Education minister welcomes inclusion report, warns change could take time

A report on inclusive education in Nova Scotia calls for major funding increases, hiring more staff and policy changes to improve how students with special needs are supported in the classroom.

Report says new spending could reach $80M annually, recommends more specialists in schools

The inclusion policy requires the province to make sure students with special needs are given support to succeed in a regular classroom setting. (Robert Short/CBC)

A report on inclusive education in Nova Scotia is calling for major funding increases, hiring more staff and policy changes to improve how students with special needs are supported in the classroom.

Released Monday, the report lays out a five-year plan to implement all the recommendations, which include improved training for teachers and support workers, more specialists, and improved co-operation with the departments of Education, Health, Community Services and Justice.

It remains to be seen how committed the Nova Scotia government and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union are to making the recommendations a reality, with the education minister admitting Monday that some will be hard to implement.

Nova Scotia's inclusion policy requires the province to make sure students with special needs are given support to succeed in a regular classroom setting.

It's been 20 years since the program has been reviewed, and the commission behind Monday's report is calling for an updated framework and policy for inclusion. But because some students cannot wait any longer for help, the report's immediate priorities include hiring more psychologists, behaviour support teachers and school nurses.

In total, there's a call to add 600 to 700 more funded professionals to support students.

Commission members Adela Njie, from left, Monica Williams and Dr. Sarah Shea said it's now up to the government and Nova Scotia Teachers Union to make the recommendations reality. (CBC)

Education Minister Zach Churchill said the government is "fully committed to the broad-based objects" of the report, but noted implementing it would require working with the teachers union.

He also said it would be a challenge meeting the initial timelines of bringing in more specialized staff.

"There aren't those folks in the system right now. In Atlantic Canada there's actually a deficit in those specialist positions."

That means working with post-secondary institutions to produce more graduates, he said.

NSTU supports the report

The other challenge is some of the proposed changes, such as pay incentives for teachers and specialists to go to rural areas, would require opening up the teachers' professional agreement.

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Liette Doucet said the report includes many items teachers have been asking for for years, and she hopes the government makes the financial commitment required to make the recommendations a reality.

"Teachers can't do it all. They've been trying their best and they've been asking for support. The government at this point needs to make the commitment to provide those supports."

Helping those who need it most first

The report said 80 to 90 per cent of students get what they need to succeed from the general classroom. Five to 10 per cent need more targeted help, and one to eight per cent need more intensive, individual interventions.

It's that latter group where the biggest gaps exist, and where the commission is focusing its first steps.

"We can't have a system that doesn't meet student needs. That's not providing equity," said commission chair Dr.  Sarah Shea.

Right now there are about 27,000 students in Nova Scotia with some kind of adaptation, and about 6,000 on independent programs.

A call for new training programs

Part of improving services means hiring many more specialists and assistants. The commission said new training programs should be created at the Nova Scotia Community College for communication-disorder assistants (a new role that would work with speech pathologists) and uniform provincial training for teacher assistants and continuing education.

There's a call for more professional development for classroom teachers who want to become specialists, and more training in general for those in education programs to prepare them for complex classrooms.

The report said offering more competitive wages and creating more pathways that lead to full-time jobs should help with filling the need.

Individual programs for students would be revamped to reduce paperwork for teachers and better involve students and their families. 

A major financial commitment

The commission estimates about a third of the province's 118,000 students need some form of support.

It estimates implementing all recommendations over five years will see costs rise incrementally, with the province spending $70 million to $80 million annually on the work by the final year. That would represent about seven per cent of the overall education budget.

Shea acknowledged it's a big step, but that's why it's phased in over five years.

"It will succeed as long as people are open to it and able to carry it forward. It's the right of students to have a good education. No one can argue with that and this really does support everyone."

The report calls the $15-million increase in the 2018-19 budget "a very good start" and about what will be required to cover the transitions in the first year of the plan.

Making a less rigid system

One of the key changes the report calls for is a move toward needs-based funding as opposed to enrolment-based funding, and ensuring services are available to students when and where they need them.

Commission member Adela Njie, a veteran classroom teacher, said some kids struggle so much they can't even leave their homes. They're being asked to come to school and follow the same program as everyone else and it's not meeting their needs.

"I can't leave my house and you're asking me to do math," she said. "There are numerous examples of students who today are not able to be successful because we have a rigid program. What are the long-term ramifications for society that we are not able to create opportunities for everyone to be successful?"

Touching on that rigid approach, commission member Monica Williams highlighted the call to create life-skills classes for students with intellectual challenges, and create more pathways to graduating high school.

"Right now, for all students, they have to have 18 credits to graduate. It's the same credits for everyone regardless of their needs," Williams said. "We're saying to step back, revisit that, provide different pathways."

The commission said an audit should be ordered early into the transition to get a sense of the true costs and ensure there's a shift toward a needs-based funding model. An independent body called the Nova Scotia Institute of Inclusive Education is recommended for oversight.

Language is key

Allison Garber, a mother of a son with autism and a member of Autism Nova Scotia's Board, said the report presents an opportunity for a huge change if the government and Nova Scotia Teachers Union can find a way to make it all work.

Garber said how changes are rolled out and the language used will be important because some parents of students with special needs worry about a loss of services. She also worries the money proposed to cover the cost of the changes might not be enough.

"We're looking at a major overhaul of the system and I guess time will tell whether they've allocated enough funds."