Rural municipal councils are rarely bold, even less so when it is at the county level. That’s why it was refreshing to see SDG Counties council roundly support a report they had commissioned that called for fundamental change to Ontario’s education system.
The report, named the Improving Rural Education Report, calls out the many inequities in the province’s publicly-funded education system, chief among them the competition between school boards for students that is undermining rural education.
Issues concerning education are not new. Five years ago this community rallied behind two schools facing closure. Those schools were saved, but to what end?
In the five years since, high school enrolment has been flat locally with families choosing other schools for a variety of reasons, all included in this SDG report.
The first recommendation of 10 in this county report will be controversial – merge school systems on the basis of language.
Our education system has the religious duality as a protection set up in the 1860s to protect the Catholic minority in Ontario. A similar protection was put in place in Quebec to protect its Protestant minority, or at least it was until 25 years ago when that province reformed its school system. But 154 years later, is it not time to reform how we look at education, or to at least have the conversation?
Our school system is derived from the time of settlers to Upper Canada in the 1820s. It has evolved, but the roots are still nearly 200 years old. Times change.
Calling for the merging of the two English and two French school systems into just one English and one French system is bold for a county-level government. Will this call bring about change? Perhaps. This is an election year and while parties try to not touch the electrified third-rail of education politics while also out earning votes, 2022 may be different.
Ontario students are now in their third year of pandemic schooling. It is not just the impact of physical distancing measures, lack of activities and sports, or “COVID safety” that may bring new perspectives and interest into the school system. We have an connectivity problem in Ontario for rural schools and homes. There is an issue with transportation and distance to schools. And there is an issue with equity. Certain schools have more access than others to what kids need. Because of this, certain schools and students do better. This is the exact opposite goal of a public education system where the playing field is level and there are set standards for all. The pandemic has only widened the gulf between “have” and “have not”. A bold move, like SDGs to attempt to bring about real reform or to at least have the conversation about it, is better than the status quo.
Ontario’s education system is broken and families have to try to navigate it. Until there is a level playing field in programming and opportunities for students across the province, the system will remain broken.
All families do their best to pick what they believe is the right option for their kids at the time. It is clear, especially when seeing declines in rural schools, that it is time to take this to the next level and look at what can be done to make the system better for the next 200 years. Will merging school systems be an improvement? Possibly. How will we know without at least having the conversation?