Province unveils major education reforms

The Canadian Press
Shawn Jeffords

TORONTO–Ontario is increasing class sizes for Grades 4-12 in an effort to cut costs, a move critics say will hurt student learning and result in thousands of teaching jobs lost across the province.
The move is part of education reforms announced by the Progressive Conservative government Friday that also include introducing a sex-ed curriculum that returns to teaching gender identity and consent after a modernized lesson plan was scrapped, revamping the math curriculum, and banning cellphones in classrooms.
“Our plan will modernize the classroom, will protect the future of our education system, and will ensure Ontario’s students acquire the skills they need to build successful lives, families and businesses,” said Education minister Lisa Thompson.
The government has been consulting for months on several education issues, including class sizes, teacher hiring practices, and sex ed.
On Friday, the province said average high school class sizes will increase by six students–from 22 to 28.
Thompson said the change will be phased in over four years, and noted Ontario high schools currently have one of the lowest student-to-teacher ratios in the country.
Average class sizes for Grades 4-8 will increase by one student per classroom–from a current 23 students to 24.
Class sizes for kindergarten through Grade 3 are not changing.
“Not one teacher–not one–will lose their job because of our class size strategy,” stressed Thompson, although she could not immediately explain how the government would achieve that goal.
The government said the changes were being made to “better balance student success and system sustainability,” but could not immediately say how much the move would save the province.
The head of union representing Ontario’s public high school teachers said the change means about 3,600 secondary school teachers will lose their jobs over four years.
“[It’s] a loss that cannot possibly be absorbed without a significant impact on student learning and success,” warned union president Harvey Bischoff, adding Premier Doug Ford’s government has “declared war” on the education system.
“Given the premier’s repeated election promises that no jobs will be lost, the government quite simply has no mandate to make the changes they have announced this morning [Friday],” he charged.
Bischoff added that changes to several grants to schools also will mean funding will drop by $1.4 billion for the education system.
The head of the elementary teachers’ union also predicted job losses and said students would suffer.
“Raising class size in Grades 4-8 will have a long-term negative impact on Ontario’s students,” said Elementary Teachers’ Federation president Sam Hammond.
“Larger classes mean less support for individual students and will disproportionately impact students with special needs,” he argued.
Hammond said his union will fight moves to hike class sizes and change hiring practices, noting those issues normally are the subject of collective bargaining negotiations.
NDP education critic Marit Stiles said increasing high school class sizes will affect students’ ability to learn.
“What we hear constantly from parents is that their children are not getting the one-on-one attention they need in the classroom,” she noted.
Schools, meanwhile, will have a new sex-ed curriculum in the fall that will replace an interim teaching plan brought in after the Progressive Conservatives took power last year.
The Tories scrapped a modernized curriculum brought in by the previous Liberal government that had addressed consent, online bullying, sexting, same-sex relationships, and gender identity.
The new document will return to teaching those lessons, but in some cases will do so when students are older.
Gender identity, for instance, now will be taught in Grade 8 after previously being taught earlier under the Liberals.
The curriculum also will include teachings on abstinence and lessons on cannabis.
Parents still will be able to opt out of having their kids exposed to certain topics in the sex-ed class, and the government will issue online modules for those who want guidance on discussing those topics at home.
The full curriculum is expected to be released in May and implemented in September.
The government also announced Friday a new math curriculum for all grades that will be phased in over four years. It will focus on basic concepts and skills, with the first changes come into effect this fall.
The current so-called discovery math curriculum, which Ford has railed against, is being scrapped.
As well, Ontario high schools will receive a revised curriculum on First Nations, Métis, and Inuit studies, which the province said was developed in collaboration with indigenous partners.
The government also will ban cellphones in classrooms during instructional time, starting next year, except for when teachers want to use cellphones as part of their lesson, for medical reasons, and for students with special needs.