A decade ago, the Commission on Class Size and Composition released a report on child development that found that early support was critical to the future well-being of children.
The report, which was prepared by Dr. Glenn Nicholls, provided a snapshot of the classroom situation in Manitoba at the time. While 10 years of education have come and gone since that report was released, it has cast a long shadow on the NDP’s ongoing priorities when it comes to student education.
While it clearly noted that early years support for Manitoba students would help them develop better learning skills, it also noted that the vast majority of classes in Manitoba schools were already of a “reasonable” size.
An NDP government press release issued on May 7, 2002 from the office of then-Education, Training and Youth Minister Drew Caldwell said the commission’s report indicated the average class size in Manitoba was fewer than 22 students.
“In elementary schools, 80 per cent of classes had 25 or fewer students and 98 per cent of classes had fewer than 30 students,” the press release reads. “In secondary grades, 74 per cent of classes had fewer than 25 students and 93 per cent had fewer than 30.”
Of particular note in that press release was a comment from Caldwell, who noted that determining optimal class size depends greatly on children’s varying needs and abilities. In fact, while the commission’s report noted the importance of class size, the education minister of the day said that was only part of the equation.
“Composition is everything. In many ways, it is more important than class size,” Caldwell said.
Among the recommendations noted in the report, the commission said the province should “develop a multi-year plan to implement class size at the kindergarten to Grade 4 levels in the range of 17-22 students, taking into account existing inequities in funding, the need for teachers and teaching assistants and their professional development and the need for facilities.”
Less than a year later, the new education minister, Ron Lemieux, announced a $1-million Class Size Fund for to support divisions where class size and composition were a concern, particularly in situations with high special needs and at-risk youth in kindergarten to Grade 4. An additional $130,000 was earmarked for “early childhood development.”
In a Jan. 27, 2003 NDP press release, Lemieux took a slightly more nuanced view of the same report.
“The Class Size and Composition Final Report indicated the vast majority of class sizes in Manitoba are of reasonable size,” Lemieux said in the release. “However, the report does note that academic improvements can be achieved with smaller class sizes at the primary levels.”
Fast-forward to Oct. 26, 2011, when current Education Minister Nancy Allan announced that the province was to implement a cap on class sizes to a maximum of 20 students for kindergarten to Grade 3, starting in 2012. In her comments on the press release, Allan did not reference the original report.
As of last June, the province modified that directive, saying that 10 per cent of classrooms per division would be allowed the “flexibility” to go beyond the cap of 20 students, although no classes will be permitted to have more than 23 students in a Kindergarten to Grade 3 classroom.
Over the past decade, a few details from the original commissioned report seem to have been forgotten, including the fact that the commission suggested any move toward smaller classes should consider the ability of local schools and divisions to absorb and pay for such changes. The issue of composition has all but been ignored.
And that’s a problem for Brandon. While the Brandon School Division has an average class size of 20.94 students per class, about nine classes in its schools have 24 students or more.
On Wednesday, the Sun reported the division board was very concerned about the class-size mandate, particularly who would pay for it. Nine full-time teaching positions have been added to the division’s roster for the 2012-13 school year in an effort to get K-3 classes down to 24 students.
With the province only providing a $131,000 grant, the school division has been forced to pay for the rest of the estimated $756,000 price tag by scalping the provincial enrolment grant and the English as an Additional Language grant, not to mention dipping into its own surplus funds.
Class sizes in Brandon aren’t really a problem — a few classes of 24 or more students is pretty good, actually. The reality is that our city has classes composed of students who need to learn English. That’s where resources would be better spent. But the division has been forced to divert attention away from newcomer students — the class composition component that is sorely lacking in the province’s mandate.
Considering that the province is awash in red financial ink, and facing another year of deficit spending that will push our government debt well past $1 billion, we don’t see the NDP coughing up more cash for this election promise. That means the school division will be coming back to the taxpayer next year to implement the government’s directive.
While we can understand the NDP’s commitment to early childhood development, doing so on the backs of local ratepayers will go down like a ton of bricks.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 12, 2012