Naomi Buck is a freelance writer in Toronto.
From the outset, the relationship between Ontario Premier Doug Ford and school teachers seemed likely to go sideways. During his election campaign, Mr. Ford packaged education in Ontario as an unholy mess of overspending, debauched sexual instruction and weak mathematics. He vowed to fix it all.
“I want an education system that respects parents,” he proclaimed from the campaign trail. “I want schools that are focused on teaching kids the skills that matter.”
More than a year and a half later, with Mr. Ford firmly installed as Premier, his revamped education system is not earning much in the way of respect. More rage. With all four of Ontario’s teacher’ unions engaged in some form of labour action, parents are torn between the immediate needs of their children and the dystopian educational future that Mr. Ford’s ministerial minions – first Lisa Thompson, now Stephen Lecce – are painting. And the ultimate losers in all this – the ones who have no say but pay the price – are the students.
Last March, the Premier framed his sweeping changes to the province’s education system as a program of “modernization.” Some of his proposals hardly made a ripple (the promotion of skilled trades in elementary grades, mandatory financial literacy classes in Grade 10), while others made waves. In particular, the requirements that high school students complete four online learning classes prior to graduation and that class sizes be increased in Grades 4-12, raised concerns. Were these attempts to modernize or just to cut?
A genuinely “for the people” Premier would have taken these concerns seriously. Instead, the Ford government went Trumpian, spewing assertions that were either patently false – that Ontario has the lowest class sizes in the country, for example – or totally vacuous. Asked to defend the proposed increase in high-school class size from an average of 22 to 28, then-education minister Lisa Thompson stated that larger classes would help students build the resilience and coping skills so lacking in today’s graduates – an insight she had gained on a recent visit to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. She subsumed questions about e-learning – who would develop the courses, what subjects they would be offered in, what model Ontario is following – to the overarching claim that “the reality of today is we need to be embracing technology for good.” And then, the Ford government engaged in its favourite exercise: a broad public consultation, the results of which are never made public.
The government’s mangling of the education system is not earning respect, not even after its supposedly conciliatory steps of reducing the mandatory e-learning requirement to two courses and tinkering with the class size increase so that the averages sounded more palatable but the caps came off. The public’s eyes should now be wide open; a Premier who promised not to eliminate a single public-sector job but was happy to strike 10,000 teaching positions through expanded classes is capable of just about anything – such as depicting himself as the beneficent guardian of our children’s best interests by doling out payouts to parents on strike days.
Had Mr. Ford aspired to an education system which respects students, rather than their voting parents, none of this would be happening. Changes to the system would be geared to student needs, not fiscal ones, conceived in consultation with named entities rather than “sector partners” and “a parent I was talking to” and developed with teachers, not in spite of them. It would never have come to this mudslinging, money-wasting fracas, with kids stuck in the middle, wondering what happened to their report cards, their debating club or their basketball team.
Last week, my fourth-grade son proudly presented me with an assignment he had completed at school. “Dear Mom,” it began, “I am making a new years revolution for 2020.” The “revolution” continued: a full page of meticulously engraved letters (he does not have a light touch with the pencil) teetering along the blue lines, expressing his hopes and ambitions for the coming year.
Until recently, this was unthinkable – letters had refused to sit on lines or to form legible words. Only thanks to the one-on-one attention of a few teachers is my son able to take pride in his work and take pleasure in school. Persuading me that he would benefit from bigger classes or more e-learning is going to be a tough sell. If the Ford government wants a system that parents respect, it will first have to learn to respect their children.