Nova Scotia's education reform experience holds lessons for Manitoba, experts say
Changes could be 'a real step forward' for Manitoba, says Halifax education consultant
Parents wondering how a major overhaul of Manitoba's education system will affect their children's schools have a real-world example to look to in Nova Scotia, which abolished elected school boards and created school-level advisory councils after a 2018 review.
While that mirrors in some ways what Manitoba has proposed in its Education Modernization Act, one Nova Scotia education expert says there are some significant differences between the two provinces.
"What's been proposed in Manitoba is a far superior version of school community governance," said Paul Bennett, director of the Schoolhouse Institute, an independent educational consulting practice based in Halifax.
On Monday, Manitoba revealed details of the new legislation, based on its review of the kindergarten to Grade 12 education system. The overhaul proposed in the Education Modernization Act includes replacing Manitoba's 37 English-language school divisions with one provincial education authority, and creating local community school councils to advise individual schools.
The province hired Avis Glaze, the consultant who advised the Nova Scotia government on its reforms, to lead its review.
Bennett has criticized the approach Nova Scotia has taken to reforming its education system following Glaze's review there. Nova Scotia kept too much of the old system, with regional bureaucracies similar to school boards and directors who have many of the same powers as the former superintendents, Bennett says.
Nova Scotia's system also does not give enough authority to the local school councils, he says.
Manitoba's model runs closer to what Glaze proposed in Nova Scotia in 2018 by eliminating the bureaucratic structures of the school boards, Bennett said.
"It's much more explicit. It defines the roles of school councils differently."
'No one's missed the school boards': prof
Bennett is not alone in his criticism of how Nova Scotia has implemented its education reforms.
Robert Berard, an education professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, says the old school board system had become dysfunctional and outlived its purpose.
"A lot of people say ... do people miss school boards? And the answer has to be, quite honestly, no. No one's missed the school boards," he said.
Even so, he says parent voices are missing. When Nova Scotia ousted trustees, the province vowed to give school advisory councils a bigger say. Berard says that hasn't happened.
"I think the people who feel the most isolated by all of this are parents," he said. "They may go and sit on a school advisory council, and most of them that I've talked to … are so frustrated that they quit after a year or so and become disengaged," he said.
Others have criticized Nova Scotia's new school advisory councils for not being as transparent and accountable as the school boards.
A CBC News analysis of 333 Nova Scotia school websites between Nov. 19 and 23 of last year found only a quarter of schools had recent minutes, agendas or meeting dates for their advisory councils posted online.
The majority of advisory council sections on school websites were blank or more than a calendar year out of date.
One former Cape Breton trustee says parents don't know where to turn.
"I would get calls like, 'My child is being bullied,'" Sandra Margettie said of her time as a trustee.
Parents called with problems that "wouldn't be big to the board office," but were "big to that person that called me," she said.
Now, parents have "nobody to call unless they call the board office, and the board office can't give them an answer."
Focus on students: former trustee
Manitoba's government says one of the reasons these proposed changes are necessary is because the province's students consistently rank among the lowest in Canada in basic academic skills like reading and math.
Laura Reimer, a former school board trustee who teaches at the University of Manitoba's law school, sees the province's plan as a step toward shifting the focus back to students.
"We need to focus on numeracy and literacy," she said.
"I think we're finally seeing it as an effort to support students, support teachers, allow educators to be what they are, create an appropriate avenue for community engagement and community involvement."
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Whether the changes in Nova Scotia have actually improved outcomes for students is difficult to tell, especially with the impacts of COVID-19 on the last school year.
Bennett said the province scrapped its standardized testing last year.
Whether the new model improves on the old system in Manitoba will depend on "whether it genuinely does delegate responsibility and authority to the schools, and whether it is a move to build from the schools up with a new form of accountability," he said.
"If that's the case, it's a real step forward and a positive one for all Manitobans."
With files from Ian Froese, Jessica Piché and Brittany Wentzell