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Paul Wozney: More transparency required on class caps

Photo: minasi via sxc.hu

There is perhaps no more complicated an education issue to untangle than class size caps.

Not every school in Nova Scotia has overcrowded classrooms, but where they exist resources often become stretched too thin, and students receive less attention and support. At the same time, it is a problem that does not come with easy solutions. Finding the right balance requires transparency, accountability, collaboration and resources. Class composition also needs to be a fundamental part of the equation– but that’s a discussion for another day.

In the past school boards were responsible for ensuring resources were properly allocated to meet provincial caps. Unfortunately, Bill 72 wiped out years of work and engagement related to overcrowding in several school communities. This has only served to increase the anxiety of parents and teachers in those areas.

Given that this issue has been raised in the media recently, I wanted to take a few moments to share some facts on how class caps work in Nova Scotia.

First, class caps are only really in place on September 30th of each year. After that, all bets are off. So if enrolment at a school increases, classes can exceed caps, and regularly do.

Second, public reporting of caps is also based on class sizes as of September 30. If the data changes after that day, and it always does, parents and the public are not typically informed.

Third, Nova Scotia has both hard and soft class caps. The smaller soft caps are generally what the government promotes in the media whenever it’s listing accomplishments, but from a practical purpose these are largely ignored. The larger hard caps are what the Regional Centres of Education and government typically aim to achieve. Similarly, only classes that exceed hard caps are reported publicly.

As a result of limited transparency, parents are mostly kept in the dark when it comes to class sizes. For example, last year the Halifax Regional School Board reported that 64 classes at 22 schools exceeded caps, but that only tells part of the story. In reality there were hundreds of classes over the soft cap. As for the 64 classes over the hard cap, that was just on September 30th, there are no details of what happened after that.

Now that elected school boards are gone, it’s imperative that parents are armed with the knowledge they need to advocate on behalf of their children. They must have the facts so they can hold the government directly accountable and ensure commitments that impact their children are met.

Furthermore, all Nova Scotians are entitled to accurate and timely information about the education system their tax dollars support, and a couple of small changes could dramatically improve transparency.

For example, the Province could begin to report on classes exceeding the soft cap. Compared to the rest of Canada, Nova Scotia’s class caps are in the middle of the pack, at best. When soft caps aren’t adhered to, a public explanation is required.

Another improvement would be for the Regional Centres of Education to release monthly compliance reports on class sizes, instead of just an annual report. Parents and the public would benefit from more frequent updates and should be kept up-to-date.

That being said, when it comes to managing class sizes all parties need to be willing to compromise. Implementing caps without proper consideration can result in unintended consequences, and occasionally there are legitimate reasons to exceed a cap. Our education system works best when government, teachers and communities are willing to work together and collaborate on key decisions.  This requires open and honest communications between all parties, so increasing transparency around class sizes just makes good sense.

Paul Wozney is the president, of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. Originally posted on the NSTU Facebook page, it is published on the NS Advocate website with permission.


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