Plans to increase high school class sizes will force Ottawa’s largest school board to cut 1,800 classes and compromise the quality of education, trustees warn.
The class-size increases proposed by the provincial government will have “significant detrimental impacts” on programs offered at high schools run by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says a report passed unanimously by the board
The report will be sent to the province as part of its consultation on education changes.
The province plans to increase high school classes from an average of 22 to 28 students over the next four years.
At the Ottawa public board, 300 fewer teachers would be required, said the report. “That equates to a loss of 1,800 sections or classes that will no longer be available to secondary students.”
The report also raises concerns about provincial plans for mandatory e-learning courses in high school and warns that provincial funding reductions in Grades 4 to 8 could lead to unacceptably large classes in some schools.
Cutting the number of high school classes is problematic because students deserve a variety of options, said trustee Donna Blackburn in an interview.
Some students may want to pursue a trade, while others are passionate about photography, graphic arts or the school band, she said.
Blackburn faced personal struggles in high school herself but stuck it out because she wanted to play on school teams, she said.
“What kept me engaged in high school was sports.”
Education Minister Lisa Thompson has said students must do their share as the Progressive Conservative government reduces spending to trim the deficit.
Some high schools in southern Ontario have already cut the number of courses they plan to offer next year. Hundreds of teachers across Ontario have been given redundancy notices and fear for their jobs, although Thompson says no teacher will lose a job as a result of larger classes.
The job cuts attributable to larger class sizes are supposed to be made through attrition as teachers resign or leave voluntarily.
The Ottawa public board will be cushioned from the immediate impact of larger class sizes. In fact, the board expects it will have slightly more teachers in 2019-20, mainly because enrolment is increasing.
In any case, the local contract between the board and its high school teachers prevents raising class sizes to an average of 28. The contract requires staffing based on an average class size of 22, and also sets a maximum number of students per class by program.
Contracts for the province’s education workers expire at the end of August. Negotiations have begun between the province’s school boards and the union representing high school teachers for a new central agreement. Local agreements are negotiated after that.
If average class sizes of 28 are implemented in Ottawa high schools, administrators will face hard choices, says the OCDSB report.
To maintain classes with low enrolment, the size of other classes would have to climb well above 28.
Some classes, such as hands-on trade and technology courses, can’t increase to 28 students because there isn’t enough equipment or it wouldn’t be safe, said the report. Upper-year physics and chemistry courses now commonly run with fewer than 20 in a class, but students need them as prerequisites for university programs.
“School administrators will have to make difficult choices as to whether and how often these courses can be offered, particularly in smaller secondary schools where it is already challenging to offer a full complement of compulsory courses every year,” the report said.
Trustees added a warning to the report saying that some students may have to take a fifth year of high school in order to get their prerequisites.
Critics, including some high school students who have staged protests, say they fear that arts and other specialty courses will be cut, and the size of mainstream academic classes will balloon to more than 40.
The province also plans to increase class sizes in Grades 4 to 8 by about one student to an average of 24.5. At the Ottawa public board, that means cutting about 10 teaching positions, the report said.
The reduced funding will “likely result in situations of unacceptably large classes in some schools, requiring funding to be redirected from other needs in order to mitigate large class sizes,” said the report.
The board’s flexibility is already limited because of a provincial moratorium on school closures imposed by the former Liberal government.
At some under-enrolled schools, class sizes are small, the report noted. Keeping under-enrolled schools open has forced the board to increase the number of split-grade classes and has increased the incidence of overly-large and overly small classes across the district, said the report.
The report also urged the provincial education ministry to consider the composition of classes, not just their average size. Some classes have higher numbers of students with special needs or newcomers learning English, for example.
Boards should be encouraged to have flexible class size strategies that take composition into account, said the report.
The report is also critical of the province’s plan to require high school students to take four of their 30 courses online.
E-learning is not a “viable or desirable option” for all students, it said.
Students with limited access to the internet or digital technology, including those in rural areas and from low socio-economic backgrounds, will “face significant barriers,” said the report.
E-learning can be a good option if “school districts are completely engaged in the development and delivery of the model,” the report said.
Online courses are now delivered by school boards.
Although no details have been released, the province says it plans a centrally delivered system of e-courses with an average class size of 35.
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