more than ever, possible. According to the research, thanks to technology and the maturation of home-schooling as a legitimate educational alternative, home-schooling resources, curriculum, support groups and learning co-operatives are increasingly available.
Questions, however, remain.
How do home-schooled students fare, compared to their counterparts in public school?
International studies continue to show that home-schooled students score, on average, higher on standardized tests than their public-school counterparts. Moreover, a recent study found that home-schooled students taking university-level calculus were better prepared and achieved higher final grades than their peers in the same course.
More evidence. A recent Canadian study found that home-schooled students were more likely than their peers from other education sectors to complete a doctorate or a professional degree. Even special needs students with learning disabilities were found, in several U.S. studies, to have higher levels of academic engagement and achievement than similarly affected students in public schools.
But of course, not all home-schooling is the same. In fact, researchers frequently claim this is one of the reasons it’s hard to analyze. Recent Canadian research notes that certain types of home-schooling are associated with higher academics outcomes. More structured approaches, and parents with an eye on academic achievement goals, appear related to higher test scores.
Are our provincial governments paying attention? By some measures, yes. At least five provinces recently updated regulations and policies related to home-schooling (the three western-most provinces, Quebec and Prince Edward Island) while other provinces, such as Ontario, continue to provide plenty of flexibility for home-schooling. Three provinces – B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan – offer some funding for parents or third-party providers to mitigate the costs associated with home-schooling. The highest amount offered to parents anywhere in Canada is $1,000 per student annually in one school district in Saskatchewan. And in terms of accountability to local or provincial education authorities, the provinces expecting the most reporting from parents are Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec.
But back to who benefits. It’s not just the students and their families. Taxpayers benefit, too. By the most conservative calculations, home-schooling families saved Canadians more than a quarter billion dollars in 2011/12 alone.
So if returning to school in September isn’t part of every student’s plan, we shouldn’t fret. In fact, parents, policymakers and other educational professionals seeking innovations in effective and efficient approaches to education may only have to look out the window to the neighbours next door.
This September, in particular, with teacher strikes looming, more Canadians may be looking for reliable educational alternatives.
Deani Van Pelt, PhD, is Director of the Barbara Mitchell Centre for Improvement in Education at the Fraser Institute and author of Home Schooling in Canada: The Current Picture – 2015 Edition.