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A signboard outside a kindergarten classroom has names attached to it at Wilkinson Public School on Sept 2 2014. Today marked the return to the classroom for students across Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government has no plans to cap class sizes in full-day kindergarten, despite complaints from parents and educators that large classes impede learning.

Documents obtained by The Globe and Mail through freedom-of-information legislation showed that some classrooms were crammed with as many as 40 students, and that the Ministry of Education was inundated with letters from parents about overcrowded, chaotic classrooms.

Primary classes in Ontario have a cap of 23 students. There is no cap for full-day kindergarten classrooms. Instead, the government said that school boards are required to maintain an average class size of 26 across the board.

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Speaking at a Toronto Catholic school Tuesday, Education Minister Liz Sandals did not directly address whether the Liberal government will administer a hard cap, but she pointed out that full-day kindergarten classrooms have both a teacher and an early childhood education worker to handle the number of students. "It's important that whatever the class size, you divide by two," Ms. Sandals told reporters.

Although research has shown that small primary classes have little impact on achievement, the Liberals have pointed to smaller class sizes as a key education platform, saying children get more attention and do better in school. The government excludes full-day kindergarten from that statement.

Documents obtained by The Globe show that Ontario's early learning program is grappling with significant issues. About 640 kindergarten classrooms, or 8 per cent of those that introduced the program, had more than 30 children in the past academic year, according to a confidential briefing note to the minister in January. One senior kindergarten classroom had 40 children – the biggest class for that age group – according to the ministry documents.

In letters to ministry officials, parents described classrooms as "understaffed daycares," "chaotic," "overcrowded" and "hostile" environments for learning. One parent opted to put a child in a daycare kindergarten program, which has a lower pupil-teacher ratio. Another parent kept her four-year-old daughter out of school.

The Ontario government has staked its reputation on the full-day learning program, despite grappling with a $12.5-billion deficit. Alberta and Manitoba have decided against full-day kindergarten, basing their decisions on the cost, while Newfoundland and Labrador recently pledged to implement full-day senior kindergarten in 2016.

Ontario's program is unique. It incorporates two years of a revamped play-based curriculum for junior and senior kindergarten. The program has been introduced in phases over five years, with the final phase being rolled out this week. The government is spending more than $1.45-billion in capital costs to expand and retrofit schools, on top of millions in operating dollars.

The government has defended the program by pointing to a study that it funded showing children enrolled in the first two years of the province's all-day learning program were better prepared for Grade 1 and have stronger language development and better communication and social skills. But other studies suggest children in a full-day program are academically no better off in the primary grades than those who attend a half-day program.

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A richer picture of whether the government's investment in full-day learning was justified will come from standardized test scores this year that will assess the math, reading and writing skills of the first cohort of full-day kindergarten pupils.

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