If you ask B.C.'s 41,000 striking teachers what the most important issues are in the ongoing contract dispute, many will tell you it's class size and composition.

“In the old days we use to care about the individual students more,” says Peter Hill, an education instructor at UBC and a high school teacher at University Hill Secondary.

“You can't do that if you're cut to the bone. You have to teach to this great mass of kids in front of you.”

BC class composition

24 per cent of B.C. classes have four or more special needs students. (CBC)

Hill and his colleagues say they’re teaching increasing numbers of students who are English Language Learners, formerly known as ESL, or who have special needs. These needs range from learning and mental health challenges to physical disabilities

“If you have two or three, that’s do-able,” says Hill.

But four or five students with special needs in a class is more likely, he says, adding some elementary school teachers have nine or ten of these students in their classroom. 

Government seeking efficiencies

But the provincial government is painting a different picture. The Ministry of Education says about 10 per cent of B.C. students have special needs. Another 11 per cent are ELLs.

BC student needs (1)

More than 21 per cent of B.C. students are classed as either special needs or English language learning. (CBC)

However, their numbers are averaged from across the province so they don't necessarily reflect what teachers are facing in individual classrooms

The ministry admits that 24 per cent of classrooms have four or more students with special needs — a figure that doesn't include ELLs.

But they say it’s more efficient to group them together with an educational assistant — also known as a teacher’s aide — who provides extra help to students in regular instruction, career programs, aboriginal education, and special education.  

The government says there are 9,374 educational assistants (counting full-time equivalents) — an increase of 60 per cent compared with 2005/06.

But the BCTF also points out the number of specialist teachers — a group including teacher-librarians, counsellors, special education teachers, English language learning teachers, and Aboriginal education teachers — has decreased by 20 per cent between 2001 and 2012.

According to the BCTF, approximately five per cent of classes have more than 30 students.

But the ministry says it’s less than two per cent, or 1,067 classes overall, an 88 per cent drop from 2005/06.

Further it says two-thirds of these students are in subjects like band, drama and gym where larger numbers are beneficial and intentional.

Where is the money?

Another discrepancy between the two sides is the cost of funding class size and composition. The union and the government’s estimates are $500 million apart.

“Let's get the numbers nailed down,” says BCPSEA chief negotiator Peter Cameron. He says that If the two parties can’t agree, they should go to a third-party to get the exact figures. 

Even if the numbers do get nailed down, there's still a debate over whether the money should be spent. The government says it just can't afford what teachers want.

Teachers point out that when government illegally stripped their right to bargain on this issue a decade ago, they started saving around $300 million a year, and kids deserve to have some of that put back into the system.

Class composition fast facts