Education issues sure to be major election topic this fall

Sask Bulletin
October 1, 2020

Carla Beck, Education Critic

As we move inexorably closer to the October 26 provincial election, it has become crystal clear that K-12 public education has surfaced as a major issue for both the ruling Saskatchewan Party and the Opposition NDP to ponder.

With that in mind, the Saskatchewan Bulletin is publishing the comments of Education Minister Gord Wyant and Education Critic Carla Beck on a select few questions. These focused on the importance of class size and complexity, the inequity when it comes to digital access, the all but moribund philosophy of SchoolPLUS and their respective visions for the future of public education.

While such conversations will inevitably become partisan in courting public opinion, there are some similarities that also came to light – albeit this depends on whether you are in the seat of power and trying to take credit or from the Opposition perspective questioning the current policies.

Both politicians praised the early days of classes returning to school for the fall, with Wyant citing extraordinary work and collaboration as the main reason.

“It has brought into sharp focus the importance of the relationships we have within the education sector, and we wouldn’t be where we are without that cooperation.”

Wyant readily conceded he has heard first-hand some of the legitimate concerns, but he remains steadfast that returning to school is critical.

Gord Wyant, Saskatchewan Education Minister

“Kids need to be back in school for a whole bunch of reasons,” he said, citing mental health and socialization as two key factors, which he suggested have suffered while adapting to online learning.

Beck, meanwhile, suggested those traditionally collaborative relationships have been strained in recent years due to lack of funding for public education. She noted though “that the education sector has done a good job of managing to find a balance, and we just know this has to work because education is so important for the province as a whole.”

Class Size and Complexity

Beck noted that in talking to teachers recently, the rotational days with smaller class sizes has reinforced the importance of smaller class sizes. “In conversation with this teacher, she said it reminded her of how she was able to devote time and attention for the individual child.

“It’s just part of the issue. We need portables in a timely fashion because the issues aren’t going to go away when the provincial government has not funded for [enrolment] growth. This is an issue that has been at the forefront for a number of years. We used to measure and track class size and complexity. This is hampering the ability of teachers to do their job and impacting the education to our students that they deserve.

“It’s also a matter of public safety when you see the number of schools that have over 100 percent capacity. It all lends to the sense of urgency.”

Wyant, for his part, said for both his party and personally, there is an acute acknowledgment that this is a major issue. He remains hopeful that the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation’s eventual willingness to participate in the provincial committee on class size and composition will auger well for the future.

“Certainly this pandemic has brought the issue into sharper focus, and we need to continue to work on these issues at the committee levels. I thought we were starting to see some good work in this area when the pandemic hit,” Wyant said.

He also alluded to the recent spate of new school announcements as a way of reducing class size by having additional space available.

“Overall there’s no question we have to focus on this very important and complex issue in the future,” Wyant noted.

Digital Access

Wyant acknowledged there is a genuine issue here when it comes to reliable, high-speed internet access in areas of the province.

“We’ve seen some very inventive solutions already and we need to come up with more. The importance of having that access across the province is critical and how we support broadband accessibility and getting easier access to the internet is a priority. We need to expand those services and it’s top of mind.

“We need to work on this not only from an education standpoint but also for the economic perspective. Hopefully we are establishing a knowledge base in this regard.”

Beck agreed with her counterpart that the pandemic brought into sharp focus the inequities that exist.

“We’ve seen first-hand the digital divide. It’s down to economics in some cases, but also access. It’s a rural and urban divide and a north and south divide. We’ve been talking about this for a long time.

“We don’t have a crystal ball and so we don’t know to what extent we will have to rely on digital learning in the future, but we need to be prepared to make the transition more seamlessly if we need to. Sadly in most cases, it’s the students facing the economic barriers that stand to lose the most and the divide is in danger of being exacerbated. That’s going to show up in the classroom,” Beck offered.

SchoolPLUS

Wyant insisted there have been ongoing conversations with other ministries, characterizing them as making some progress.

“Again, with the pandemic we’ve seen the mental health issues, for example, coming more to the fore. It's an example of how we need to cooperate and more work needs to be done. Too often the ministries have not talked to each other, and we need to break those silos and make sure we have a cooperative approach. The whole idea is a good one and it continues to be a priority.

“I think some of the elements can for sure happen in terms of supporting the whole child. We have to find ways to work within the parameters of the budget so that we can deliver services in a more economical way because there is only one taxpayer.”

Beck recalls her early days as a social worker when the SchoolPLUS notion was first introduced, recalling how it “just made so much sense for students and families.

“The question is how do we do this in an integrated way to meet families where they are at. It’s a good economic policy as well if it’s done creatively and collaboratively.

“It takes political will and being prepared to give up some turf. The potential benefits are unmistakable and it will take some re-allocation of capital, but we can’t keep piling everything on the schools.”

Education and Economics

Beck reiterated earlier comments that education needs to be viewed as an investment in the future, and to forego the one-year budgetary cycle or four-year election term thinking.

“We need to make sure our students have the skills they will need in order to succeed and for that to happen, we need to ensure teachers are able to use their expertise to bring out the best in each of those students. We need to allow teachers to be professionals and yes, to meet outcomes but not to be burdened by a lot of extra paperwork.”

Wyant noted the record investment in the education system in the last provincial budget as an indication that the government is well aware of the importance of public education.

“I think it would be fair to say our financial commitment to public education has been significant, and the importance of schools is also very much an economic portfolio in terms of the opportunities it provides for our young people to be successful and participate in the provincial economy.”

Future Education Perspective

Wyant chose to underscore the importance of cooperation, referencing the recent Education Sector Response Planning Team’s integral role in the time of the pandemic as a signpost.

“We need to continue to build on that because we all have the interest of children as the first priority. I’m hopeful that some of the signs of cooperation we have seen are indicative of more of the same in the future because the importance of relationships is critical.

“There are certainly some issues we will disagree on, but we continue to build on our vision. It’s a big ship to turn, but I still believe we have one of the best education systems in the country. We need to continue to evolve because education is the key to everything we do.”

Beck stressed her belief that local school boards need to be empowered to have the decision-making criteria to make their own situations work.

“We have a complicated history of Indigenous and Métis people in our system. We need to seize the opportunity to address that so we can walk together by removing those gaps that have existed so that all students can realize their potential. The current gap in terms of educational attainment is indefensible. It’s definitely had an economic impact, but it’s also a moral imperative and the right thing to do.

“I don’t think any one of us has all the answers, but it’s important we have the right goals and vision and then being courageous enough to let it happen,” she emphasized.