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David Parkins for The Globe and Mail (David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)
David Parkins for The Globe and Mail (David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

Politics

The new kid in school: Abbott readies for education challenges Add to ...

George Abbott has done one of the toughest jobs in the school system: He was a high-school substitute teacher.

That will be a useful apprenticeship as the newly appointed B.C. Education Minister navigates the political conflicts that dominate B.C.'s public school system. He'll need all his skills as a mediator, tactful disciplinarian and ever-so-patient educator.

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The BC Teachers' Federation has warred with governments of every stripe. The insatiable demand for funding has led previous ministers into conflict with school boards across the province. And on Wednesday night, Premier Gordon Campbell reignited his interest in education, adding new pressures to the K-12 system with a string of commitments and ambitious targets.

Mr. Abbott will be pulled in many directions, but his track record suggests the temperature is about to drop on the battlefield.

Previous B.C. Liberal government ministers in the portfolio have been, in turn, abrasive, combative and stubborn. Affable George has a gift for charming and disarming his adversaries.

He started to hone those skills early, working high schools in Sicamous and Enderby to supplement his part-time job as a college instructor. "Even I, with my remarkable patience and sense of humour, was tested by being a substitute teacher for Grade 9s," he recalled dryly.

In his office this week, Mr. Abbott's new cabinet briefing books were stacked up on the table - labelled, appropriately, "Back to school." He'll also be studying the comptroller general's recent report on how the Vancouver School Board ought to slash its budget - a feat the board insisted could not be done without harming education.

While parents flocked to public hearings this week to oppose the VSB's plans to shut down elementary schools - on the direction of the comptroller-general - the budget crunch is being felt across the province.

Mr. Abbott sees many parallels between his former post as health minister, another complex file where the financial pressures are constantly grating against the public's demand for more.

Demographics play a huge role in both ministries. Instead of worrying about an aging population demanding ever-more hip replacements, Mr. Abbott must now keep an eye on declining school populations, and the rebound that is expected in just a few years.

But his biggest challenge is labour relations. The 38,000-member BC Teachers' Federation is going into contract talks with a sense of deep frustration.

As health minister, Mr. Abbott managed to make peace with the BC Nurses' Union, launched pay-for-performance with minimal fuss, and even earned the respect of his government's arch-foes, the Hospital Employees' Union.

"We don't agree with a whole lot of the government's policies," said Judy Darcy, secretary and business manager for the HEU. That's putting it mildly. "But George Abbott, I have to say, was someone you could have a conversation with and at times he listened. His door was open."

For the BC Teachers' Federation, Mr. Abbott's appointment is as much of an olive branch as it can hope for. Susan Lambert, president of the BCTF, welcomed the change from previous B.C. Liberal education ministers. "We didn't have very many productive meetings with minister [Margaret] MacDiarmid. Minister [Shirley]Bond stuck to the message box. Minister [Christy]Clark was combative."

Mr. Abbott wants to talk to her about how to make education better for students, how to make teachers happy to be in class again. Where they'll have a tougher time finding common ground is the need for budget reform. She regards the government demand for "efficiencies" with suspicion.

"It's way cheaper to have a hundred kids in a class. But kids don't come in a cookie-cutter fashion." She objects to school closings even in the face of declining enrolment. As for money, well, there just isn't enough: "Within the funding we currently have, you cannot improve the system."

Mr. Abbott characterized his first telephone meeting with Ms. Lambert as "delightful."

"I want to see if we can get the same interests and momentum around education and get away from some of the long-standing reflexive, rhetorical responses to reform," he said. "We need to build with our educational partners a common vision."

Mr. Abbott doesn't oversell his ability to reconcile with the BCTF, of which he was once a member. "My attempts at walking on water have been unsuccessful," he said.

But for the sake of the Premier's new ambitions for education, he'll have to try.

On Wednesday night, Premier Gordon Campbell promised to give young learners a boost. Here are the changes, and the costs.

Expand the StrongStart BC network: Over the next five years, the province will add an additional 100 StrongStart BC centres, providing support to preschoolers and their caregivers. Operating cost: $3-million a year.

Early Childhood Learning Assessment: Starting in September, 2011, every student entering kindergarten will be offered an early childhood learning assessment so that teachers can fashion individual education plans for the first critical years of grade school. Cost: $1.6-million in the first year.

The three Rs: Roughly 20 per cent of children completing Grade 4 in B.C. are not reading, writing or doing math at a Grade 4 level. The Premier vowed that within five years, every child completing Grade 4 will be performing at grade level. Cost: $700,000 in the first year and $8.9-million in subsequent years.

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