Education Minister Lisa Thompson unveiled the Ford government’s reforms Friday morning at the Ontario Science Centre — reforms based on consultations the province has been holding since last fall.
High school classes will grow to an average of 28 students, up from the current 22, though class caps in the early elementary years will remain, Thompson announced as part of a package of system reforms.
The government will not alter kindergarten class sizes — and also did not announce any changes to the program.
Limits for Grades 1-3 also remain.
Class sizes averages from Grades 4-8 will stay at 24.5 or less, with a slight funding change.
Thompson also announced changes to the health/sex-ed curriculum, which keeps lessons on learning the proper names of body parts in Grade 1 but moves discussion of gender identity and gender expression to Grade 8.
While parents have always had the option of removing their children from sex-ed classes, the government said in a written release that “there will be clear provisions for parents who wish to exempt their child or children from sexual health education and online modules will be available for parents who want to discuss sexual health topics at home, whenever they feel their child is ready.”
Also to be covered is mental health in the primary years, consent and body image starting in Grade 2, and gender identity moves from Grade 6 to Grade 8.
Some details had already been revealed, including a ban on cellphones in classrooms unless teachers require them for instructional purposes, as well as a “back to basics” math plan with training for teachers.
Last September, the government launched public consultations, seeking input on science/technology/engineering and math (STEM) instruction; the skilled trades and the health/sex-ed curriculum, including mental health, via online surveys and telephone town halls.
At the time, Thompson said “our goal is to prepare Ontario students for success, improve their academic achievement and equip them with the tools needed to enter the working world.”
In total, the government heard from 72,000 people.
Thompson has since said an overwhelming number of participants were concerned that the issue of consent was not adequately covered in the sex-ed curriculum, and promised that would be a part of the revamped lessons.
During last year’s election campaign, Premier Doug Ford promised to scrap the current sex-ed curriculum, introduced in 2015, to appease social conservatives who felt some material was objectionable and not age-appropriate, especially the information on gender identity.
After taking office, schools were instructed to use a curriculum largely based on the old, 1998 curriculum, which critics derided as out of date. The move to the old curriculum was the subject of court and human rights challenges given LGBT issues are not explicitly included in it.
Earlier this year, the government also reached out to teacher and support staff unions, as well as trustee associations, to ask about class sizes and class-size caps, hiring practices and full-day kindergarten, noting it needed to trim the provincial deficit.
On the topic of hiring, Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, has said any changes must be dealt with at the bargaining table.
Thompson, however, has said she’s concerned the current rules are “impeding teacher mobility across the province” and administrators have complained about being forced to hire from among the most senior supply teachers for long-term and permanent positions, rather than the hiring the person who is the best fit.
(The rule was created at the urging of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association to curb nepotism, which it felt was a problem, particularly in smaller boards.)
A ministry consultation documents says that Regulation 274 was created to “bring greater transparency, fairness, consistency and accountability to school board hiring practices of teachers. However, since its implementation, stakeholders . . . have raised concerns about the regulations. As boards make hiring decisions under the regulation, we have been told that student success may be negatively impacted and there have been some unintended consequences.”
The ministry also noted that teachers lose all seniority when they move to another board, and have to start over.
Hammond, however, says a 2014 report didn’t find any evidence that school boards were hiring unqualified candidates or that the rules were preventing young, diverse teachers from landing jobs, although he did acknowledge concerns about teachers transferring boards.
On the subject of class size, the ministry has said it wants to “deliver better value for government investment,” and that hard caps in the primary years can be difficult for boards and lead to disruption.
Teacher unions, meanwhile, have said they won’t accept larger classes.
In Ontario, full-day kindergarten classes are capped at 29 children, and boards must have an overall average of 26 students. From Grades 1 to 3, 90 per cent of classes must have 20 or fewer students, with the remainder no bigger than 23.
From Grade 4 to 8, boards may have an average of 24.5 students per class.
In secondary school, the ratio for funding is one teacher for every 22 students, but class sizes differ from board to board, depending on local staffing models.
On Wednesday, Ford would not commit to keeping class sizes at current levels, but said “the people of this province will be quite thrilled” at the government’s education reforms.
“We’re focusing on the students; we’re making sure the students get the best education they can, “ Ford said. “I can tell you, we are going back to the basics. We’re going to make sure our students understand math, reading, arithmetic.”
Provincial math tests show scores have been dropping in recent years, which is a trend affecting many countries.
Thompson’s plan, which comes into effect fully in the fall of 2021, will provide boards with funding for a “math learning lead,” and numeracy supports for 1,000 struggling schools. These amount to roughly one-quarter of all elementary and secondary schools.
All new teachers will have to pass a mandatory math exam before they can be certified, and the province’s 16,000 middle-school teachers will have to earn additional qualifications in math.
The government will also direct teachers to “focus on fundamental concepts and skills,” and move away from “discovery math,” as well as boost online resources.
Kristin Rushowy is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow her on Twitter: @krushowy