A "historic" agreement between B.C. education stakeholders will eliminate four days' worth of classroom instruction time in public schools over the next three years.
Education Minister Mike Bernier, at a news conference where he was flanked by advisers ranging from the teachers' union to the school trustees and superintendents, said teachers need the time outside the classroom to learn how to teach the province's new K-to-12 school curriculum.
A year after ending a bitter five-week-long school strike, the province and the teachers' union have worked together to develop a new curriculum that is being phased in starting this year. The changes are meant to be less prescriptive, encouraging more emphasis on critical thinking and communication skills.
Mr. Bernier said teachers will each be given 20 hours of non-instructional time to study the new curriculum over the next three years – a block of time he says is worth $100-million.
But there is no new money to bring in substitute teachers to ensure students don't miss more time in the classroom.
It means public schools are expected to reduce instruction time by two days this year, and one day each in the next two years. As well, $1-million from existing education funding will be spent this year providing curriculum training for 2,000 teachers.
"The important thing is, the teachers need the training, and we're making sure they have the time," Mr. Bernier told reporters after a news conference where he handed out framed certificates to the eight stakeholders who participated in his announcement – his "partners in education."
The agreement was a rare display of unanimity between parties who are more accustomed to public duelling over education priorities.
Jim Iker, president of the BC Teachers' Federation, was one of the participants who posed for photographs while shaking hands with the Education Minister. "There are important areas where we are working together well," he said. "We want the new curriculum to succeed."
Mr. Iker said he supports the plan that was developed between his union, the B.C. government, school trustees and parent advisory councils. But tension over education funding remains.
The absence of additional funding means instruction time will be lost, Mr. Iker said. "There is no back-filling for the non-instructional days," he said in an interview. "Those will be additional days where students will not be in class."
A year ago, the BCTF and the province ended their labour dispute in late September with a six-year pact that promised more money to improve classroom conditions, particularly support for students with special needs.
Mr. Iker said that deal has not yet delivered the promised changes in the education system, and students are not measurably better off now despite new money that was directed to the Learning Improvement Fund.
"The education fund was negotiated to start making a difference in all our schools across the province in terms of support for our students," he said, "and we haven't seen that as of yet."
Mr. Bernier, who was appointed to the education portfolio in July, said he believes students are better off. "We've heard back from a lot of school districts that they are using the Learning Improvement Fund to actually increase [the number of] teachers where needed."
However, his officials could not provide any figures to show if teachers have smaller classrooms now, or if there are more services available for students with special needs.