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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 3, November/December 2004

What does the ministry mean by class size?

by Mavis Lowry

When the Ministry of Education releases information about class size it, is not talking about teachers in actual classrooms with real students. Each year, each school is asked to complete Ministry Form 1601. From that information, class sizes are "calculated." Calculated is the key word. Class sizes are not reported, nor are they actually known by the ministry. They are calculated.

Since September 2002, the Ministry of Education is no longer interested in collecting your actual class sizes. The ministry cannot tell anyone how many identified students with special needs are in classrooms today, how many classes are excessively large, how many split classes there are in your district. The ministry cannot tell anyone: media, parents, or members of the public, ministers of education in other provinces—how many Grade 1 classes at the new legislated limit of 24 children. It doesn’t know.

Under the Liberal government, provisions on class size were stripped from teachers’ collective agreements. When the courts ruled that the stripping should not have taken place the way it did, government simply passed another law to override the court decision and make the stripping legal.

But that was not enough. Government decided it no longer needed to know the actual class sizes in place. A simple revision was made to Form 1601, which had collected elementary class sizes up to 2001. Schools would no longer identify the size of each elementary class on that form. The number of students in each class, the grade levels of the students in each class, and how many students were identified in the various special-needs funding categories, would no longer be reported by schools to their districts for Ministry of Education data collection.

When the Ministry of Education reports the average class size for elementary schools in your district, it is simply dividing the number of elementary divisions in the district into the number of elementary students. That does not tell us the real conditions in actual classrooms.

We don’t know

Here are some sample questions the ministry would have to answer with "We don’t know":

• How many regular primary class sizes in B.C. include three or more identified children with special needs?

• How many elementary classes in B.C. enroll more than 30 children?

• How many elementary split classes in B.C. have more than three grades in one classroom?

My guess is that government would say this is a fine state of affairs since it is the school district’s responsibility to determine and report on class sizes at the local level, should it wish to. Others say, No, it is not a fine state of affairs. The provincial government provides all the funding to operate our schools. Government has removed school districts’ right to raise tax revenue for schools. Government should take responsibility, then, for at least knowing about the level of service provided to students with the funds it allocates. Government is accountable for the conditions in the schools that it funds. Why would it not want to even know what those conditions are? That makes no sense.

It is like saying, as a parent, I will provide $50 a month for my child’s food. I will not be interested in, nor will I determine, what my kids buy and eat with that money. It will be the child’s job to decide what to buy and eat. I don’t want to know nor see the results of a shopping trip.

The Ministry of Education and this provincial government will say it is student outcomes it wishes to be accountable for and it is interested in. If the FSA scores and Grade 12 exam marks are fine, the class sizes must be fine or don’t matter. That is like my weighing my kids and determining I must have given them enough money for food since they seem to be gaining weight.

The Liberals removed class-size provisions from collective agreements. It only makes sense that the Ministry of Education determine what changes in classrooms have resulted. What will that legislation mean to children? How are children being served? What kind of government would say, "We are making this profound change in the education system, in how schools are organized, but we don’t want to know what the results are"? Does that make any sense? Not to me, especially for a government that promised to be open and accountable.

Mavis Lowry is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Field Services Division.