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Canada Ontario education minister defends consultations on class sizes

Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson attends Question Period at Queens Park in Toronto on Nov. 19, 2018.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s Education Minister is defending her government’s decision to consider ending class-size caps in kindergarten and primary grades, saying no decisions have been made. But many in the field of education are worried that it is the first sign of future cuts.

Lisa Thompson said the province is embarking on consultations with a variety of education stakeholders on class sizes and teacher hiring practices, but stressed that the process is only in its beginning stages.

“I’m very hopeful that we will have good constructive feedback, because we need to get it right,” Ms. Thompson said in an interview on Thursday with The Globe and Mail.

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“I want to hear from everybody with regards to how effective we are in the classroom, and if numbers actually impact the learning environment or not.”

When asked by reporters at Queen’s Park earlier whether the government is still committed to full-day kindergarten, Ms. Thompson did not provide a clear answer.

“What I’m committed to, and what our government is committed to, is listening to our grassroots. … It’s fair to say that I am open to discussions with our partners on every issue," she said. Ms. Thompson’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request from The Globe for clarification about full-day kindergarten.

Questions in a government document outlining the consultations ask whether hard caps on class sizes in kindergarten and Grades 1 to 3 should continue, and if not, what an appropriate mechanism to set class sizes would be. The document says the province’s current fiscal situation requires “an examination of whether changes to class size would allow school boards to deliver better value for government investment.” The Tories are in the midst of trying to trim a deficit they peg at $14.5-billion – although the province’s financial accountability officer says it’s closer to $12-billion.

“Everyone understands the fiscal severity that we inherited after the last 15 years of the Liberal government," Ms. Thompson said. “Everybody knows that we’ve got a steep hill to climb, and they’re wanting to be part of the discussion.”

It is unclear what changes the Ontario government is considering.

Currently, the kindergarten class-size cap is 29 students, and the average of class sizes across any board can’t be more than 26.

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For the primary grades, the cap is 23 students, but at least 90 per cent of classes in any board must have 20 or fewer students.

The research is conflicted about how much class size matters when it comes to student achievement. Some research shows it is beneficial to reduce class sizes, especially in the early years, but the affect on academic achievement is small. Other studies show that the key to quality education is spending money on developing strong teachers and a high-quality curriculum.

The government’s decision to consider ending hard caps has sparked concern among teachers and labour groups, who said they fear this is the first step in widespread cuts to education.

“My first reaction is terror and heartbreak. I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Rebecca Belforte, a Grade 2 teacher in Hamilton.

“It scares me because children are going to fall through the cracks. And we’ll be so pushed to the brink."

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, accused the province of trying to tackle the deficit “on the backs of students.”

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“We could be potentially talking about kindergarten class sizes for example going back up to 35, 36 students," he said.

“Our members on the ground will see this first and foremost [as] an attack on publicly-funded education."

Ms. Thompson said she doesn’t agree with that assessment “one iota.” “I actually feel very good that the education partners we’ve reached out to are wanting to be engaged,” she said.

“We need to respect the Ontario taxpayer dollars and I’m very happy that education partners want to work with us to make sure that we have the best learning environment possible.”

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the government is gearing up for cuts.

“What we know is that they want to find $1-billion in savings,” she said. “I’m afraid to see what they could do next, and I absolutely worry that this is going to have a negative impact on families and on the quality of education.”

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With a report from The Canadian Press

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