Education

Dilemma of the empty desks

SUE MCMASTER,ANNE COLLINS June 12 1978
Education

Dilemma of the empty desks

SUE MCMASTER,ANNE COLLINS June 12 1978

Dilemma of the empty desks

Education

There’s a wistfully nostalgic tinge to the remarks that almost cost the head of Ontario’s Commission on Declining Enrolments his job last month. Sixty-eight-year-old educational statistician Robert Jackson has had a hand in all but one of the major Ontario government reports on education over the past 30 years. But faced with the demographics of what he describes as “the gravest crisis in education ever”—the fact that Canada’s baby boom children are not reproducing themselves in numbers large enough to fit the predicted educational growth curves—Jackson seems to have had a failure of the “common sense” for which Education Minister Thomas Wells has praised him. Jackson’s interim report, a statistical document outlining the nature and extent of declining school enrolments presented to the Ontario legislature in early May, carried full-page pictures of two members of what he labelled “endangered species”—a pregnant

woman and a little white child. With the spectre of the education system he helped to build falling apart, Jackson advised the country to turn back the clock, to incubate its own ’50s baby boom : pay women to stay home and have children, even propagate them in test tubes if the present generation continues to prefer the pill to motherhood. His suggestions outraged educators and members of Parliament who felt his nostalgia for the boom years of Canadian education was a dangerous emotion. Rather than thinking through changes for radically different needs, Jackson wishes he could somehow manufacture children to fill the vacant classroom seats, keep the helium in the balloon.

He hasn’t lost his credibility as a statisti-

cian. Jackson’s one-man commission has the most comprehensive mandate of all the groups studying the problem in Canada, drawing on alreadycompleted reports from British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec, and looking at American and Swedish solutions. What he’s found so far won’t keep his balloon aloft. As in all industrialized countries with shaky economies—and where the role of women is changing—Canada’s fertility rate is dropping.

A population’s “replacement level” is 2.1 children per family; Jackson predicts Canada’s birthrate (1.9 at present) will shrink to 1.5 by 1984. School enrolment will echo fertility, declining sharply to the mid1980s and steadying at pre-Sec-

ond World War levels by the end of the century. Though Jackson says numbers have been dropping since 1966, the situation only began to feel like a crisis last year, with large teacher layoffs and two to three school closings in every city across Canada.

So, the problem is declining enrolment. But the problem is also that most provincial governments are not, as Ontario’s Tom Wells puts it, prepared to “buy their way out” or even maintain 1960s levels of spending. The dilemma for commissions like Jackson’s is whether to justify massive cutbacks because declining enrolment makes a good excuse or to use the crisis as what Norman Goble of the Canadian

Teachers’ Federation calls “an opportunity to raise the quality of education.” A quick survey of letters to the editor columns proves that education spending has lost its appeal for taxpayers. But at the same time, public expectations of the school system are still as high as they were in the ’60s. Schools are expected to treat the whole child—his personal and social development—not just encourage his academic growth.

How difficult it is to chop costs while attempting to keep up with those expeetations is apparent when one looks at the options for education savings. Closing down

schools whose enrolments drop (funding has been tied to the number of bodies in the classroom) seems an obvious first step. But the sentimental outcry when a community school shuts down is politically hard to take. Asks James Carey, president oftheOntarioTeachers’Federation: “Is the symbol of education to be a child standing before a locked classroom door?” Crichton Street Public School in Ottawa was faced with such a crisis three years ago when its enrolment dropped to 73. The local parents’ group applied so much political pressure that the 103-year-old school was kept open as a pilot project for alternate uses. It rents space to Highland dancers, private daycare, a class for the mentally retarded, and holds community euchre games. It has to share a principal and double up grades, but four classrooms are full. Though small schools cost more per pupil (administrative services can only be cut so far) some people think Crichton could be the school of the future. Says vice-principal William Jones: “The declining enrolment which gives us a small school might also be giving students a good return on the extra money.”

Teachers are the other obvious target for cost-cutting—their salaries account for two-thirds of school budgets. Norman Goble predicts that inevitably 50,000 of 260,000 Canadian teachers will be playing roulette with their résumés by the year 2000. The touchy thing is that firing won’t necessarily ensure massive savings; the first to go are always the lowest-paid junior teachers. And senior staff can’t help wondering how well they can teach while trying to dig their fingers into the chalkboard surfaces of jobs sliding out from under them. The Manitoba, Ontario and national teachers’ federation briefs are a flurry of stopgap alternatives: more adult education, more special education, lower class sizes, teacher sabbaticals, early retirement, teacher retraining, shutting teachers’ colleges. The profession is panicked.

There’s one more issue—raised by a group of Toronto teachers who presented a protest brief to Jackson called Don’t Shoot the Teacher! They believe the headlinemaking declining enrolment crisis is masking serious problems in education: failures in literacy; increasing vandalism and racism in the schools; a “curriculum morass” that makes it hard to know what to teach in the ’70s; a rising antagonism between teachers and parents that damages the classroom learning atmosphere. They feel these problems should not be considered as separate from declining enrolment, that governments should not “think only of cushioning the blow.” What is needed, they say, is a serious re-evaluation of education priorities. And they hope that, in September, Bob Jackson’s final report does not just outline how to painlessly shrink the school system, but tackles two almost impossible questions: What should education be in the 1970s, and what should it become? SUE MCMASTER / ANNE COLLINS