YARMOUTH, N.S. – The province’s education minister says 2018 will be a big year for education in Nova Scotia.
“There is going to be some significant transformations that happen over the course of this year and the next number of years,” says Zach Churchill.
Changes, he says, that are long overdue.
“I really believe that we’re going to keep moving forward in a way – with teachers, with principals, with our educational partners – to transform the system for the better. I think teachers and parents will see improvements by the end of our mandate,” he says.
With 2018 underway, Churchill was asked what he sees as priorities over the next year. He provided the following as his Top 4.
“Key focuses for us are on classroom conditions for teachers. The Council to Improve Classroom Conditions has been working very diligently on the attendance policy that’s been implemented,” he says. “They’re now looking at reporting, data collection, some of these administrative burdens that have been placed on teachers that we want to help them deal with so they can focus on what’s most important and that’s teaching.”
Churchill says the attendance policy is helping schools and students.
“The whole intention with the attendance policy is to help our kids overcome whatever obstacles they’re dealing with attending school,” he says, pointing to a pilot project underway at some schools in the province involving attendance officers.
“The attendance officers are responsible for reaching out to kids, helping to understand what the issues are – whether it’s issues at home, health issues, anxiety – and helping them find supports to get them back in class,” he says, saying this isn’t a throwback to days of truancy officers. “These aren’t people who are dragging students back by the ear to school. They’re there to help. And I really think we’ll see some positive impacts.”
“We’re looking at the administrative model of education and we’ll be getting recommendations on how to improve that,” says Churchill, saying the report on this will be released soon. It was submitted to the government on time by its end-of-December timeframe and has been in the process of being translated so it will be available in English and French at the time of its release.
The education system administration review has been carried out by Avis Glaze, an expert who once served as Ontario's royal commissioner on education.
“As soon as the translation is complete we’ll be releasing it to the public and will begin our conversations on how we proceed,” Churchill says.
The review looks at how public schools are administered, including elected school boards and their central office administration, along with administration at the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
“We know there needs to be improvement. Depending on where you go to school in this province, there are different outcomes based on the region that you’re learning from. So there are some challenges that we need to overcome,” Churchill says. “The current model has been in place for a very long time. We need to see if we can do it better so we can better deliver education to our students.”
The model of inclusion in Nova Scotia schools will be a big focus area this year, the minister says.
“It's become very clear over the course of the last 20 years that the way inclusion has been implemented in the province has created a lot of challenges for teachers, for students, for schools and for the system as a whole,” Churchill says. “We’re hearing too much about students who aren't getting what they need in the school system and there are a whole bunch of challenging cases from a behavioural perspective to a mental health perspective. We can’t just leave it all up to principals and teachers to deal with.”
Churchill believes one of the biggest transformations that will be experienced in the classroom will surround changes with inclusion. He says the commission on inclusion will be submitting its report by the end of March.
“We’ve got a really good group of academics that are taking the time, they’re meeting with teachers, they’re meeting with parents. I really expect there to be some practical recommendations that are going to help us alleviate some pressure off of our teachers and help us make a system that makes more sense and does a better job of providing kids the education that they need,” Churchill says.
Churchill believes access to early learning is an area where the province will see significant improvement in student success.
“The research and data on how a preprimary program can impact, particularly kids that need a bit of extra help early on in life, is pretty astounding,” he says. “We now have close to 850 kids who are in a free preprimary program in the province and we’re going to keep working on expanding that program so that 100 per cent of our four-year-olds and families will have access.”
The plan is still to carry this out over four years.
“We want to make sure it’s implemented properly so that is going to take time,” says Churchill. “Our plan was only to have 30 sites in phase one and because of the demand from communities and from families we have 54 sites.”
At the end of the process there will be approximately 250 sites, he says.
“An announcement will be made sometime this spring about where the new sites will be. We’re looking at around 70 new sites,” he says, adding this will happen “alongside a strategic growth in the childcare sector as well.”