Sudbury

Class size struggle—the question at the centre of the teacher strikes

One of the issues at the centre of the labour unrest in Ontario schools is how many kids are allowed in each class and how many teachers the province needs on the payroll.

Increase in class sizes could be especially tough on northern Ontario schools

A striking English public elementary teacher in Sudbury holds a sign proclaiming the class size she faces every day on the job. (Erik White/CBC )

Striking teachers march past Chantal Rancourt carrying signs that read "Class Size Matters."

The Sudbury elementary unit president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association certainly agrees.

"If you talk to any teacher, they're not going to say 'I'm doing this so my friends can have a job' they're going to say 'I'm doing this because it's what my students need," Rancourt says.

The province's plan to increase class sizes would mean thousands of teaching positions cut over the next few years and deliver a big blow to union revenues.

Chantal Rancourt is the Sudbury elementary president for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association. (Erik White/CBC )

But Rancourt says her members are really worried the kind of education they can deliver with more students to teach. 

"Class sizes aren't so much what have changed over the years, but it's the dynamics of the students. We have children of all abilities in the classroom. They have social and emotional issues sometimes," she says. 

"So then when you also increase the class size over and above that and take away supports for vulnerable students the whole thing is just a recipe for disaster."

The Progressive Conservative government is looking to increase the average class size for Grades 4 to 8 from 23 to 24 and had proposed to hike the average for high school classes from 22 to 28, but has said during the two months of labour unrest that it would be willing to settle for 25.

"Even at 25, we will have to continue to get really creative," says Lesleigh Dye, the director of education for District School Board Ontario North East.

Dye says average class sizes across her board are 23.42 for Grade 4 to 8 and closer to 18 for secondary school.

She says hitting the average class size in a school board that covers a broad region is tough, when you consider that there are over 500 students at a high school in Timmins and only 20 at the English public secondary school in Hearst.  

Teachers unions argue that they are worried about increasing class sizes due to its affect on the quality of education, not on the thousands of teacher positions that would be cut. (Erik White/CBC )

"We have made some really tough choices around do we decrease the central office budget so that we can actually run a plumbing course or a specialized writer's craft course in grade 11 or 12 English so that our students we can keep their passion and their interest alive," says Dye.

The Conseil Scolaire Catholique du Nouvel-Ontario also sees a big range in average secondary school classes, with just over 6 in Espanola to over 17 at College Notre Dame in Sudbury. 

The Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board faces similar challenges, with the Grade 4 to 8 class size average currently at the provincial max of 24.

"It's not tough to to comply with that. That's just part of what we do," says director of education Rose Burton-Spahn. 

"And we have a budget as well to balance. So it's a combination of these things and ensuring that our students are served as best as we possibly can."

Academics disagree on how important class size is to the quality of education children receive. (Erik White/CBC)

The Rainbow District School Board refused to provide any information on its average class sizes "given the current provincial labour situation."

There has been a lot of research done on how important class size is to the quality of education a student receives, but there is no consensus on what that research tells us.

"It is tough to say 'Here's the magic number,'" says Nina Brascia, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

"New governments tend to tinker with education as a way of being able to claim that they're putting their stamp on things and education is an easy target for that."

She helped draft a policy for the Liberal government in the early 2000s that saw average class size maximums shrink and set a cap on how many students could be in any one class.

But Derek Allison, a professor emeritus in the education department at the University of Western Ontario and a senior research fellow at the Fraser Institute, says class size doesn't matter as much as some believe.

He says it's more important in earlier grades, but by the time you get to high school, he says testing results show provinces with larger classes such as Alberta and Quebec regularly score better than Ontario. 

"The most important factor and this applies at all grade levels but most particularly in high schools is teacher efficacy. So we're talking about the difference between good teachers and not so good teachers," says Allison.  

"Would you rather have your kids in a class with fewer students or with an outstanding teacher?

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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