This week’s column is a cautionary tale about politics and how quickly they can affect education — specifically recent changes made by the Doug Ford Progressive Conservative government in Ontario.
Since coming to power in June, the new government in Ontario has come out with several measures that affect school children in a major way. Sex education, full-day kindergarten, class size limits, post-secondary tuition and the children’s advocate have all been hit by changes.
First, last summer, Ford’s party scrapped a modernized sex education curriculum, brought in by the province’s first female and first openly gay premier, Liberal Kathleen Wynne. That curriculum, introduced in 2015, included topics such as sexual orientation, gender identity, same-sex relationships, consent and online safety.
Teachers and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association took the matter to the province’s Human Rights Tribunal, arguing that removing these topics from the curriculum stigmatizes LGBTQ people. The province says parents were pulling their kids from school because they didn’t support those controversial topics and that it will develop a new curriculum in the near future. The tribunal dismissed the legal challenge last week, ruling that teachers are free to go beyond the official curriculum. The CCLA called it a “crummy day” and said it would appeal the decision.
Although controversial, B.C. introduced a mandatory Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity policy in 2016, which school districts must use in their anti-bullying policies. It’s hard to imagine going back to a time when such topics were not openly discussed in schools.
Ontario’s next move came in November when the government announced it was planning to repeal the Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth Act, which created the office of the province’s Child Advocate in 2007. B.C. has a similar position — Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond filled it for 10 years — and the office, now led by Dr. Jennifer Charlesworth, has brought to light numerous tragedies involving foster children and those who have aged out of the foster system.
Irwin Elman has held the office in Ontario since its creation, advocating loudly and clearly for vulnerable children, youth and families. Elman has vowed to carry on, despite the government’s plans.
Given the important work done by the advocates, the thought of eliminating the office, such as may happen in Ontario, would seem like a major, devastating step backwards.
In January, the Ontario government announced it is considering removing class-size limits for grades one to three. Primary classes there are capped at 23 students while in B.C. the limit is 22 student for grades one to three.
In comments to the media about those possible changes, Ontario’s education minister wouldn’t commit to continuing full-day kindergarten beyond the next school year. The full-day kindergarten program in Ontario — which the Toronto Star says costs about $1.5 billion a year — is for four and five-year-olds.
There are two adults in every classroom: one teacher and one early childhood educator. Class size limits are higher for all-day kindergarten because of that; each kindergarten class has up to 29 students. In B.C., kindergarten classes are capped at 20 students, but each class has only one adult.
Ford later backtracked, saying full-day kindergarten will continue, but that it may not remain exactly the same.
Full-day kindergarten started in B.C. in 2010. Advocates say having five-year-olds in class all day is associated with better reading and math skills and smoother transitions to Grade 1. As reported in a recent column, children in B.C. are showing up to kindergarten more vulnerable than in the past, making the all-day support even more valuable. Parents in B.C. would surely revolt if full-day kindergarten was removed, as has been hinted at in Ontario, given the ultra-high costs of child care in the province.
The new Ontario government has also made some changes to university fees, including cutting tuition by 10 per cent while expecting universities to cover that cost themselves, axing a program that gave free tuition to low-income students and making student union fees optional. Ford was widely reported as saying student unions get up to “crazy Marxist nonsense.”
These examples illustrate just how quickly change can happen in an education system, based on the politics of the day. If you value full-day kindergarten, small class sizes, an advocate for children and youth, stability in post-secondary tuitions and a strong sex education curriculum, you’d best be paying attention.