By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
The Ford government has shed some light on its plans for changes to the province’s education system.
On Aug. 22, the province released a media statement promising “unprecedented” parent consultation into Ontario’s education curriculum, including sex ed and health.
Starting in September, the government says it will engage in “province-wide” public consultations, including an online survey, telephone town halls, and a submission platform that will contain detailed proposals from “interested individuals and groups” for consideration by the Ministry of Education.
The government also released its revised interim sex ed and health curriculum that will be taught to students only in Grades 1 through Grade 8.
It appears the lessons for secondary school students will not change.
Shortly after taking office, the Conservatives announced they would be scrapping the curriculum developed by the Kathleen Wynne-led Liberal government in 2015.
Minister of Education Lisa Thompson said students would be taught the curriculum used from 1998 to 2015.
The decision was met with mixed results.
Supporters said the 2015 curriculum featured topics too mature for younger students, while critics said a rollback would ignore the realities faced by youth in 2018.
Leading up to last week’s announcements, teachers’ unions, as well as some school boards and opposition MPPs, decried the lack of information that had been shared up to that point.
Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) president Sam Hammond said changing sex ed for younger students would “limit teachers’ ability to meet the needs of students.”
“The government is being disingenuous in that the sex ed portion of the 2014 Health and Physical Education Curriculum is actually the 1998 version,” Hammond stated in a media release. “That means students will be put at risk, receiving no information on sexting, consent and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) relationships and identity which are protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code.”
The news the interim curriculum would only be taught to elementary school students came as a surprise to Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF).
“To all appearances, the changes don’t encompass secondary schools at all. I would have been very happy if anyone at the Ministry had contacted us to tell us that,” Bischof told The Oshawa Express.
With that said, Bischof says the current government seems to be making “educational policy decision-making on the fly”, and more changes could come.
“We are still far from certainty,” he says.
Bischof believes it is too early to tell what impact on teaching a two-decade old curriculum to students through Grade 8, and the more modern lessons to teenagers, will be.
“We haven’t had a chance to do any analysis of the curriculum changes. It’s hard to come to any firm thoughts about it.”
Oshawa NDP MPP Jennifer French shares the cynical view of the new curriculum.
“It doesn’t seem to be motivated by the health and wellness of our students,” French says. “It seems to be agenda driven for the special interest groups who drove Doug Ford’s campaign.”
According to the PCs, they will also consult with parents on improving standardized testing and student performance in STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) disciplines.
Discussions will also focus on preparing students for careers in skilled trades and coding, and steps to ban cellphone use in the classroom.
In a released statement, Premier Doug Ford said his government had kept its promise of the largest parental consultation in the province’s history.
“We promised to deliver an education system that puts the rights of parents first while getting back to the basics when it comes to teaching fundamental subjects like math,” Ford stated.
Again, French was weary of the government’s motivations.
“I have concerns that this will be fair consultation. It seems to be a rigged process to take us back in time,” she says.
Oshawa’s representative in Queen’s Park concedes her cynicism is motivated “by what we’ve been seeing from this government.”
“I believe Premier Doug Ford is undermining the education system,” she says.
Bischof says his members have no “objection to a government doing a careful, considerate consultation.”
However, he says he has concerns about whether the voices of educators will be heard alongside those of parents.
“I fully support the idea of parental input. But they aren’t delivering the curriculum.”
The province has launched a website, fortheparents.ca, where parents can share concerns regarding “the curriculum currently being to taught in [their] child’s classroom.”
Hammond was swift in denouncing this as a government-funded “snitch site.”
“Teachers, education professionals and principals have regular communication and relationships with parents and students that have worked well. Having a Ministry of Education ‘snitch line’ that bypasses the systems already in place to deal with issues at the school level will prohibit parents and educators from addressing classroom concerns constructively,” Hammond said.
He claimed the website is no different than “anonymous portals and comment threads” on social media, which he called “toxic” and “counterproductive”, especially in a school culture.
The ETFO head said while consultation is important, it requires balance from “education experts in the field and research on successful practices.”
In addition, Hammond accused the Ford government of “misrepresenting what is actually happening in public schools and manufacturing a crisis instead of examining real issues like an education funding formula that is underfunding schools.”
The premier appeared to warn that anyone who may refuse to teach updated curriculum would face consequences.
“We expect our teachers, principals and school board officials to fulfill their obligations to parents and children when it comes to what our students learn in the classroom,” Ford said in the media release. “We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games. And, make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act.”
The Ministry of Education also plans to draft a parents’ bill of rights, something Bischof called “distressing.”
“Parents already have rights in a number of ways. It is spelled out in the Education Act,” he notes. “This sounds more confrontational and purative in the way it is being presented.”