Why it’s important to use BC’s legal and policy terminology when describing our educational choices

In BC home learning circles, the matter of terminology comes up with relative frequency and what should be a calm, factual conversation often turns into an emotionally charged and heated discussion.
The issue is around the terms “homeschooling” and “home education”. In BC, both of these terms are used by the BC Government to describe only one of our educational options: registration under section 12 (s. 12) of the BC School Act. This is the only educational option in BC that gives the parent full autonomy and choice over their child’s educational program. Children who are registered under s. 12 are not required to follow the provincial curriculum and it is their parents/guardians who are solely responsible for providing all aspects of an educational program, including assessment. In the School Act, this option is called Home Education and on the Ministry of Education website, it’s called Homeschooling.
Distributed Learning (DL), on the other hand, is a distance education option that is delivered by a BC school approved by the BC government. These schools receive either full funding (for public DLs) or 62% funding (independent DLs) and are required to be accountable for providing an educational program. Although a parent may be involved in both the planning and delivery of a child’s educational program, it is only the teacher who is legally responsible for planning, ensuring delivery, and carrying out assessment. The teacher must supervise the family to ensure that the child’s learning goals are being met, and, in independent school programs, the Ministry of Education requires weekly contact between the teacher and the student.
Different DL schools seem to have different ways of managing these Ministry requirements and as a result, some schools are quite “hands-off”. This leads some people to believe that although their children are enrolled in a school, the parents are still in charge of their child’s learning. In specific situations, that might be what it actually looks like, but legally it is still the school and the teacher that are 100% responsible for delivering that educational program.
All DL schools know this full well. They have a contract with the Ministry of Education that clearly delineates roles and responsibilities. However, this isn’t always clearly communicated to staff and to parents. Some DL parents insist on calling what they do “homeschooling” or “home education”, but there are some very compelling reasons for them to embrace either the very specific “distributed learning” or the more general “home learning”, an inclusive term that has been used for many years by different organizations to encompass both s. 12 and DL families.
When people who use DL identify with the term “homeschooling”, the most compelling reason to not use it is the protection of the section 12 option. When people use “homeschooling” or "home education" to describe a distributed learning situation, the ripple effect can be bigger than they imagine.
  • Misinformation. Many people who are brand new to home learning in BC do not even know about the s. 12 option. When they Google the term, they end up on sites that are about distributed learning (including conferences, talks, community activities, and educational programs). Being clear about terminology will help people better understand that there are two clear options in BC for learning at home: registration under s. 12 and DL. Since independent DL programs came fully on board in 2004, the numbers of registered homeschoolers dropped substantially. Part of this was that the requirements of the DL programs were pretty relaxed at the beginning, and part of it was that people started to see DL as the main option for home learning. Both legal options deserve equal billing if s. 12 is to survive by maintaining its numbers.
  • Community Perception. If a parent discusses their child’s home learning as “homeschooling” to a person outside home learning circles, and includes information about the practices of their specific DL, such as contact with a certified teacher, assessment practices, monies for resources, etc., it makes it sound as if all home learning is under the control of the Ministry of Education. This sets up a societal expectation that might become pervasive, undermining the continued existence of s. 12 (where there is no mandated teacher contact).
  • Political Perceptions. There is also a danger when parents discuss DL funding in the context of "homeschooling". How many regular school parents are upset to find that "homeschoolers" (but really Distributed Learners) can use education monies to pay for music or dance lessons when they have to pay out of pocket? They will and do complain to the Ministry of Education about things like this, which is part of the reason why the rules have tightened around using the resource allowances. It is about "optics", which in politics is very important. And education is about politics in BC and nothing is guaranteed.
  • Child Protection. Education isn’t a child protection issue unless there is other neglect involved; however, because s. 12 is more vulnerable to scrutiny, as the parent is fully in charge, it’s important that DL people are clear that they are in DL so that the appropriate channels can be followed when people in the community have concerns. A member of the public had a niece who was "homeschooled" by the sister-in-law (the parents were separated). The child (11) couldn't read and the family felt that she was allowed too much freedom and saw that as neglect. It was eventually determined that the child was, in fact, enrolled in a DL program and NOT registered under s.12, so wasn't homeschooled. If there was concern that the child wasn't receiving an educational program, it was the school that needed to be examined, not the parent. This is because the DL parent isn't legally responsible to ensure the delivery of the child's educational program. The school is.
  • Case Law. Unfortunately, families go through rough times and children become a part of settlement negotiations. This includes the educational choices that the family is making and very often, perhaps due to child support issues, home learning comes under fire. This is one time when it’s extremely important to be clear about which legal education option your family is using. A parent who was in a divorce settlement described their home learning as “homeschooling” when it was, in fact, DL. The judge, who didn't understand the difference, put the onus on the parent to prove that "homeschooling worked" for her children through professional assessment. She could have made it much easier on herself to involve her DL and put them forward as the authority on her children’s education and progress (and they could have done the assessment). She would have also avoided the legal precedent of putting “homeschooling” on trial when it was really DL education that was at stake
  • Government Pendulums. As said in item 3, there are no guarantees that we will continue to have the s. 12 option in the future. Even if someone is using DL now, that doesn’t mean that two or five or ten years down the road, they won’t want to access the s. 12 option – but will it still exist? Government often determines educational policy on whim, not on best practice. Political ideology dictates which way the pendulum swings in terms of how our children’s education is structured. In the Yukon, which started with the same freedoms as BC, registered homeschooling was changed so that parents have to submit education plans to the government for approval. The Yukon currently can use some of our DL programs, so it is clear that the province and the territory are closely aligned. So the question is, how has BC managed to avoid this change ourselves? Numbers? Willingness of the s.12 population to fight for our continued freedoms? Something else? However, if people in DL continue to use the terms “homeschooling” or “home education” to describe what they do, perhaps it sends the message that we’re all okay with having that much government interference in our children’s educational programs, that home learning parents are willing to work with schools and teachers to provide their children with an education, and that s. 12 is no longer needed in our province.
Several years ago, a public school DL parent made a big fuss with the Ministry of Education about her rights as a "homeschooler", which she felt were being trampled by her children’s DL school. She was trying to claim the rights of section 12 of the School Act while being enrolled in a school program. This is when the Ministry published a chart online that showed the differences between the two options. The Ministry wants to be clear that DL is absolutely not the same as s. 12.  When you read their chart, you can see that differences between are not at all as subtle as some people hope.
One question that keeps coming up is, "why should I bother about terminology if it's just government-speak?" This is usually in the vein of "law is just a construct" or "big government doesn't control me". Well, the answer is, like it or not, education is mandated by law in BC, every parent has a legal duty imposed on them by that legislation, and it is the government "machine" that delivers the mechanism for that education. We can't ignore the government's or the law's role in education; we can't avoid contact with the government when carrying out education. It's there, created and administered via the law.
It may even be considered disingenuous to partake of a DL's benefits without acknowledging the government's role in providing them. If we truly don't want government involvement, then we can opt out of distributed learning enrolment and choose s. 12 Home Education. It is as simple as that. But if we choose to stay in the system by enrolling in DL, then it is better for everyone if we call it what it is, as defined by that system.
The bottom line is that a parent should feel free to view what they do in their own home however they like. No one can or wants to take away someone’s experience of learning at home with his or her kids. However, the parent must carefully choose their words when telling members of the public, including members of the home learning community, about what they do and how they do it. This clarity may be the only thing that will truly preserve and protect our s. 12 option.
Rebecca McClure, Melanie Wilkins-Ho
March 2016
From the BC School Act:
Division 4 — Home Education Home education 12 A parent of a child who is required to enroll in an educational program under section 3 (a) may educate the child at home or elsewhere in accordance with this Division, and (b) must provide that child with an educational program.