Ratios, Ranges, and Caps in Education

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!

Class Size

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.

Class Composition

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.


  1. Thielmann on May 29, 2014 at 5:21 am

    Thoughtful & productive post! Good point about caps needing to balance school org bottlenecks and teacher needs. Personally, I’d prefer certain classes of 31 to a class of 15 or 16 after the “oversize” class of 31 is split (this has happened to me). I’m also not very concerned with IEP students in my typical SS9-12 classes (I teach whoever shows up). I don’t often wish for a EA, only had one EA once in 19 years… It was a Gr.9 Art Class in 1997 and the work she did with the special needs student was fantastic, something I could not have done at the time. But, turn these comments over to some of my elementary colleagues and they’d be cross with me. Smaller classes and better access to EAs & specialists are exactly what they need. It is also not realistic to limit to 3 IEPs per class. We have whole schools in PG where this would not be possible without tripling the staff and physically adding more space to the building. I’d like to see targets or soft caps for CSize & Comp. too, with both a LIF to address gaps and a process for going above the cap that involves mutual agreement. E.g. if a teacher with a soft cap of 30 has the right to say lyes to 31 but no to 32 this would eliminate many problems. Alternately, the mutual agreement by the teacher/principal could be reviewed by a “joint composition committee” with equal rep from SD and TA — work towards consensual decisions. If the SD knows they need mutual agreement, and the TA knows they are free to be flexible on a case by case basis, issue would be minimized. Ok… time to go pack the bratwurst, eggs, & BBQ for the early morning strike shift.

    • RF on May 29, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Thank you so much for your comments and for helping add in the most important perspective – that of a teacher’s first-hand experience! Funny that you raise the issue of the difference between secondary and elementary. I met with someone this morning and we were talking about that very topic. She was suggesting that a focus on reducing the class size of primary (Grades 1-3), for example, and not so much at secondary would be one workable approach. Your note about the number of IEPs in a classroom given your local context is really valuable as well. This is why local governance is critical when it comes to class size and composition. These two issues likely do fit better at the local level with the type of flexibility and consensus-based approach to which you’ve referred. Now, if only the ideas that we’ve proposed would actually filter through to those at the bargaining table!

      All my very best to you and your colleagues on the picket lines today and next week. I appreciate the work you do and also your contribution to the dialogue here.

  2. Quinn Campbell on June 25, 2014 at 2:53 pm

    In my 17 years of teaching (mostly) high school Math, I’ve worked for close to 20 Administrators, and have personally known many dozens more. Some were absolutely fantastic, and some were not so great. But not a single one of them, given adequate resources, would ever willingly have created excessively large classes with an unmanageable number of special needs students. They would have, given adequate resources, built a timetable chock full of rich and rewarding opportunities for students, and ensured that the class sizes and compositions were reasonable and appropriate for student learning.

    The reality, however, is that since the mid 2000’s, adequate resources have not been available to those administrators, and some extremely difficult choices had to be made. Again, some of those Administrators were unbelievably good at finding ways to maintain a high level of services to students, while offering as wide a range of opportunities as they could afford. When cuts had to be made, they were completely open and honest about where and why. Other Administrators seemed to make cuts indiscriminately, or (to be completely truthful) sometimes personally – specifically targeting individual programs or actual people.

    Regardless, I simply cannot envision a scenario where, given adequate resources, an Administrator would do nothing but his or her absolute best to maximize the opportunities available to each and every student at their school.

    If funding for public schools weren’t an issue, Class Size & Composition wouldn’t be either.

    • RF on June 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

      Thank you Quinn for reading the post and submitting your comment. I really appreciate your thoughts about the administrators – as in any profession, there will be a range of expertise, experience, and ability, but I feel they are often unfairly targeted for criticism because of frustration with the system and with the governance structures. I get particularly upset when commentators feel it necessary to denigrate the role – administrators are educators and while their teaching burdens may be lessened or they may not be required to teach, they are — at heart — people who care about students, about student learning, and about building the most positive environment possible within the schools. To do that, they have to be able to lead the team of educators with whom they are so closely associated. As you’ve said, some will meet the challenges better than others, but I’m sure all would rather have the resources required to do what’s best for the students. Again, thanks for reading and writing in.

  3. Neale Adams on June 25, 2014 at 3:55 pm


    It’s good to see that you—and many of your fellow trustees—are confronting the important issues of class size and classroom composition. While teachers (like everyone) want to be paid well and keep up with the cost of living, these are the real issues. Underlying even these, though, is the issue of trust. If the teachers trusted that the provincial government was really committed to excellence in public school education, I think the class size and composition issues could be solved.

    However, I don’t think education is as much a priority as keeping BC a relatively low-tax jurisdiction. I can sympathize, to some extent, although I think the strategy is misguided. Despite continued efforts by the Liberal Government headed by Gordon Campbell to keep taxes low, especially corporate taxes but also income taxes, for over a decade, economic development in BC has lagged. One could argue that with higher taxes the BC economy would be worse… but I don’t think so. I do think investment in education does pay off, though it takes a very long time to do so. It takes at least 16 years for children to go through school and university – which is time for four or five provincial election.

    If the average class size limit were, say, 28, with only one or two special education students who are relatively manageable, most teachers would probably not object to adding one more student in the middle of the term, if they had confidence that next year 29 wouldn’t become the norm and they’d be asked to squeeze in 30, and so on, so that in a few years they’re up to a class size load of 35. They don’t have that confidence. That’s why class size has become such an issue.

    Likewise, most of the teachers I know are quite supportive of the policy of mainstreaming special needs children—if there is sufficient support provided. If this were the general practice, and they could be confident that an additional “difficult” student would bring additional resources, there wouldn’t be this insistence on hard limits. But they aren’t confident, based on the record of the past dozen years.

    A lot of this has to do with money, but more, I would argue, has to do with attitude. Does the provincial government want to provide all children in BC with an excellent public education, or just an adequate one? Here I think the issue of our relatively high aid to private schools is significant. Once upon a time, municipalities (like West Vancouver) could top up support for public schools by raising the local property tax—now that isn’t possible. But individual families can put money into their children’s education by sending them to private schools—and the support of 50 per cent of the public school grant makes that much more possible.

    When it comes to their own children, if parents feel the public schools are lacking, and if they have the means, they will purchase what they feel is the best education possible for their children. That is what many if not most MLAs do with their own children, I suspect, and many professional people do. In my rapidly up scaling neighbourhood I see more and more signs each fall on lawns advertising the Crofton House or St. George’s School or Vancouver College annual fundraising fairs. What that means is that, for the governing elite of the community, public education is less of a personal priority. That, I think, is a big problem. Maybe this is an inevitable result of growing economic inequality in Canadian society—I hope not.
    What public education really needs is Government committed to the idea of excellence in public education. I don’t think this is solely a matter of money, although money is important. I certainly don’t think it’s a matter of establishing hard limits on class size—although for defensive reasons this is what teachers feel they are forced to do. I also believe that excellent public education needn’t cost a lot more than what is being put into the system right now. There are all sorts of reforms that could be instituted, I am sure, (a topic for another discussion), if—again—teachers had the confidence that the Government was committed to quality public education, and not just trying to save money.

    But how to rebuild that trust? I do think that local trustees can do a lot, and I applaud you and many other trustees for trying to approach these issues in a constructive manner.

    Neale Adams

    • RF on June 29, 2014 at 1:10 am

      Thank you Neale for your comment: it is perceptive, insightful, and to the point. You’ve raised the key issue which is the question of what ideology is driving the provincial government and why is the public education system in British Columbia seemingly caught up in that ideological vise? Many ascribe neo-liberalism as the culprit, others point to the experience in the United States and seem to think that’s an indication of where we are headed. I find it difficult to accept that there could be that level of intent in the dismantling of our public education system, but I also find it increasingly difficult to find an alternative explanation. My worry now is this: if the general public continues to support the notion of a public education system (considered independently from the question of the teachers’ union), what will it take to move a seemingly intransigent government with a majority mandate from a position which most do not accept to one which ensures the continuing health and viability of the equitable, accessible educational system underpinning our society and our democracy?

  4. Claude Cartwellier on July 11, 2014 at 6:04 am

    The challenge will always be no two children are alike. Two autistic children will not represent the same challenges, nor require the same adaptations, nor have the same interests. Two children with cerebral palsy will have completely different needs, one may largely need a scribe but otherwise be ok, while another will have toileting issues, feeding issues and many other challenges. A one size fits all formula will never be the best solution, but the paperwork required to try and get a student properly identified, identify the specific needs and put in a place a specific program and have that program adequately support would be an administrative nightmare.
    I think putting some fixed ratios with increased time for counseling and a baseline for student services is essential. Fixed EAL time would also work quite well. I do not know if the need to go back to the exact 2001 numbers is the solution because some schools need a lot more support. We need a hybrid system of some of the fixed 2001 ratios (maybe not the same numbers) and LIF which would allow individual schools to put in place a plan and demonstrate a need for additional staffing. But in order for LIF to have an effect it would probably have to be at least double what it currently is in order to have any effect.
    Lastly the ministry would really need to put in place early intervention. The long term cost savings would be enormous as the system would be able to catch and indentify kids learning issues much sooner, get them the support they need, have them become confident learners and lessen the need for support services in later years.

    • RF on July 11, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Thank you Claude for reading and for your insightful comments. Early intervention does seem to be one key factor and looking at ways to bolster specialist ratios with additional monetary resources makes a lot of sense to me. Your points regarding variability when it comes to discussing composition are also spot on. I appreciate your thoughtful and reflective approach.

  5. […] a daunting challenge. I’ve written about this difficulty before in two pieces: Ratios, Ranges, and Caps in Education and Class Size and Composition: A Birthday Party […]

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