Education was on the agenda for the opposition New Democrats in North Battleford Tuesday.
They held an education town hall at the Western Development Museum, with leader Ryan Meili and opposition education critic Carla Beck in attendance. This is one of a series of town hall meetings the NDP has set up around the province, including ones previously in Moose Jaw and Prince Albert. Another was scheduled for the next day in Regina.
They also held meetings with teachers and with Light of Christ and Living Sky school divisions. Beck later told the town hall meeting in North Battleford that issues raised in those meetings included mental health challenges among students, as well as concerns about incidents of violence among students within schools.
The main purpose of the meetings and the town hall event was so the NDP could share results of their “Brighter Future” education survey conducted over the summer months.
“We’d been hearing so much about the crisis in Saskatchewan classrooms over the last couple of years that we decided to dig further into it,” said Meili of the survey.
The survey included submissions from over 1,400 people across the province, 40 per cent of them teachers.
Meili and Beck indicated the results painted a grim picture about education in the province. “What we heard was not surprising but still pretty shocking, some of the numbers,” said Meili.
According to their findings, 78 per cent of teachers and 65 per cent of educational assistants were reporting morale had gone down significantly the last couple of years; 42 per cent of teachers were thinking of leaving the profession; there were high numbers of mental health challenges; and a large percentage saying class sizes needed to get under control; 82 per cent supported a cap on class size.
The NDP listed five “takeaways” from that survey: that learning conditions had gotten worse (with 84 per cent of teachers, 77 per cent EAs and 55 per cent of parents saying it has worsened the last three years), that staff morale was suffering, that kids were facing more complex classrooms and fewer supports, that teachers and EAs are burning out, and that classrooms were too crowded.
At the various town halls, “we’ve heard a lot of confirmation of some of the things that we found in the survey,” Beck said
“I think there’s a very strong response by many in the audience that they’re being hurt, that their concerns are being noted. I don’t want to overstate it but I think it was really really telling, in the last town hall for example in Prince Albert. At one time I was looking out at the audience and we had a good crowd out. We saw educators and EAs visibly crying in the audience.”
Beck says teachers are saying they don’t know how much longer they can hold out, with increasing needs for testing and reporting, and decreasing supports. Meili also noted that there have been massive changes in schools in the last five years, with more kids with special needs and mental health struggles, and more kids for whom English is a second language.
“We’ve been criticized for using the word crisis,” said Beck. “I don’t apologize for that, because that is what we have been hearing from people who have been working on the front lines.”
The NDP has also been highly critical of what they consider the failures of the Sask Party government to address the issue.
Beck pointed to one day in the legislature when the minister of education Gord Wyant said the average class size was only 19. “We saw an eruption of response from teachers on social media, emails to our office,” she said.
“Once again we saw the minister get up and say things are fine,” said Meili. “The fact of the matter is the response of the government has been completely clueless and tone deaf as they have tried to respond to people in great stress by saying, ‘oh, no, you’re fine.’”
Beck also noted there was optimism when Premier Scott Moe won the Sask Party leadership that things would change in education. But she noted the Moe government had failed to live up to their pledge during the leadership campaign to hire 400 new EAs.
“Well, here we are with 10,000 additional students in our classroom and fewer than 50 educational assistants hired.”
As for what the NDP plans to do, their intent is to take the survey results and feedback and make education a major part of their platform for the next provincial election.
“We’re looking to be running in an education election in 2020”, said Meili.
“We firmly believe this is one of the top issues. We’ve already made a commitment that under a New Democrat government you won’t see any K to 3 class with more than 24 kids. And you’ll see more in terms of our platform commitments on education coming out of these town halls as we get ready for less than a year from now when people will go to the polls, and we believe this will be one of their top of mind issues.”