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'Our education system is very rigorous': Minister defends Nunavut's schools

Nunavut’s Education Minister is defending the territory's inclusive education — a policy that aims to meet students' special learning needs — after Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) called it a 'national embarrassment.'

'We certainly recognize that we need more resources, and...with this budget we are providing those'

'I think we have to acknowledge our graduates are graduating with the same standard we would see anywhere in Canada,' says Education Minister Paul Quassa. (Oo Kierstead/CBC)

Nunavut's Education Minister is defending the territory's inclusive education — a policy that aims to meet students' special learning needs — after Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) called it a "national embarrassment" due to a "grossly inadequate" level of available services, in a submission to the GN earlier this month.

The comments came just as the Nunavut government was wrapping up consultations on proposed changes to the Education Act. The reforms follow a 2015 review that led to some dramatic recommendations.

This is not the first time the GN has heard concerns around Inclusive Education in the territory. A 2013 Auditor General's report concluded that the Department of Education was not equipped to adequately deliver the type of differentiated learning the policy necessitated, and that teachers were overwhelmed and struggling to meet the needs of their students.

Specifically, it found that Individualize Student Support Plans (ISSPs), a tool the GN uses to assess student's needs, were not always being completed or followed, and some students were not getting the "specified services and support" they need.

It recommended the GN provide more training on differentiated instruction and related ongoing assessment to all Nunavut teachers and student support assistants. A 2014 independent review of inclusive education also recommended the Nunavut government hire more student support staff within the Department of Education.

More resources coming

"We certainly recognize that we need more resources, and therefore with this budget we are providing those resources," said Paul Quassa.

The department recently created eight new positions to help students with additional learning needs, and allocated new money in the 2016/2017 budget to fund them.

Four of those positions — which include a behaviour and emotional learning co-ordinator, a counselling and development co-ordinator, a director of student achievement and a student support co-ordinator — will be based at the Department of Education in Iqaluit.

The other four positions will be stationed throughout the territory.

"There will be regional support managers in our offices in Kugluktuk, Baker Lake, and Pond Inlet, and another student support consultant to be located in Pond Inlet," said Quassa.

According to Quassa, the regional support managers will help determine what schools and students need additional support the most, and allocate existing resources accordingly. They will also help ensure students are being assessed, and those assessments are being followed through on. In addition to those tasks, they will help the government develop a standardized support program for the schools in their region, as well as provide training.

The department is in the process of trying to staff all eight of the positions. 

While Quassa acknowledged there is always more that can be done when it comes to getting students support, he said "this is going to be the first time where we have adequate persons to ensure we are carrying out our responsibilities under inclusive education."

Quassa said hiring more specialists qualified to work with children with mental and physical disabilities — something NTI is specifically calling for — is not in the government's current plans.

Students board a school bus at Nakasuk Elementary School in Iqaluit. Education Minister Paul Quassa says he wants to see parents take a more active role when it comes to making sure children are going to school on a daily basis, studying and doing a lot of reading. (The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)

Standardizing the system

The government is hoping to improve inclusive education by transferring the responsibility for it from District Education Authorities — which it says are overburdened — to principals and government staff.

But NTI has said that's the wrong approach, arguing that "DEA members know the children, their histories and their needs, often far better than the principal [or department] does."

Quassa stressed that, right now, those are "just recommendations, and before the Education Act becomes law, it might be the other way around."

However, he said standardizing things such as student assessment tools and ISSPs will make delivering inclusive education more efficient, and that "centralizing how it's [administered]" will make that process easier. 

Graduates meeting Canadian standards, says minister

Quassa refuted concerns being raised by many in Nunavut around the practice of social promotion, or what education officials call "continuous progress," which allows students to move up a grade even when they haven't mastered the previous grade's skills. 

In its submission to the government NTI said "socially promoted students experience serious problems with the material at around Grade 10 and drop out/are pushed out between Grades 10 and 12." 

The organization also said those students who do manage to make it through high school "graduate without the skills they need to function in many employment situations."

But Quassa disagreed.

"Our education system is very rigorous, and I believe that it is working because I go to graduations in almost every community, and I see those Grade 12 [students] graduating with very high marks.

"I think we have to acknowledge our graduates are graduating with the same standard we would see anywhere in Canada."

However, he "believes there is a lot of work [the GN] still needs to do," particularly when it comes to getting "parents more involved in the school system."

He wants to see parents take a more active role when it comes to making sure children "are going to school on a daily basis...studying as much as they should, and doing a lot of reading.

"That's one way of ensuring our students are getting the full benefits we can deliver through our our education system."

The department is currently reviewing proposed changes to its 2008 Education Act, including public feedback.

MLAs are expected to review the proposed legislation in February. If passed, the government will start implementing changes in 2017.

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