Nova Scotia

'Best intentions' not enough to fix inclusive education, says commission

An interim report on Nova Scotia's inclusive education system doesn't have specific solutions, but it does say the system needs a full redesign.

Interim report on special education in Nova Scotia calls for complete redesign of the system

Monica Williams (left), Dr. Sarah Shea and Adela Njie make up the independent commission reviewing inclusive education in Nova Scotia. (CBC)

The commission tasked with reviewing inclusive education in the province isn't ready to make detailed recommendations yet, but its members have reached at least one conclusion — the system needs a major overhaul.

"Best intentions and good faith can only carry you so far," said Dr. Sarah Shea, the commission's chair and a professor in the pediatrics department of Dalhousie University.

"While there are unquestionably countless success stories under the current model, students have had mixed experiences with inclusive education and many parents have expressed concern that their children's needs are not being satisfactorily met."

Adequate funding a top priority

Shea, along with fellow commission members Adela Njie and Monica Williams, presented their interim findings Thursday in a report that included 15 recommendations. 

They said the inclusion model needs a full redesign and when their final report comes in March, it will include a new provincial model, definition and policy for inclusive education.

Challenges and shortcomings noted in the report include inadequate resources, increasingly complex classrooms, new teachers unprepared to deal with the scope of challenges they face and a lack of consistency in policies and how they are applied from one school board to the next.

Ensuring there is adequate funding would take "top priority in a new model," commission members said, but that doesn't mean they would be advocating for a blank cheque or to simply throw more money at the situation. It could be a case of finding better ways to use the existing $150 million that goes toward special education.

The commission, along with a council examining classroom conditions, was created as part of Bill 75, which imposed a contract on public school teachers earlier this year.

No interim fixes

Education Minister Zach Churchill said the interim report is the first step in "transformative changes" to the education system. Churchill said the government would find the money to act on the final recommendations, if more funding is what's required.

Commission members were up front that a price tag or firm recommendations won't be coming ahead of the final report.

The issue is too big and too complex to rush, and doing so would be a disservice to students, said Njie, who has taught at the elementary, junior high and high school levels in Nova Scotia.

Churchill agreed.

"We are looking at taking a model that has created several challenges and changing that," he said. 

"So we're going to take the time to do that right and we're going to wait for this report to provide its final recommendations to us with an implementation plan that's costed out."

Working with universities

Education Department officials have already begun reaching out to all universities in Nova Scotia with education programs to work with them to ensure future teachers are getting the training they need to be sufficiently prepared for the classroom.

The next step for the commission will be extensive public consultation, beginning some time this fall.

Ally Garber, a board member with Autism Nova Scotia who has a son with special needs, said so far she has great faith is what she's seeing and hearing from the women on the commission.

Garber said she's cautiously optimistic about how the government is approaching this, but said the final test will be whether the necessary resources are put toward implementing the final report.

About the Author

Michael Gorman is a reporter in Nova Scotia whose coverage areas include Province House, rural communities, and health care. Contact him with story ideas at michael.gorman@cbc.ca