“Do not increase class sizes” — and forget about e-learning.
Those were two main messages for the Ford government from more than 7,000 public submissions during last year’s education consultations, according to the province’s own summaries obtained by the Star.
The reports — which the government has refused to release — were entered as evidence at an ongoing Ontario Labour Relations Board hearing into allegations by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association that the province engaged in bad-faith bargaining by boosting class sizes during negotiations.
The report says one of the “key themes” identified in the consultations was that “larger class sizes negatively impact student learning (and) will reduce the quality of education … Larger class sizes will result in less individual time between teachers and students.”
The province has repeatedly refused to release the results of the public and stakeholder consultations, which were held under previous education minister Lisa Thompson — consultations she touted as the largest in the province’s history and said would be used to inform education policies.
“The government spent just shy of a million dollars to gain this input from parents and students and experts,” said New Democrat MPP Marit Stiles, her party’s education critic. “Despite all of that, when they didn’t get the responses they wanted … they decided to hide them.”
Asked by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath why the government claims to have the support of families for its controversial changes, Premier Doug Ford told the legislature that “I’m out there. I talk to parents. I don’t go by some online poll … I talk to the parents. I’m hearing overwhelmingly, number one, they want these strikes to stop. They want their kids back in the classroom.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said the government is “always committed to getting a deal” but accused the unions of focusing on salary and benefits increases. The government has passed legislation limiting public sector wage increases to one per cent a year.
All four teachers’ unions have been without contracts since last August, and are involved in ongoing job actions, including rotating strikes — although public elementary teachers have put theirs on hold for two weeks. The Catholic teachers’ union has announced it will hold a province-wide walkout on March 5.
At the labour board this week, Tom Doyle, head negotiator for the Catholic teachers’ union, said he had waded through thousands of submissions and found “virtually no support” for larger classes.
Those submissions were also obtained by the Star.
The provincial reports also say a “key theme” from respondents is that they “(do) not support mandatory online learning.” Concerns were raised about a lack of access to a computer or the internet as well as how teens “are not disciplined/motivated enough to succeed in online learning.”
“It would be prudent to phase in mandatory e-learning,” said one recommendation cited in the summaries. “Start in 2020-21 with a pilot of one mandatory online course by graduation. Invite interested boards to apply to be part of the pilot then gather data.”
The government initially planned to introduce four mandatory online courses for high school students this fall, but now says it wants them to earn just two to graduate. No other jurisdiction in North American has such a requirement.
Among the education groups that also took part in the two rounds of consultations — school boards and student associations among them — all supported last year’s secondary class size average of 22. They say changing this year’s average class size to almost 23 students led to turmoil in schools, including teacher job losses and thousands of lost course options for students.
None supported mandatory e-learning.
The province has provided few details about how the online courses will work, other than that e-learning classes will have an average of 35 students.
Lecce said Thursday that the government is “committed to ensuring that Ontario students have an economic advantage in this country and that’s why we’re ensuring that they have every competency required, including technological fluency, to ensure that they know how to embrace the jobs of the future online. The digital economy is growing. We want to seize that opportunity.”
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He also said high-speed internet will be available in every school by this September.
Polls have also shown that online learning is unpopular, and Stiles said the Ford government hasn’t “listened to anyone except themselves.”
A “smart government knows when it is time to change tack,” she added, “and they have given no indication they are going to do that.”