Peter Cameron, BCPSEA’s Chief Negotiator, seemed to call for a cone of silence today for Trustees when it comes to bargaining issues in the public education sector.
While I can appreciate his frustration with diverging viewpoints (solidarity matters to both parties at the bargaining table), there are many issues not being discussed in a larger context which may, in part, explain why negotiations are so acrimonious.
Which brings me to the topics I’d like to explore here: ratios for non-enrolling staff and specialist teachers, class size, and class composition.
Because if we talked about these issues in a meaningful way, apart from contract negotiations, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the same spin cycle of labour unrest every few years.
This is not an empirical study, nor an exhaustive analysis of the subject, nor does it represent the views of the West Vancouver Board of Education. These are merely personal reflections intended to stimulate debate.
Ratios for Non-Enrolling Staff and Specialists
To frame this discussion, I think we need to consider the minimally acceptable service levels for positions such as teacher-librarian, counsellor, special education teacher and so on.
Having said that, I realize that we must first agree on which of these roles is integral to providing a quality education for students. We can then determine the appropriate ratios. However, these ratios would have to reflect the needs and the realities of each local community. What may be needed in Vancouver, for example, may not work in Williams Lake, and what may be sufficient in Fort Nelson may not work on the Sunshine Coast.
Now that I think about it, perhaps this piece of the puzzle is not so easy after all!
The key question here is can we find a balance between the needs of the employer, the working conditions for a teacher, and the students’ learning conditions? For example, if a cap of 24 students is set for Grade 3 and a school has two fully subscribed classes of 24, what happens when someone moves into the neighbourhood and wants to place their child at the local school? Does a class of 25 present a significant deterioration in the working and learning conditions of the teacher and the students? Well, it may and it may not — it depends. An even more basic question is how do we even determine the optimum number of students in a classroom?
Rather than a singular number, I wonder if a range could work within the context of a collective agreement. For example, would it be possible to have a provision whereby a Grade 3 class can be anywhere from 15 to 28? Or 18 to 26? Whatever the range, provisions would also have to be considered regarding the process by which one were to go over or under – a process which balances the rights of the District with the working conditions of the teacher with the learning environment of the student.
There are also a myriad of exceptions to consider from classes that may have a defined capacity (such as foods and shop) to ones which may comfortably extend beyond a specified range (such as choir and band).
Given the many different factors to consider, you can see how difficult it becomes to distill class size down to a singular number which would apply in all situations in all regions of the province.
Of the three components I identified at the start, I find this one the most difficult to assess. The key question seems to be how do we set up a system which does not discriminate against our most vulnerable students and yet takes into account acceptable working conditions for a teacher? But I do know that by not addressing class composition issues, we are potentially compromising the education of all the students in a particular classroom.
I believe the answer lies in ensuring adequate support services and resources in the classroom. By that I mean if we are going to removing a limit on the number of special needs students in a classroom, we need to make sure the teacher in that classroom has additional help, whether in the form of special education assistants or education assistants (SEA or EA) or other specialist support, to meet the needs of all the students.
So, rather than saying there may only be three students with individual educations plans (IEPs) in one class, perhaps we have to say for every three IEPs in a classroom, there is one SEA or EA assigned to that classroom. But then we face the challenge of determining the demand associated with any particular IEP because the nature of the adjustments or assistance required can vary substantively. In addition, not every student who needs additional support has an IEP and it is often these students whose needs remain unmet not because of the teacher, but because of inadequate resourcing.
And yes, whichever remedies we put in place with regard to non-enrolling staff ratios, class size, and class composition will take money, a lot of money. But we are talking about 558,985 children in BC and we are talking about the future of our democratic society and no I’m not exaggerating.
And as much as our provincial government may be focused on shrinking public education to help reduce the amount it spends, the price of not doing education well is too high to pay, for all of us.