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Ontario Government Announces Increase to High School Class Size, Modified Sex-Ed and Math Curricula

On March 15, 2019, Education Minister Lisa Thompson announced plans to increase class size for high school and some elementary grades, part of a sweeping change to the province’s education system that will include modifications to the sex-education curriculum and a “back-to-basics” approach to math.1

The minister indicated that over the next four years the average class size would increase by one student in grades 4 to 8, and from 22 to 28 students in high school. These remarks immediately set the stage for a confrontation with the relevant teachers’ unions. Harvey Bishof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said that the change would provoke “massive resistance”.2

Mr. Bishof indicated that the class size increases would mean a reduction of more than 20 per cent of teaching positions in high schools. He said that increasing class sizes would mean schools would have a difficult time offering as many specialized classes, such as technology studies, that require smaller classes of students. He predicted that classes in core subjects, such as math, could grow to as high as 40 students.

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) said that the class increases from grades 4 through to high school would result in the loss of 5,000 teaching positions in its schools. Liz Stuart, the president of OECTA, stated that her union will “use all means” to fight the changes. Ms. Stuart said that “there is no doubt that increasing class sizes will make Ontario’s intermediate and high school classrooms more crowded, more chaotic and less productive”.3

Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), said that while he appreciates that the government listened to concerns about class sizes in the primary grades, he’s “very disappointed” with what is planned. “We’ve already said that we are absolutely opposed to that, and we’ll do whatever we need to defend class size averages that are reasonable, from kindergarten to grade 12”.4

At the news conference announcing the new changes, the minister asserted that “Not one teacher, not one, will lose their job because of our class size strategy”.5 The minister stated that the reductions will take place over four years. She indicated that the changes will come through retirements, resignations and other attrition. Asked about the resistance from the teachers’ unions to class size increases, the minister said that Ontario has one of the lowest student-teacher ratios among provinces that have restrictions on class sizes, and the increase would align it with other jurisdictions.

Over the last number of months, the government has held a series of consultations both with education stakeholders and the broader public on a range of issues from class sizes in primary and staffing in full-day kindergarten to a cellphone ban in classrooms and rewriting the controversial sex-ed curriculum.

Minister Thompson confirmed that the government will not change class sizes in kindergarten, nor will it remove the cap of 23 students in grades 1 to 3.

Under the ministry’s plan, the average class size requirements in secondary schools would be adjusted from 22 to 28 students. The ministry takes the view that this change in class size aligns with secondary class sizes in other provinces across Canada. School boards would be required to maintain a board-wide average class size of 28 or less and the funded average class size would be increased to 28 to support this change.6

In a memorandum issued by Nancy Naylor, the Deputy Minister of Education, to the Directors of Education on March 15, 2019, she indicated that although these are “proposed changes” for the 2019-20 school year, the “government looks forward to the continued consultation with education partners to help shape the government’s plans”. Ms. Naylor stated that the consultation period will continue until May 31, 2019. She committed that to provide families, staff and school boards with certainty on the government’s direction, it will move forward on next steps, including any required legislation, in time for the next school year.7

Notwithstanding the commitment to continue to consult with families, staff and school boards, the intent of the ministry’s announcement was to provide school boards with information to build their budgets and staffing models for the 2019/2020 school year.

The concern arises that fewer teachers will mean reduced options for students and less adults in the schools to supervise.8 The government has spent a lot of time talking about preparing students for the future, however, fewer teachers will result in larger classes, fewer courses and loss of expertise in our schools. This reduction of teachers in secondary schools will likely lead to a loss of programs that have smaller class sizes that serve specialized students.9

The government also announced that it would ban cellphones in classrooms unless certain exceptions apply. Use of personal mobile devices during instructional time will be permitted under the following circumstances:

for educational purposes, as directed by the teacher;
for health and medical purposes; or
to support special education needs.
The ministry stated that school boards and stakeholders will be consulted to ensure students and parents are clear on the new guidelines.10

The government also announced a new four-year math strategy to ensure students have a strong understanding of math fundamentals and how to apply them. The plan is to phase in a new math curriculum that moves away from the current approach known as discovery math. The ministry states that new strategy will:

improve student performance in math;
help students solve everyday math problems; and
increase students’ employability into the jobs of tomorrow.
The new curriculum will emphasize basic concepts and skills contributing to students’ future success and be accompanied by parent and teacher resources. The first elements of the new curriculum will be available in September 2019.11

The minister also indicated that the province would implement a new “age-appropriate” sex-ed curriculum.

Students will learn the proper names of body parts in grade 1, as they did under the previous 2015 curriculum introduced by the Liberal government. Students will also begin to learn about positive body images in grades 2 and 3, family and healthy relationships in grade 2 and consent and online safety in grades 2 and 3.

In the new curriculum, students will not learn about gender identity and gender expression until grade 8. In the 2015 curriculum, students were taught those topics in grade 6.

In grades 7 to 8, students will begin to learn about important topics such as sexting, contraception, tolerance and respect, intercourse and sexually transmitted infections.

The ministry has indicated that to ensure parents are respected, it would provide an “opt-out” policy so parents would be able to exempt their children from sexual-health education.12 The government is still working through the process on how this opt-out would work. The ministry is also proposing to provide an opportunity for families to use educational materials online to teach the subject at home.

The ministry has stated that starting in the 2020/2021 school year, it will centralize the delivery of e-learning courses to allow students greater access to programming and educational opportunities. The e-learning classes will be even larger than 28, with an average class size of 35.13

Secondary students will take a minimum of four e-learning credits out of the 30 credits needed to fulfill the requirements for achieving an Ontario Secondary School Diploma. In this regard, students will be required to take one credit per year online, with exemptions for some students on an individualized basis.14

The Conservative government is still in the process of trying to reduce the deficit that it estimates at $14.5 billion, though the Financial Accountability Officer indicates that it is closer to $12 billion. With the government’s inaugural budget being introduced in early April 2019 and teachers’ contracts due to expire at the end of August 2019, some stakeholders worry that further reductions are coming in the education sector.

1 Nancy Naylor, New Vision for Education (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2019:B08 memo, March 15, 2019).

2 Caroline Alphonso, “Ford government to increase class sizes, modify sex-ed and math curricula”, The Globe and Mail, March 15, 2019.

3 Ibid.

4 Kristin Rushowy, “Ford Government announces hikes to high school class size, but no changes to kindergarten”, The Toronto Star, March 15, 2019.

5 Caroline Alphonso, op. cit. at footnote 2.

6 New Vision for Educationop. cit. at footnote 1, at p. 2.

7 Ibid. at p. 2.

8 Paul Hunter, “Ontario’s plan to raise class sizes will lead to loss of 800 public high school teaching jobs in Toronto, TDSB documents shows”, The Toronto Star, March 17, 2019.

9 Ibid.

10 New Vision for Educationop. cit. at footnote 1, at pp 5-6.

11 Ibid., at p. 6.

12 Ibid., at p. 8.

13 Ibid., at p. 3.

14 Ibid., at p. 3.