Canada: Do Ontario Private Elementary Schools Have To Follow The Same Laws And Standards As Public Schools?

Last Updated: June 21 2017
Article by John Schuman

Many parents send their children to Ontario Private (or Independent) Schools because they want to make sure their child gets a "superior education." There are many private schools that do offer excellent education or that have programs that are particularly suited to certain students. However, that is not guaranteed. When it comes to private education, especially for elementary students, Ontario is really a "buyer beware" market and parents must do their research.

Parents assume that because a school operated in Ontario, it is subject to the Education Act. However, only very small parts of the Education Act apply to private elementary schools. Section 1(1) of the Education Act requires that private schools:

  1. Provide instruction any time between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on any school day
  2. Have five or more students;
  3. Have students of compulsory school age
  4. Provide instruction in any (but not necessarily all) of the subjects of the elementary or secondary school course of study.

Beyond that, there are not many standards that apply to private elementary schools. Page 7 of the Ministry of Education's Private Schools Policy and Procedures Manual contains the following passage:

How are Private Schools Different from Publicly-Funded Schools?

In Ontario, private schools operate as businesses or non-profit organizations, independently of the Ministry of Education. Private schools do not receive any funding or other financial support from the Ontario government.

The Ministry does not regulate, licence, accredit or otherwise oversee the day-to-day operation of private schools.

Private school operators set their own policies and procedures regarding the operation of their schools, and are not obliged to comply with the policies and procedures that school boards must follow. For example:

  • Private schools are not required to use the Ontario curriculum unless they are seeking authority to grant credits toward the OSSD. Those that do may also offer other content beyond the Ontario curriculum.
  • In Ontario private schools, principals are not required to have Ontario principal's qualifications, and teachers are not required to be members of the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) or have OCT certification.
  • Private schools are not authorized to deliver correspondence courses, which are delivered through the Independent Learning Centre (ILC). However, a private school can host the student taking such courses.
  • Private schools may, but are not required to, communicate student achievement using either the Elementary Provincial Report Card (for Grades 1-8) or the Provincial Report Card (for Grades 9-12).

When it comes to private elementary schools, there are very few rules that the school must follow. Most of the requirements are set out in Section 16 of the Education Act but those rules relate mostly to things that few parents care about, such as giving the Ministry notice of the intention to operate a private school, and providing the Ministry with statistical information about the number of students, staff and courses offered. There are more rules for private schools that want to award Ontario Secondary School Diplomas, but not for elementary schools.

There are no requirements that private elementary schools offer a minimum standard of instruction, or follow any requirements with regard to things like anti-bullying, discipline (including suspension or expulsion of students) or teaching any particular curriculum or skills.

Many parents have been surprised to learn that private schools can kick out their child without any good reason or without any process because that is what the parents' contract with the school says. For more on school suspensions or expulsions, watch this video:

All the standards that a private elementary school has to follow are in its contract with the parents. Parents should look at the contract carefully and ask questions. If the contract does not require Certified Teachers, then the school does not have to provide them. If the contract does not require the school to teach certain subjects, then the school does not have to do so. If the contract does not say that the school will follow the Ontario Elementary School Curriculum, then the school probably doesn't. Most private school contracts include a Code of Conduct which may have no resemblance to the Provincial Code of Conduct, but sets out how students will be disciplined and to what extent the School has the right to impose any form of discipline it wants. Some school contracts specifically allow the school to do whatever it wants. In those cases, the school is subject only to the criminal code, or the right of a Children's Aid Society to intervene because a "person having charge of a child" has harmed a child or put a child at risk of harm.

With private schools not having to follow a number of rules and regulations, who they decide to employ at their schools should be of interest as well, as the individuals they employ could put a child in harm's way. In a recent case, Karla Homolka, a serial killer who raped and murdered 3 girls and at the time, was married to Paul Bernardo, has been volunteering at her children's private elementary school in Montreal. Parents at the school were not advised that she had been volunteering there, and are shocked at the school board's actions.

Additionally, although private schools are not required to follow the procedures set out in the Education Act and accompanying regulations for exceptional pupils, they are required to follow the Ontario Human Rights Code. In doing so, they cannot discriminate against students and must accommodate special needs to the point of "undue hardship" – unless the contract with parents requires the school to provide specific accommodations. This podcast describes the rights of students with special needs.

Still it remains very important that parents do their research before enrolling their child in a private school. They need to be clear what sort of education their child will receive and by whom. They should also know what protection from bulling or what special assistance their child may receive. It is also important for parents to know what the School's Code of Conduct is, how children are disciplined and precisely what can cause their child to be removed from the school. All of these things should be included in the contract with the school, otherwise, the school is not legally required to follow any specific rules when educating a child.

Obviously, it is also important to find out about the school's reputation and review references or testimonials – as people would do with any big purchase. The Ministry of Education has very little power to assist dissatisfied parents. The most appropriate remedy can be suing the school for breach of contract.

If you are experiencing difficulties with a private school, it is important to figure out what rights you may have, and how the law might help you. Contact Devry Smith Frank LLP's Education Lawyer, John Schuman for assistance. We answer all inquiries promptly and we can arrange for you to come in quickly for a consultation (charged at a reduced hourly rate).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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