Many of Ontario's elementary school students are unable to pay for field trips and extracurricular activities, highlighting an inequity in the province's publicly funded education system, a new report says.
In its annual survey of elementary and high school principals, advocacy group People for Education found a hodge-podge of subsidy programs to ensure children can participate, but there are cases when students have to opt out of activities that may not be part of the curriculum but serve to enrich it.
"The government has been focusing on the achievement gap for years. But there's really another gap that has do with the opportunity to have a rich, broadly based education," said executive director Annie Kidder.
Ms. Kidder called on the government to outline through policy how it will accommodate students regardless of family income. "The policy has to describe really clearly what all students should have access to no matter what their family income, and it has to honour the importance of extracurricular activities," she said.
The survey for the first time this year asked principals about elementary school fees. It found that 91 per cent of schools charge fees for field trips, more than half for extracurricular activities and 47 per cent have fees for lunchtime programs.
A number of principals revealed that some students attend fee-based instrumental music lessons during the school day, while the rest of the students in their class participate in regular programming.
"You're paying to do the things that are really part of the school day," Ms. Kidder argued.
To ensure that all students can participate in the extras, some schools ask students who can't pay to do volunteer hours in return for a subsidy, others have a formal application process where subsidy requests are assessed and a few have a policy where no child is excluded, which means the school council steps in with financial help. But there are cases where students who can't pay are excluded, the report found.
Education Minister Liz Sandals acknowledged that more could be done to narrow the gap and provide equal opportunity for all students. The province's fee guidelines indicate that no fees should be charged for items essential to the curriculum.
"We are encouraged that the vast majority of schools subsidize supplementary fees to ensure that all children can participate, as noted in the report," Ms. Sandals said in a statement. "We expect boards to develop programs that allow the opportunity for all students to participate and minimize fees as much as possible."
Ken Arnott, president of the Ontario Principals' Council, said educators are always looking for creative ways to include all students. He said the government and school boards should work together to identify and fund items that are natural extensions of the curriculum and vital to the learning process.
"Field trips are tied to the curriculum. They're very important to the culture of the school, the learning experience of the kids," said Mr. Arnott, an elementary school principal. "[Principals] look at creative ways to manage it … and the enhancements to those programs are provided for all kids."
The People for Education report is based on survey results from 1,122 elementary and secondary school principals, or 23 per cent of the province's schools.