Nova Scotia

Enrolment at N.S. schools on the rise after falling for 50 years

It's a sea change for the province, where enrolment has steadily dropped from over since the early 1970s. But record immigration and migration in recent years is driving a rebound.

Increasing number of students putting pressure on teaching, support resources

Nova Scotia's public school system is seeing an increase in enrolment, reversing a decades-long trend of decline. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The number of students at public schools in Nova Scotia is on the rise following decades of declining enrolment as the province has welcomed a record number of immigrants and seen a substantial increase in Canadians from other parts of the country moving to the province.

New figures released by the Education Department show enrolment increased this fall at every regional centre for education in the province. 

It's a sea change for the province, where enrolment has steadily dropped from over 200,000 in the early 1970s due to Nova Scotia's aging population, migration to other provinces and a declining birth rate. 

In most districts, the increase from fall 2021 to this fall was in the range of one per cent to three per cent — and the provincial bump was 3.2 per cent, from 125,124 students to 129,121.

Immigration, interprovincial migration

Jeremy Brown, the executive director of the Nova Scotia Education Common Services Bureau, said the enrolment jump over the past couple of years is likely due to people moving to Nova Scotia from other parts of Canada, an increase in immigration and an influx of refugees from Ukraine and Syria.

Between 2011 and 2016, Nova Scotia's population grew by just 0.2 per cent. Between 2016 and 2021, it grew by 5.2 per cent. 

The biggest enrolment jump by percentage was in the Tri-County Regional Centre for Education in the southwest part of the province, which experienced a 6.1 per cent increase from last fall to this fall. The student population at the South Shore Regional Centre for Education grew by 4.2 per cent, and the Halifax district saw a four per cent increase.

The growing student population has created challenges, Brown said, particularly with finding enough teachers. The Education Department is taking steps to hire more teachers, including by recruiting as a province rather than each regional centre for education doing its own recruitment.

"So we're going out and marketing Nova Scotia and saying Nova Scotia is a great place to live, it's a great place to work and please come to Nova Scotia," Brown said. 

"It's more of a collective effort now. Like, there's a lot more sharing and realizing we don't need to compete against each other. We just need to support each other, and any teachers we can bring into Nova Scotia, it benefits all of us."

The Education Department has shifted its teacher recruitment strategy to a more centralized approach for the whole province. Previously, each regional centre for education recruited separately. (Nova Scotia Department of Education)

The department has participated in virtual job fairs to share information about teaching in Nova Scotia and to screen candidates.

"Then we kind of play a matchmaker and say, hey, we found some applicants in Ontario. They'd like to teach here, here and here."

The department is also working with other government departments, such as Health, Immigration and Tourism, to benefit from their experiences with recruitment.

50 years of declining enrolment

The number of students across the province bottomed out around 118,000 between 2015 and 2017, but started climbing again in 2018. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic briefly dampened the growth in fall 2020, but since then, figures have been steadily growing.

The turnaround is somewhat surprising after 50 years of falling enrolment. The plummeting number of pupils over the years prompted school closures across the province, budget cuts, and the reduction of teaching and other staff.

Bass River Elementary School in Colchester County closed in June 2013, part of a trend of closures due to declining enrolment across the province. The school had just 20 students when it was shuttered.

Ryan Lutes, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union, says the current increase in enrolment is exacerbating problems that already existed before the influx of students, including a shortage of teaching staff.

"Even pre-COVID, without this kind of large increase, there were schools in the province that really struggled with the availability of substitute teachers," Lutes said. "Anecdotally we're hearing that, you know, schools are struggling more so this year than last year with that problem."

In addition to the shortage of teachers, there are also not enough guidance counsellors, speech language pathologists, and school psychologists, Lutes said.

And that's a problem, given that part of the enrolment increase is driven by immigration and the arrival of refugees, who often need support services. 

"You might have languages challenges, but you probably also have lived through trauma that you, or I, can't even fathom about understanding," Lutes said.

"I think for the most part most teachers would tell you that the supports aren't in place or not to the extent they should be."

Ryan Lutes is president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Dave Jones, the executive director of the Annapolis Valley Regional Centre for Education, said so far, schools in that area have been able to accommodate the extra students. That district saw an increase of nearly three percent.

"We have space in our schools. It's not a situation where our schools are bursting and all of a sudden, we don't have space," he said. "Every once in a while we have to add a class here or there in September if there's more students that arrive that we weren't expecting, and certainly that's happened this year."

Jones said the increase this year can be attributed to the return of students who began homeschooling when the COVID-19 pandemic began. He said new families moving to the area from other parts of Canada, as well as internationally, are also contributing to the rise.

International students who choose to get their education in Nova Scotia have also returned after a lull in the early pandemic, Jones said.

At the Chignecto-Central Regional Centre for Education in the northern part of the province, the return of international students accounted for about 40 per cent of its increase this fall. That district saw a bump of 1.8 per cent. The number of international students this fall was 164, compared with just 16 last year. 

The Strait Regional Centre for Education saw an increase of 2.7 per cent, enrolment at the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education rose by 1.4 per cent, and the figure at the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial rose by 1.3 per cent.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Frances Willick is a journalist with CBC Nova Scotia. Please contact her with feedback, story ideas or tips at frances.willick@cbc.ca

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