HALIFAX, THURSDAY, OCTOBER 5, 2017
COMMITTEE OF THE WHOLE ON SUPPLY
Mr. Chuck Porter
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. I will now call the Committee of the Whole on Supply to order.
The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. KEITH IRVING: Mr. Chairman, would you please call Resolution E5.
Resolution E5 - Resolved, that a sum not exceeding $1,317,657,000 be granted to the Lieutenant Governor to defray expenses in respect of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, pursuant to the Estimate.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
HON. ZACH CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, I’m very happy to be here, my first time doing estimates in the Chamber. (Applause) I wouldn’t clap yet.
I’m pleased to be here today as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development. I’m proud to speak about the government’s commitment and investments this year in education in the early years. This commitment builds on the legacy of the former Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, now Minister of Finance and Treasury Board, whose lifelong dedication to education includes being a teacher, principal, and minister - more than once, I might add.
Actually, the first time I met the former Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, I was a student advocate, and it was the last time I was actually in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. I went in to lobby the minister then. I have known her then, to now, to be someone who is absolutely committed to the well-being of our students. That is shown in the investments that she has made as minister, the teachers that she has hired, and the supports she has brought in for our students. I think her legacy speaks for itself.
Before I begin, I would like to introduce the people with me today. We have Sandra McKenzie, who is the deputy minister of the department; and David Potter, director of financial services.
I want to particularly acknowledge Sandra today, as she will retire in the new year after more than 30 years in the civil service. Our Premier has recently said that Sandra demonstrates the best of our civil service, upon which she has left such a positive mark, and I want to echo those comments. I think it is important to note that Sandra’s career began as an administrative assistant in the Public Service here in Nova Scotia. The fact that she was able to rise up the ranks through our civil service and achieve a prominent position in government as deputy minister of the second largest department to cap off her career is a testament to her work ethic, and her ability to persevere over any odds that are in front of her, and I think Sandra McKenzie serves as an inspiration to all public servants, for what they can achieve, and how they can achieve the very best in the system. I do want to thank her for that as well.
Sandra and David will both assist me in answering your questions today. If there are questions that we cannot answer, we are committed to providing you the best information we have available, in a timely manner. As Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, and the MLA for Yarmouth, I am very proud of this year’s budget and what it means for children and students in our province.
The 2017-18 budget invests in opportunities for growth and reinforces government’s commitment to building an inclusive, innovative, entrepreneurial province, where everyone has the opportunity to succeed. We believe it all starts with our children and our youth. Our government is investing an additional $38 million in early childhood development, and public education. This brings our total budget for 2017-18 to more than $1.3 billion, for the education system.
School board funding is increasing this year by $27 million across the province. To state another way, our funding, per student, has increased by more than 15 per cent since 2013-14 when our government took office. This budget highlights the importance of our early years. We are investing in this area to support our children, their families, and those who care for and teach them.
I’m excited to highlight the new pre-Primary program being offered to families for the first time this Fall. The first phase of this program will see what was 52, but because of demand in our communities we now know there’s going to be 53 pre-Primary sites in the areas of greatest need in our province. Those are opening up in 45 locations, and we know pre-Primary will help our children.
Research shows this very clearly, that early learning is beneficial in many ways. Educational play-based programs improve social, health, and emotional outcomes for our children. These benefits will last a lifetime. Don’t just take my word for it, ask one of the parents of the 818-plus students who will have enrolled in this program this year; parents like Mercedes Boutilier, who said: Every person I see, I’m telling about the pre-Primary program, and how it will be so beneficial for their child.
In communities across the province, families are gaining access to free pre-Primary for four-year-olds, and pre-Primary is providing an option for families who would otherwise not have access to an early years program or regulated child care. In some communities, child care programs simply don’t exist, and many families still struggle with the cost of care in communities where it is offered. I will note that we do invest heavily into the child care sector, particularly to ensure that these programs are as affordable as possible to families, and there is support there in each community that these are available in, but we still have financial barriers and geographical barriers in place for parents and students to access this.
That’s why our government currently invests over $53 million in the child care sector in the form of grants and subsidies, and we have capped parent fees to make child care affordable. In addition, government made changes to the subsidy program so that eligible families pay less, and the gap between the subsidy and the cost of care has narrowed over the course of our government.
Investment in early learning are investments in our future, and I think I speak on behalf of every member of this House of Assembly when I say that. I believe all members share a commitment to ensure children have the best start, and giving them access to early learning opportunities that they otherwise might miss is critical to that.
That’s well worth the $4.5 million new investment this budget contains for pre- Primary education. We are also integrating our Early Years Centres and other four-year- old programs already offered by some school boards into the pre-Primary program model, for an overall investment of $6 million.
This is a commitment to our youngest Nova Scotians. It will start them on the road to success by giving them an early start and helping them transition into the school system. It will also help identify children who may need additional supports once they start school. It is important to ensure equal opportunity for our children who deserve a solid foundation. I am looking forward to year four, when pre-Primary will be available to all families in our province - that’s a day that all of us on the government side are anxiously awaiting.
I want to thank our partners, including the school boards who have supported the introduction of free pre-Primary, and the early childhood educators who are making this a reality for our kids. I also want to thank our partners in the child care sector. They understandably have many questions about the pre-Primary program, and I do welcome those questions as we work together in supporting early childhood development for our youngest Nova Scotians.
This budget continues to invest in the commitments in the child care report, Affordable, Quality Child Care: A Great Place to Grow!, a five-year action plan launched by our department in 2016. To make child care more affordable, we increased the child care subsidy for eligible families last year. That meant parents receiving the maximum subsidy could save about $140 a month for infant care, and $80 a month for toddler and pre-school care. We also made more families eligible for maximum subsidy, Mr. Chairman. The maximum subsidy is now available to families who earn up to $25,000 per year, and that is up from $20,880 from previous years.
We are also increasing our funding to regulate child care centres by $5 million to cover costs associated with the implementation of the new wage floor for early childhood educators. We look forward to continuing to work with our child care centres on priorities within the action plan, such as increasing spaces for infant care. That is part of what we will be discussing with child care centres as we consult them on pre-Primary, in addition to wraparound services which will support working parents who have their children in a pre-Primary program. Finally, we are in the midst of negotiations with our federal partners for early learning and child care funding that will greatly benefit Nova Scotian families and the strategic growth of the child care sector.
In June, the provincial and territorial ministers responsible for early learning and child care signed a multilateral framework with the Minister of Employment and Social Development Canada which highlights our shared priorities of affordability, accessibility and flexibility, high quality, and inclusion. These shared priorities support the work outlined in our action plan and funding will be leveraged to continue to move our commitments forward. Significant investments are also being made in public education, investments that will benefit students and teachers.
As you will recall, $65 million was slashed by the previous NDP Government from classrooms across the province, and we have committed to putting that money back in, and as I mentioned earlier, that work continues to build on significant accomplishments made by Minister Casey. She was responsible for making good on that commitment to the province’s students to reinstate the $65 million that was cut by the previous government in order to purchase labour peace - and that is a key difference between our Party and the Party opposite.
More than 9,000 teachers work in our schools each day, and they instruct and support more than 118,000 students. We are very fortunate to have high-quality teachers in our province. Their collective knowledge and commitment is impressive. I’m sure each one of us can bring to mind a teacher whose advice and example was inspirational to us and helped us through our earlier journeys in life.
We are listening to our teachers through the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. The council is the first in our province and this is important because it is the first time teachers have actually been empowered to direct policy development and direct the allocation of resources for our education system, and it’s taking real action to reflect the perspective of teachers, parents, and students.
The Council to Improve Classroom Conditions has a budget of $20 million over two years to address issues in the classroom, and thanks to this funding school boards have hired almost 140 new teachers this year alone. Students, teachers, and parents share many priorities including smaller class sizes. Last year, we implemented class caps in Grades 5 and 6, meaning smaller classes are fully in place from Primary to Grade 6.
Now, the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions wants to build on that success. The council is dedicating $2.9 million to extend class caps to Grade 7, Grade 9, and that means adding 49 new teachers. Council has allocated $3 million to bring class caps to Grade 10 through to Grade 12 which added an additional 50 teachers. Council is also committing $2.4 million to hire 40 junior high teachers to help math and literacy teachers with the most complex classrooms. The council and the department partner to provide 40 schools with $50,000 each to address classroom priorities this school year. School boards identified the 40 inspiring schools and teachers, and principals came up with plans to how to put the money to use.
Cabot Education Centre in northern Cape Breton is using part of its money to hire a substitute teacher to work with students who need extra help in math and literacy; Chebucto Heights Elementary School in Halifax is investing in materials for the classroom libraries as well as iPads and LCD projectors; and, close to my home in Yarmouth, our central school has hired a behavioural support teacher to assist with student behavioural issues and attendance. We continue to provide new, significant investments in both math and literacy. Reading Recovery will be implemented in 73 new schools this year, with nearly 40 more Reading Recovery positions being created in our system.
There will also be 30 math interventionists, benefiting both students and teachers who serve them. Parents of our 118,000 students want to know what supports are available. We are continuing to work closely with our partners in Justice, Health and Wellness, Community Services, the Commission on Inclusive Education, and the school boards. Together we are working to ensure that students have a welcoming, safe, and inclusive learning environment.
We heard from parents, teachers, and administrators that we are not meeting the needs of all of our learners in this province and that our model of inclusion does need to change. We agree with that. For the first time in 20 years, we are having an open, frank conversation about the model of inclusion that’s been implemented in Nova Scotia, and we know it has been a challenge, implemented the way that it has - it has created challenges for teachers and students in our classrooms. The Commission on Inclusive Education was expressly established to address these concerns.
We welcome the Commission on Inclusive Education. Their interim report, which was tabled in June, looked at everything from resources and policies to teacher training and program planning for students. I thank them for their hard work so far, and we are actively working to respond to all of their recommendations and requests for information. I am pleased that the commission is committed to speaking with stakeholders this Fall. It’s important that all perspectives, and all those impacted by any future recommendations, are considered.
The solution to inclusive education can’t come exclusively from Education and Early Childhood Development, or even from government. I hope we can see this as an opportunity to come together in the best interests of all those in the classroom.
For example, I recently met with representatives from Autism Nova Scotia to hear their ideas and concerns. It was a positive meeting. They are eager to work with the commission, consulting and sharing views on a new model for inclusive education in Nova Scotia. Work on a new model for inclusive education is under way, but it will take some time. We look forward to the commission’s final report, which will be issued in March.
The department has also supported refugees from around the world by investing $250,000 into five schools for English as an additional language.
We recognize that mental health and emotional health are as important as our physical health in our schools. Strengthening our supports for youth mental health is a priority for this government. There have been significant developments with mental health supports in recent years; at the same time, of course, continuous improvement is critical.
As our children and their learning environment evolve, so too must the tools we use to support them. We are focusing on prevention by teaching children how to handle their emotions from an early age. Social and emotional learning programs are known to decrease aggression, bullying, and mental health issues in our kids. While we can’t control all methods of bullying, when it involves social media outside of school, we can help our children learn helpful techniques to become more resilient and manage those challenges.
Students struggling with issues can turn to guidance counsellors, who are on the front lines of our schools. Other school staff are learning more about mental health literacy by participating in Go-To training. School boards are continuing to offer this training in the coming year.
Earlier this year we committed to invest $4.4 million to expand the successful SchoolsPlus program to all public schools by 2019. This will mean 51 new mental health clinicians, community outreach workers, facilitators, and social workers in our education system.
This does not mean the work is done, of course, but these are positive steps in the right direction.
Finally, I would like to say a few things about our upcoming administrative review. It’s been a long time since we took a broad look at our administrative structures in our system of education. This is part of government’s platform commitment. We want to be sure that our processes best support the needs of our students in their classrooms and their communities. This, along with the work of our Council to Improve Classroom Conditions and the work of the Commission on Inclusive Education, will help us identify where there are opportunities for changes and improvement for the benefit of our children, our youth, and our teachers.
Pending the results of the school review, the school boards have been advised to pause all school-review processes that do not involve a facility replacement and to ensure that no new reviews are initiated until the administrative review is complete. The administrative review process is getting started now. A consultant will be hired to complete the administrative review by the end of the year. Government will begin taking immediate action once the results of the review have been received.
Education is and will continue to be a priority of this government. We’ve made it clear that education is not just a line in the budget. It is our future, which we take very seriously.
In closing, I would like to thank my deputy and the department staff for attending this committee, and I do look forward to the questions from the members opposite.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Just before we move on and I recognize the next speaker, I want to remind all members and ministers that it is not appropriate to recognize members or ministers by their first or last name, but by their department or the constituency they represent. Thank you.
And now for the PC caucus, the honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MR. TIM HALMAN: To echo the minister’s remarks regarding the deputy minister, I would like to thank the deputy minister for her service to Nova Scotia, for her service to our kids in this province while - and it must be emphasized I am often at times opposed to some of the policies that might have been implemented in our province in education - I want to thank you for all that you have done. I want to thank you for your service.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development was a guest speaker in my classroom in Dartmouth East. Here we are years later and we find ourselves, I am an MLA and he is the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
I want to wish the minister first off, all the best in his role as Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development. I know that we are very much united when it comes to the well-being of our students and our desire to set students up for the best learning experience possible.
It was not that long ago I sat up in that gallery and watched events unfold between the government of our province and our public school teachers. During that period of time you have an opportunity to reflect and try to understand what really is going on here, what has brought us to this point in our education system.
For many years, educators in our province felt that there was a growing gap, a growing misunderstanding between those who develop policy and those who have to execute that policy on the ground. That is not specific to education. I think if you talk to nurses they often feel the same way. In many respects, looking back at the teachers’ dispute, that was years of frustration that was growing on the part of teachers in our province.
Mr. Chairman, my first question to minister is, given the events of the last few months, which I do recognize it is important that we move forward, what steps is the minister taking and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development taking in order to repair the strained relationship between teachers and the government?
MR. CHURCHILL: I do appreciate the question. There is no doubt about it, we went through a very difficult negotiation with the Teachers Union and with other unions in the province and that resulted in a situation that I think was unfortunate.
Could we have avoided it? I don’t know because there is competing perspectives on the situation during the labour dispute. The easiest thing you can do in those situations is to say yes, the easiest thing governments can do in those situations is say yes, write the cheque and be done with it. But, unfortunately, that is not always the right thing to do, you know sometimes you have to say no and the reasons for that are manyfold.
We have fiduciary obligation not just to current citizens of this province but to future generations as well and when you consider a few facts, that the greatest single cost to government and to the taxpayer are the costs of these collective agreements - that is not to say that it is a bad thing, that is just the reality of the situation.
Fifty-two cents on every dollar that is collected in taxes is paid out, based on whatever the results are of these collective agreements. When you’re looking at a looming provincial debt of $15 billion for which we are paying $850 million a year to service, that is twice as much as the Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Department’s budget. Imagine if we could reduce our debt, reduce that interest payment, and have that money to invest in services and programs and other things that are important to Nova Scotians.
When you are considering the fact that we also have growing pressures on our system - our health care system with an aging population, our complex classrooms that do need further investments, the needs of those who benefit from our Community Services programs, there is an incredible amount of pressure on the system so governments have to make very difficult decisions during these times.
Our government has taken the position that for a workforce that is valued - we do value the workforce, they’re important, we can’t do our service delivery without them - when you consider the fact that the workforce is making, on average, more than 60 per cent of the people in the province, 60 per cent of the taxpayers, it creates a different perspective on the situation - a broader perspective that we have to take. So that has led to government being very strict on how we spend our money.
I’ve heard the members opposite suggest that we have a singular obsessive focus on balanced budgets, but those are not objectives of and to themselves. We balance our budget so we’re not putting the debt burden on my children and the children of every single member in this House, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren. We’re still paying for the debts of previous governments’ decisions. Thankfully I think we have a Premier who has the courage and backbone to say “no” when no is required and to provide what he believes is the fairest option possible to move forward.
That obviously will create tension during a labour negotiation or a dispute, because from the individual perspective - and I understand this - every single person who knows they’re providing a valuable service to the province that part of them feeling valued is what they get paid. That’s the same for all of us; that’s consistent for all people. So, on the individual basis, which I think impacts the motivations of a union, I understand where that comes from and I appreciate it, and I appreciate that when you’re not getting what you’re looking for that can create certain negative feelings.
We have to have a broader perspective as government; we have to look generations out in our decision making because it matters. We have to do that - all of us. It just leads to these inevitable situations of conflict, which I do believe are unfortunate and perhaps unavoidable, considering the different perspectives that we have.
The situation with teachers I think was also exacerbated by a number of conditions that they’ve been forced to deal with over the years that have become problematic for them, and executing on their responsibilities to just teach our kids. Teachers just want to teach. I have the great privilege of growing up in the community I did and to benefit from the guidance and learning opportunities that really great teachers provided me. They’re not all happy with me, I’ll tell you right now, but I have a deep respect for them and what they do.
We do have to tackle those root causes of those frustrations in the classroom - the root causes of the challenges that teachers are facing when it comes to teaching. We’re doing that in a number of ways.
I think the elephant in the room for a long time that nobody was willing to speak about was the model of inclusive education. We have created a very complex classroom that has created a lot of pressures on the teacher and on other students, and I think we can all agree it is not yielding the best results that we can for all of our kids and students.
For the first time in 20 years, we’re going to take on that challenge. We’re going to have a look at that system of inclusion and change it so that it makes more sense from a common-sense perspective and is actually providing each of those children from those with special needs to those that are the highest performing with what they need.
We do have some great people doing that work on behalf of us. Sarah Shea, who is a medical doctor and professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Dalhousie, formerly served as a physician leader of clinical neuroscience and eye care teams, and is the head of the Division of Developmental Pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre. Dr. Shea has also served in an advisory capacity with Autism Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Provincial Early Years Partnership, the Nova Scotia Early Intensive Intervention Services project, and the Alstrom Society.
We also have Monica Williams, who has a master’s degree in speech language pathology and educational administration, and is completing a doctorate in educational leadership with research on leadership for inclusion. She has experience as a classroom teacher and administrator, and has worked as an elementary reading specialist, a resource teacher, an itinerant teacher of the visually impaired, and clinical speech language pathologist. Ms. Williams previously served as an executive director with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development as well.
We also have Adela Njie, who has a master’s degree in education, French immersion cohort, and is currently employed in the Faculty of Education at St. F.X. She has a master’s degree in curriculum and resource, and is completing a master’s in educational leadership and administration with St. Francis Xavier University. She has taught both English and French at the elementary, junior high, and high school levels in this province. She has experience as a classroom teacher, resource teacher, and student services consultant. She previously served as an executive staff officer with the Teachers Union.
I think we have very capable people who bring a lot of credibility to this process. We are putting a lot of faith in them to help us achieve some transformative changes in our classrooms that will improve what I think has been the elephant in the room, and has been one of the greatest challenges that teachers have had to face. You look at some of the situations in those classrooms, and you can see why teachers are frustrated and upset, because in many situations they are given an impossible hand in order to give every student in that classroom what they need.
We are also, as I mentioned in my opening comments, for the first time in our history in this province, empowering teachers. We’re bringing them in in the form of a council - they have a budget and they are directing policy in a number of areas that are important to their peers.
The number-one focus is attendance. We have released an attendance policy. I’m very happy that that is now being implemented in every school in the province from one region to the next. I look forward to more work coming forward from those folks as well. We have to recognize that actually having the teachers’ voices at the table and involved in resource allocation and policy development will go a long way.
We also want to make sure that we’re utilizing all of our resources to the best of our ability. There are a lot of strains on the system, a lot of pressure. In a lot of circumstances, it is difficult to keep up with some of the developing needs that are out there amongst our children. We want to make sure that, from an administrative standpoint, we have the most efficient, clean, and cost-effective administrative model possible so that we can ensure that all resources in our system - the scarce resources that we have - are being allocated in a way that’s going to have the greatest benefit for our kids.
I know this has been a challenging issue; I recognize that. I know it wasn’t easy for anybody involved with it. I do think actions speak louder than words, Mr. Chairman, and that is why we are moving forward with these concrete actions, steps, and investments that I have outlined today.
MR. HALMAN: I appreciate the minister’s response. It’s often said that in any organization the culture and the mood often emanates from the person in charge. In my years in the classroom, I learned very early on that you set the tone; you set the climate. Often a student’s day is determined by the mood that you are in.
Within that spirit, Mr. Chairman, I want to ask the minister, what is his pedagogy? What is your view of education? What are the priorities that you are bringing? It’s going to flow from you, and I’m curious to find out what your views of education are - how do you define education, and where are you taking us for the next four years?
The things you have outlined, the majority of that was set up by your predecessor. Teachers, parents, and guardians, I think they want to know, what’s your vision for education in Nova Scotia?
MR. CHURCHILL: I appreciate the question. The vision that we have for our education system is that we provide our children with the learning opportunities and skills they need to be successful throughout their academic career and their whole lives. That is the vision; that’s what we need to achieve. And that vision is, in some respects, not being fully executed in some ways because there are some long-standing challenges in our system.
In order to achieve that, I think what I’d like to do is actually continue on with the legacy of the previous Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development. You know, I am stepping into very big shoes for someone who has served the education sector for their entire life, and that is humbling to step into those shoes, without question, but I know that that minister has created a lot of good initiatives and I will be moving forward with those as well.
A big focus of ours for this mandate in our government, if we are going to ensure our kids are getting the best they can out of our education system, early learning is a must; early learning is essential. We have a situation in Nova Scotia where the majority of our kids aren’t accessing these new learning opportunities that we know can have a critical impact in a number of ways on their lives, so that is a major focus, ensuring that early learning is made available for all Nova Scotians.
You know, we’ve discussed this previously in the House. Right now, only one in four of our kids who are preschool aged are accessing critical early learning initiatives and programming, and I know that a number of ECEs who are working in the private sector in this regard are concerned about this program, and I understand why. You know, we’re bringing a new, free, universal program that will impact their business model when it comes to four-year-olds. You know, that’s true.
We have to be honest about that, but what we can’t accept is the status quo of one in four of our kids accessing these, and there is a capacity issue in the private sector to do this which is why we’re looking at doing it through our schools, because all communities have access to our schools. That infrastructure is already there and there is just a host of literature, of research, of data that is guiding our actions in this regard - we know that the pre-Primary program is going to help kids reduce their level of anxiety; we know it’s linked to positive cognitive results that are life-lasting; we know that it’s tied to positive emotional development and transitioning into the social environment of an academic school; and we know that it’ll help us screen for special needs earlier to make sure that kids in a year in advance are getting to EIBI or the supports that they need before they get into the school system. It will help us better prepare for those kids.
This is a foundational element of our education system that has been missing for far too long, and I know that every early childhood educator in this province does know the impact that they can personally have on the lives of each child that they are able to touch and that’s why we need to expand this so it’s far-reaching and that is key to my personal opinions on this system. I think this is part of the solution. I know there are other challenges, and we’re tackling those too, but we can’t leave this critical component out of the conversation.
MR. HALMAN: Certainly, Mr. Minister, we’ll be getting to that critical component that you refer to very soon. I do agree with you, minister, that the purpose of education is to harness and hone and socialize the necessary skills to be successful and, minister, as you know, in a holistic way, and that means a lot of different things in terms of social skills, emotional skills, cognitive, kinesthetic, and in schools we, of course, our curriculum, our PSP, you know, attempts to maximize that through our specific curriculum outcomes and our general curriculum outcomes.
Skills to be successful, I think that’s good, but as I mentioned in my opening remarks, in the last decade we’ve seen that growing gap between the intentions of a policy and the execution of a policy. Allow me to illustrate. When I started my career in 2005, deadlines, I wouldn't say they were ironclad but deadlines were at the discretion of the classroom teacher. However, a few years into my teaching career, it was mandated throughout our school boards that teachers in our province have to provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate the outcomes, which, I believe, most teachers were in support of, provided of course that that teacher had the autonomy to make that decision whether or not to give that student a third or fourth opportunity to show that they’ve mastered the necessary outcome or the necessary skills.
What’s happened is that that intended policy has translated to where deadlines have become mere suggestions, where in some of our public schools you see a culture of the work package. If you have listened to our teachers, that’s one of the points in which they showed that if we want to improve our education system, we need to return to some of the basics that relate back to human nature. Human nature, being what it is, we all need structure and we all need deadlines.
My question is, for skills to be successful, would you not agree that the enforcement of deadlines in a reasonable manner is something that should be fostered and encouraged in our education system, and would you commit to reviewing how the policy of demonstrating the outcomes for multiple opportunities, would you be open to reviewing that policy and looking at how it has been executed in our schools?
MR. CHURCHILL: A very important point, and a very important question. The commitment has already been made to tackle the assessment and evaluation issues that the member has mentioned; in fact, that is the second priority of the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions.
The first, of course, was attendance. We’ve heard that teachers felt powerless in terms of enforcing and encouraging attendance in the classroom. I’m very proud of the policy that we’ve brought forward that empowers teachers to have some tools in their toolkit to make sure kids are there, and so students know that there are consequences if you don’t show up to school.
Now that, of course, does not mean that if there are extenuating circumstances, God forbid, illness, or valuable extracurricular activities, that those students will be punished either. There’s plenty of room in this policy that will allow students to develop educational plans if they are going to be missing school for an extended period of time, because we just care about making sure their educational needs are met.
For the students who are having a hard time at home, have situations that we can all empathize with, there are going to be interventionists who will tackle this issue at an early age, to identify why students aren’t showing up to school and make sure they’re linked to the proper supports in place to help them overcome whatever the obstacles are, to get them back to class.
This policy is not intended to be punitive. For the chronic skippers, the students who just think they don’t need to show up and there are no consequences, this policy will allow teachers to withhold credits, if that’s the case. For students who just need a bit of help, a bit of support, and whether that support comes from the education system or Community Services, or the Justice Department, or the Health and Wellness Department, those supports are going to be there in a coordinated fashion.
This is all about empowering teachers in the classroom. That was priority one, attendance; priority two is assessment and evaluation. I agree with the member. When I passed things in late, I really had to do some good talking to get out of losing points, and I was pretty good at that, back in the day, you might believe it or not. There was always an expectation, I know, I think with most of us who grew up in the education system that deadlines meant something and you had to get your work in on time. I think those are important life lessons that we need to teach our students, because there are deadlines in real life, and if we allow our students to develop habits that aren’t helpful later on in life, then we’re letting them down. Our habits matter; they probably matter more than anything else that happens to us at an early age.
Assessment evaluation is focus number two for the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. I know that they’re really motivated to take on that challenge, and provide a reasonable policy that I think will make sense to everybody, that will help ensure we’re doing our best for our kids, and help ensure they are developing the best habits possible that will serve them well throughout the course of their academic careers and lives.
I do want to take a moment to recognize the folks on the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. They have done a really good job for us. They met over the summer, on their vacation for the teachers who are in this group, and I just know that they are very, very motivated and energized to do this work. They have been excellent partners.
We have Sean Barker, who is an elementary schoolteacher from the Strait; Mélanie Belliveau, an elementary schoolteacher from the CSAP; Cheryl Bourque-Wells, who is a junior high teacher in my area, the Tri- Counties; Michael Cosgrove, who is a high school teacher in the Halifax board; Jennifer Field, who is a junior high teacher in Chignecto; Reagan O’Hara, a high school teacher from the Annapolis Valley; Kerri Lynn Power, who is a high school teacher from the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board; Cheyanne Tolliver, who is an elementary schoolteacher from HRM; Pamela Doyle, who is a guidance counsellor; Amy MacKinnon is a parent; Myles Fox, a Grade 10 student who has a really bright future ahead of him, if my assessment of him is correct; and of course, we have a representative from the department, Deputy McKenzie; and a representative from the union, Executive Director Joan Ling.
This group has been working harmoniously to tackle these challenges and I really look forward to them bringing a policy for approval and implementation on assessment and evaluation.
MR. HALMAN: I would like to thank the minister for his response. Certainly, while the council, I don’t doubt, is working very hard to address the issues and to discuss the issues, to collaborate with teachers, as matter of fact, I know some of the teachers on that council, I do have some concerns that we are deferring too much to this. As I bridge back to a point that I made, it often flows from the person in charge. I mean it is great that we are working in a collaborative way; however, I think we have to make sure that we continue that outreach with our public school teachers.
Moving on to a different topic, I spent my career teaching social studies, teaching history, and I know that all MLAs in this Chamber have a great concern with the low voter turnout, specifically in our young people.
I can remember when you were a guest speaker in my classroom; I remember you talking about the importance of youth engagement in our political process. Our curriculum in Nova Scotia, while I recognize it has been adopted by different jurisdictions, different countries around the world, we have often neglected in the last decade the humanities. Whenever a new course was added, it often came at the expense of other courses.
I think a lot of social studies teachers and English teachers feel as though in the last 10 years they have been neglected. As you know, your predecessor proposed a civics course for our province. Your Party proposed that. I was wondering if you can give us an update on that civics course, grade level in which it is being proposed to be taught, and if you could outline the curriculum that plans to be addressed in that civics course.
MR. CHURCHILL: This is an important topic and we are moving forward with a pilot right now. Citizenship 9 is a mandatory course in 21st Century citizenship and I will just read from the description of that course, and I can table this for the member.
Topics for the course include Canadian Government, personal financial management, service learning, and media and digital learning. This pilot is now being executed in seven classrooms across the province as a pilot in - sorry, on seven boards - more classrooms: Forest Heights Community School; North Queens Community School; Riverview Rural High School; Glace Bay High School; Central Kings Rural High School; Bridgetown Regional Community School; Bible Hill Junior High School; North Nova Scotia Education Centre; Truro Junior High School; Richmond Recreation Centre/Academy; Dalbrae Academy; St. Mary’s Bay Academy; Eastern Passage Education Centre; Graham Creighton Junior High School; École Acadienne de Truro; and École du Carrefour. We look forward to seeing what the outcomes of this are.
This is a pilot, so this gives us a chance to evaluate this curriculum to see if it is producing what its intended outcomes are for our kids, and I’d also note that our curriculum is and does need to be something that is continually evolving to meet the needs of an ever-changing society and student body.
We are always looking for opportunities to enhance that curriculum in ways that we know will be beneficial to our children, and civics does need to be a priority. We agree with that and I think the fact that we have this pilot indicates that, but we also need to make sure that the curriculum is focused in areas that we know jobs of today and tomorrow - the skill sets our students are going to need to be in those jobs, we have to make sure we’re focusing in that area too.
A big focus for us has been on literacy and math. We know the majority of jobs that are coming up in the digital age will require a high skill in math and we’ve actually been seeing some positive results. You know, for the first time - again, for the first time - in the history of this department, we actually have a literacy strategy and where we were at the bottom of the pack in terms of literacy outcomes nationally and internationally we are now, just after four years of implementation at the national average and that is an achievement and we don’t think national average is good enough. We’re going to keep pushing until we’re number one, but we have been making positive gains in this regard.
We’ve also brought in coding. You know, for the next generation of coders, this is going to be really important. I don’t even know what it is because I didn’t have this growing up, but we know that these are going to be very important learning opportunities for our kids as they enter into their post-secondary careers or their professional careers but, of course, citizenship and civics are always important because we can lose those fundamentals in civilization or we very well might lose the civilization itself.
MR. HALMAN: Mr. Chairman, I thank the minister for his response. Going back to the civics, I’m curious as to why Grade 9 was selected to introduce this topic. We have seen over the years courses implemented that haven’t always been at the appropriate grade level. By way of example, one of the courses that I always loved to teach and always found was so worthwhile and rich was the Grade 10 Mi’kmaq studies course, which is now Grade 11, but we discovered, those of us teaching the curriculum, that many of the topics that were discussed were often a little too advanced or the timing was off, specifically when we would discuss Native spirituality.
Teachers who were delivering the curriculum discovered that there was a bit of disconnect in the sense that a young person wasn’t necessarily understanding the key messages. Plain and simple, the concepts were too abstract. In my time in the classroom, I learned that - and many teachers have - that timing is everything, and material, it has to be age-appropriate.
Prior to being elected, I spent quite a bit of time teaching Grade 12 political science and, you know, it was a great, great professional experience. I was asked one time by a reporter: why do they get so much out of this class? I said, it’s not complicated; the curriculum is meaningful and it’s timely. Many of them are 17, 18 years old, and the timing is perfect. They’re on the cusp of adulthood; they’re about to vote. The timing is perfect. We would implement authentic learning experiences, Model Parliaments and Model UNs. It worked.
I have some concerns that the civics course being implemented at the Grade 9 level may not be the best timing. I was wondering if you could explain the rationale or justification for inserting - don’t get me wrong, I support civics. I think it’s good on you and good on everyone involved for pushing this. I have some concerns, though, that the timing is not appropriate at that grade level.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable Minister of Health and Wellness.
MR. CHURCHILL: Don’t wish that on me.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Pardon me, minister. I was so used to calling him for 16 hours. Let me correct that - the honourable Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development.
MR. CHURCHILL: Thank you very much. I did break out into a cold sweat there for a moment, Mr. Chairman.
That’s an important question. There was some thought put into which grade level this program would be delivered in. There was a jurisdictional review done across the province which informed the action plan of the government - it said Grade 9 was the best moment in time for this course based on the developmental level of children but, more importantly, because after Grade 9 you have elective courses.
We wanted this to be a mandatory course in the system because - I agree with the member - civics is critical. It is important, and I think it should be mandatory. If we had moved this up to Grade 10, 11, or 12, it would be an elective course, similar to the Mi’kmaq studies the member opposite referenced. That’s an elective course, and we want this to be mandatory so that all students in the province access it.
This was based on evaluation and a jurisdictional scan of the country which is reflected in our action plan for education and made this course, which is important, mandatory for all students. Those are the simple reasons why that was chosen.
MR. HALMAN: Keeping within the context of our social studies curriculum, reiterating the concerns of some parents and guardians and teachers, specifically at the high school level, there has been a concern that there’s a lack of emphasis on social studies. Are there any plans on the part of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to emphasize social studies or the liberal arts more in our curriculum, specifically related to issues pertaining to social justice, economic literacy, and entrepreneurship - what are the plans for the social studies program in our province?
MR. CHURCHILL: The programming in our public schools is currently under review. We have had a focus on literacy and the liberal arts, and social studies is part of that family. That is under review right now. We are happy to take any information from the member opposite, or subject matter experts, to enhance our programming. This always needs to be a continually evolving process so that the needs of our students are being met and so the appropriate balance is being achieved for the various areas of studies that are critical for students’ success and achievement.
MR. HALMAN: I know the minister and I, and all MLAs, are in constant communication with the parents, guardians, and grandparents of our province. I want to shift a little bit now to assessment and evaluation. One of the great concerns parents and guardians have is the complexity of our reporting system. Oftentimes, when report cards are sent home, they’re written in legalese - as someone pointed out to me, it’s very bureaucratic.
It was my understanding at one point that the department was going to review and take a look at the language that’s being used in our report cards. One of the things that I believe is that schools belong to communities; therefore, when we communicate with our parents and guardians we want to communicate clearly, in plain language, how their child is doing.
Is there a plan in place to move towards a more clearer way of communicating with parents? Because, I believe they’ve spoken, and they’ve let the government know over the past few years that this needs to change, that when the report cards go home it’s realistic to be able to read that paragraph of five or six sentences, and get a good sense of how your child’s doing, rather than often going for the dictionary or Googling some words.
MR. CHURCHILL: I didn’t anticipate that the Opposition and the government would be in agreement on so many issues today. I’m thankful for that, because that tells me we are on the right track in a lot of areas, particularly the areas of focus to improve outcomes for kids and classroom conditions for teachers and how we communicate to parents. Those are all critical.
I’m going to go through the list of legislated items that are going to be a priority focus for the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions because I really do believe that a lot of the areas of interest to that member, and areas of interest for, I believe the majority of teachers, are going to be properly addressed through that process. More importantly, from my perspective, is that it’s actually going to be teachers who are directing the policy direction and allocation of resources for all of these things.
I don’t think we could ask for a better group of people to be doing this for us. I just want to go over that. Assessment evaluation is number two on the list, after the attendance policy. Data collection and reporting is on that list, so that is going to be a subject for the council. Feasibility of moving people, evaluation classification, and administrative days immediately prior to report cards, is on that list.
Technology and work processes, including PowerSchool and TIENET, and that process we’ve already begun, actually. Internal Services and Service Nova Scotia have actually come over to the department and are helping us with an Ask the User evaluation, so we’re actually going out and talking about the issues around PowerSchool, TIENET, reporting, and the data that’s actually collected for these programs, with the people that are using it.
Those folks, I believe, deputy, you have been out in the field and having those important conversations right now.
Instead of folks in the department making decisions on these important issues, and then having these new requirements for teachers to execute on, we’re actually going to go ask teachers, how is this working? What can we do better? What do you need from these systems to better improve them and to allow you to focus your time on what’s important, which is teaching our kids? Because the data is, in a lot of ways, important. That is on the agenda - teachers’ scope of practice, planning for student success, the complex classrooms, class sizes at all levels, and student discipline policies are all on this list.
The council has already moved forward with hiring 140 new teachers for class caps, so that now we have class caps from P-12 across the system, and that has opened up some new opportunities for teachers who had been waiting to get full-time employment in the system. That’s very exciting; that actually brings our complement of new hires to approximately 620 new teachers that have been hired in the system since our government took office.
Those are new positions that are now embedded in the system. Those are for class caps for literacy and math specialists, primarily for mental health supports as well. That is all good news. I think a lot of the issues that the member’s talking about, we are in the process of addressing those properly, and we have the right people, who are his peer group, actually doing a lot of this important work for us and helping us set the direction in a way that is going to be beneficial for the people who are going to be using these systems.
MR. HALMAN: Just wait until I get to the implementation of pre-Primary, then you will see some of the key criticisms I have. I am glad that those issues are on the radar because for many, many years they weren’t but that doesn’t really answer the question.
I think parents and guardians need the reassurance to know that when report cards go home, they are going to get a report that uses clear language, so I will ask again, is the department moving in that direction where they will move away from the edu-babble, the jargon, and provide clear reports to parents so that parents and guardians get a good sense of how their child is meeting those outcomes?
Right now, you know, specifically from P-12, often the comments that are used, are generated, is there is lot of copying and pasting going on, on pre-approved comments. I believe teachers want the ability to clearly communicate to parents and guardians, and parents and guardians clearly want to receive communication that is to the point and allows them to fully understand how the child is meeting those outcomes.
MR. CHURCHILL: In order to emphasize that assessment evaluation is a priority for the government, I will refer that member to the legislation where it is embedded in as a priority for that group, the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions to look at and develop a solution to this.
We know it is a challenge, but we are not going to have a top-down approach to this. We are going to actually seek advice and counsel from teachers in the system who are using the system, who have been frustrated with it in some respects, who know the benefits of it in other respects, because they are the focus that can best advise us on how to move forward and so that is a legislated priority and it is the number-two priority of the council.
I don’t have any answer on where the council will go with that today, but I do have full faith in their ability to develop common-sense policies in this regard that will be beneficial to their peers and to parents, and I do trust in them to do that.
We have wise David Potter here who pointed out I made a mistake in my comments around teacher hires. I said with 140 new teachers that were hired from the council’s budget, that brought the number of new teachers up 621; in fact, those 140 are on top of the 621. I’m sure that someone else can help me with the math for that. That brings our numbers to well over 700. I just wanted to clarify this to the House. I did misspeak in that regard.
MR. HALMAN: Assessment evaluation is a critical part of the learning process, and PowerSchool has been a huge part of a teacher’s existence for the last six or seven years. As you know, many of the frustrations in the past few years have emanated from PowerSchool. For those who are not aware, PowerSchool is the way in which we document marks in our public school system - and PowerSchool is live 24/7, marks can be accessed by parents, guardians, and students in real time. I have always had, and my colleagues had, concerns that marks that are posted and then made live are not a clear snapshot on that student’s performance.
I think we all recognize that a summary of how a student is doing in terms of numbers and in terms of a description, there are a lot of factors that go into that. I know many teachers were hoping to have the autonomy to be able to determine themselves when to post those marks live. As a matter of fact, some would say that there is a link between some anxiety we’re seeing with our students and the live nature of the PowerSchool marks. In other words, if a student comes to you and says, look, I just checked PowerSchool and there are all of these zeros in there, often the teacher would have to say, look, give me an opportunity to explain why that’s the case. That would often - sometimes - throw a lesson off or throw that student off for the day. Whereas, if the teacher had the autonomy to determine - maybe every two weeks - when to turn those marks on, the students in their class can get a clear snapshot of how their learning is, how they’re attaining outcomes.
My question is, is the department open to reviewing the live nature of the PowerSchool marks and allowing teachers in our province to have the autonomy to determine when those marks go live on PowerSchool?
MR. CHURCHILL: In fact, we’re so open to that recommendation that it is in the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions report and has been accepted by the minister. I’ll read the item that I think is of interest to the member: “Issue a provincial directive permitting teachers to publish marks less frequently on PowerSchool at their discretion. Allow the school to determine when the in-progress mark is displayed, at least once a month. Develop user guides on in-progress marks and publishing grades to support board project managers, school administrators (and registrars where available) . . .”
We are moving forward in this direction. The report is coming back from the Ask the User group. Again, this is the group from Internal Services and Service Nova Scotia who are assisting the department in going out and discussing these matters with teachers.
In my own constituency, I’ve had various opinions expressed to me about PowerSchool and TIENET. Depending on which grade level the teacher is teaching at, too, I think there’s - the concerns are not uniform. What we need to do is get the greatest aggregate of issues to help inform how we move forward to the best benefit of everybody.
These are the goals of that process with Ask the User. They will be reporting in November. Their goals are to reduce teacher time spent on data entry, to share the workload for administrative tasks beyond teachers, to clarify expectations around PowerSchool and TIENET, and to give teachers resources to make PowerSchool and TIENET easier to use. The intent of all these changes is to get rid of the redundant or erroneous data entry that might be unnecessary in the system and to empower teachers to focus on what’s critically important, which is teaching our children.
That is the lens through which we’re looking at changes in this regard. That is what the Ask the User group is helping us achieve, so that we can have the best-informed way of doing that as we move forward.
MR. HALMAN: TIENET has been a great concern. TIENET is very difficult to use. I believe most educators don’t have an issue with the rationale for TIENET and for communicating individual program plans, but it is sensory overload when one goes to access the TIENET system and enter data for our students on IPPs.
What’s the plan to reform TIENET to make it more user friendly for our public school teachers and for the parents who access that?
MR. CHURCHILL: Again, we’re in the process of tackling those challenges. We do not want to move forward in a way that is going to be burdensome to teachers. We have a mandate to reduce the data entry workload on our teachers and reduce the amount of time that they have to spend on this, while recognizing that certain data is critical to decision making and reporting to parents and the system.
We are expecting a report back from that Ask the User group. Again, that is the group from Internal Services and Service Nova Scotia that is going out and conducting interviews and soliciting feedback from teachers, from the users of these systems, so that we can be best informed of what the broadest consensus is on the challenges and what the broadest consensus is on how to best move forward to address those. That process is ongoing. There will be a report in November, and I very much do look forward to the feedback on that report from the member opposite, considering his experience in the system. As he mentioned, I did get to experience that first-hand as a guest speaker in his class back in 2010 perhaps - or 2011.
We want to make sure this makes sense to everybody. We want this process to be helpful for teachers. We don’t want to take away from their important work of educating our students. Those are our goals, and I think this process is going to help us achieve that and move forward in an informed way, unlike we have ever been able to do before. I expect positive results from this.
MR. HALMAN: We’re going to come back to assessment and evaluation.
Let’s go to the implementation of technology in our curriculum. We know that when technology is implemented in an authentic, meaningful way, it really does enhance the learning experience in our classrooms. We certainly know that the youth of Nova Scotia are very tech-savvy.
We often see in our public schools, from Yarmouth to Sydney, teachers encouraged to emphasize the utilization of technology, to use smart phones in lessons. I have some concerns with that. One of the guiding principles of our education system, as you know, is equality of opportunity - when our kids go to school, they all have equal access to the same resources, the same desks, the same chairs, and so forth, equality of opportunity.
Yet we have had the department, for a number of years, encourage teachers to implement technology and to use technology - in some cases, it’s hit or miss in terms of lesson delivery. I have some concerns that we’re implementing a policy and the necessary resources aren’t there. Let’s use laptops and let’s use phones in the lesson, but sometimes students don’t have those resources. They’re using their own resources when the school should be providing those if we truly believe in the guiding principle of equality of opportunity in our schools.
My question is, what are the plans to enhance the infrastructure at our schools so that we can better facilitate the implementation of technology in our lessons?
MR. CHURCHILL: This is, of course, a topic of great interest and importance. We do want to utilize our technology in a way that is to the benefit of our students.
We actually do have a fund for a technology refresh every year. I believe that fund is approximately $4 million, and that is embedded in the budget to make sure that we’re doing our very best to have the newest technology available for our students.
Of course, this provides us great opportunities to make sure that we’re teaching our students about responsible use of these technologies. We know and have heard about some of the challenges the social media phenomenon creates when it comes to cyberbullying and the ability that these technologies provide for people who would use them in a negative way to harm others. I think making sure we have the most up-to-date technology in our system makes sense from a learning perspective. I also see it as a great opportunity to reinforce notions of responsible use in our students and make sure that they are given the tools to be able to do that on their own and to be resilient and manage situations that are outside of their control when those things happen.
There’s a lot of opportunity here, which is why we invest in this area. This is also an area of focus as legislated for the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. I look forward to any additional recommendations that come from them, or from anybody who has subject matter expertise in this area.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The honourable member for Pictou East with about 30 seconds remaining in this first hour.
MR. HALMAN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is Dartmouth East - you’re not the first, and you won’t be the last to confuse us.
Minister, I appreciate the answer. I want the minister to please keep in mind that in many of our facilities in our public schools, we need to see upgrades to our wi-fi. If we are to encourage our youth to integrate technology in the curriculum, we need to make sure that the appropriate infrastructure is in place.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the PC caucus has expired.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. To begin with I just want to say that I am very honoured to be here asking these questions. I still feel like I’m very new at this. With all of the conversations that we have all had, that I have had with teachers and educators and parents and students, and being a mother myself with three kids in the early childhood and P-12 system, it really is a privilege for me to be this close to the source of knowledge, and I really appreciate it.
In particular, I want to thank both the minister and also most especially the staff for all their hard work, and the deputy minister, whom I haven’t had the chance to meet, but I have only heard wonderful things about - thank you for all of your work, and congratulations on your impending retirement. I think it’s probably congratulations.
I have just a couple of comments to begin. The member for Dartmouth East, given his background, has covered a lot of content around P-12, and we’ll ask a few of those questions, but my questions tend to focus more on the budget and on the plan.
In particular, it won’t be a surprise to the minister, or to anyone watching these proceedings, that I have been very concerned about an overall plan for early childhood education in particular. For P-12, I understand, given the unfortunate events, I would say in my characterization of the last year or two, and the current work of the commission both on inclusive education and classroom conditions, I recognize that that is somewhat in flux. A lot of the questions that I have pertaining to that are going to be about implementation.
In particular, I would say that we are lucky to have a lot of very dedicated teachers and experts in this province who have given a lot of their time and energy to studying and reporting a lot of issues that we have had in our early childhood and childhood education systems. Unfortunately, from where I sit, it seems like a lot of the suggestions either were never implemented or are sitting on a shelf somewhere.
I’m happy that these commissions are going forward. I have faith in their staff and in their work. What I want to ask about is how we know that that implementation will be made. I know the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions comes with a budget. I’m very curious about how we can be sure that the advice of the commission will be implemented.
But I’m not going to start there. That was my introduction. I’ll get to those questions. I want to start with pre-Primary - not just pre-Primary, but early childhood education in general. As I said, my colleague talked about P-12.
My question is about the system of early childhood education. We have heard even just today, Mr. Chairman, through you to the minister, that part of the impetus for this pre-Primary program was how few children take advantage of early learning opportunities in this province. We have heard percentages, and those basically make sense. My question is, why was the decision made to invest specifically in a pre-Primary program in school rather than in some effort to actually expand regulated child care spaces for all of the thousands of other children age zero or six months to five years who don’t have access to that programming?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, very important questions. The reasoning is very simple why we’re looking at housing pre-Primary sites specifically in schools. There is a capacity issue in the private and not-for-profit sector, so right now there’s only space for about 25 per cent of our preschool-age children. In order to expand that - which we are doing actually, it’s part of the action plan for child care - we’ve put $5 million into that in this year’s budget and we’re in negotiations with the federal government for their child care plan, and that will yield more dollars to invest in strategic growth in that sector, so that is happening.
In terms of having the capacity right now to get our kids into these programs, we don’t have the infrastructure for it and so we would have to wait to build that infrastructure and invest in that infrastructure in the private sector and not-for-profit sector in order to do that when, in fact, we do have schools now, which every community has access to. It’s a budgetary issue.
We have the infrastructure in place right now that we can utilize. It’s an accessibility issue. We do not have the physical capacity in the sector to provide for every student in the province and there is also, in the body of research you’ll notice that actually having children do pre-Primary in the learning environment that they’ll be going into the year after actually is very helpful in terms of facilitating that transition, and that is linked to lower levels of anxiety, and that is linked to basically an easier acceptance in terms of what they’re stepping into. There is research, to support having it in schools, that has come out of Ontario. It’s about physical capacity and geographical access and it’s about use of scarce public dollars. It’s more affordable to do it this way.
MS. CHENDER: I have a lot of questions around that. I would suggest that the 818 kids who are in pre-Primary this year, that many of those children might have been, or might have ultimately been, in a regulated child care environment but for the introduction of pre-Primary. It’s great that there’s a $5 million investment in the regulated child care sector, the reason that there aren’t those spaces I would suggest is that there isn’t that investment, so you’re talking about a fraction of an investment into this pre-Primary program into the spectrum of programming for children younger than four. My question is, could that investment in pre-Primary not have been leveraged as an investment into our regulated child care system thereby creating more spots?
I recognize that there wouldn’t be spots for all four-year-olds in the province, but all four-year-olds are not accommodated now. This is a phased program. Based on your initial announcement of space, I’m just having a hard time understanding why that money couldn’t have gone to give the regulated child care centres the funding agreement that they’ve been waiting for as many of them are operating at a deficit, to allow them to expand and offer programming to more children in the province and to let more parents do things like enter the workforce which, frankly, is difficult to do without wraparound care for this pre-Primary program and, instead, put it into schools.
MR. CHURCHILL: These things are happening in tandem, so we are investing every year in the child care sector which is different than the previous government. I know that that member was not a member of that government - I congratulate you on that, but when you look at what the previous government invested in child care was just over $56 million, we are now up - and, actually, the investment in the previous government was cut by about $1.5 million to child care - we are now up to over $74 million, and so that has gone into capacity building, that has gone into reducing the rates for low-income families, and that has gone into subsidizing the wages of our early childhood educators and increasing those wages for the first time in a very long time to make them more competitive, because they’re valuable positions for our kids and their future.
Those investments in the child care sector are happening in tandem to a pre- Primary program. We could not achieve expedited access to pre-Primary if we focus the next four years on spending a lot of money on infrastructure and building that physical capacity from one end of the province to the other. There is a 75 per cent gap in terms of service. That’s a capacity issue. There is only capacity in that sector to accommodate 25 per cent of the bodies, so that’s a challenge.
Instead of engaging in a major - even greater investment or subsidy effort to build that physical capacity in the sector, it’s much more affordable from a taxpayer’s perspective and government perspective to do that in infrastructure that we already have in place, that is already accessible in every single community in our province.
This is a phased program, as the member mentioned. The focus for Phase I is in areas where these services aren’t being provided or where families aren’t accessing these services, so for Phase I the focus was primarily on the areas of need. That was intentional and deliberate because we wanted to avoid conflict with the private sector. I do believe that we have for the most part achieved that. The fact that we have only heard from - I believe out of 384 providers in the province, we’ve only heard from three. That’s the last number I heard that were impacted from staffing issues. That’s an achievement.
That gives us time to work out the situation with them because we have a vested interest in that sector. We need them; we need them to succeed to provide the full breadth of early childhood care that we need to have for families in the province. I do think there are market opportunities for that sector with wraparound care. We need to work with them on that. I believe there are opportunities to grow that sector and we need it to grow.
There is going to be continued investments as there are in this budget, as there have been in past Liberal budgets to grow that sector. The negotiations with the federal government are actually going to put more dollars on the table for us to achieve that.
These things are happening in tandem and it’s important that they happen in tandem because we do need a healthy child care sector that is available to more families, and that’s affordable to them. That’s critical, but we also need a free pre-Primary program that we know is going to have a lasting impact on the lives of a lot of our kids, particularly those who are the most vulnerable amongst them. Having that program be free is important from an accessibility standpoint, and having that program be available for every single community is critical as well, and having our schools in place from a physical capacity standpoint helps us achieve that - plus we know it makes the transition easier from the pre-Primary to the academic learning environment.
I really do believe that the rationale is good on this; this is good public policy. We’re moving forward in a thoughtful way that has mitigating impacts to the sector at this point. This is giving us some time, while we make sure a whole new cohort of kids who needed these services get access to them, and it gives us time to work out the transitionary challenges that we are going to have in that sector, but we are committed to doing that.
The consultation that we are moving forward with, which will begin by the end of the month, will be a meaningful one, I think. The feedback we’ve had on the model of consultation on the questions that we’re asking has been good from the sector, but we do need them to have confidence in it. We need participation for it to be good.
I know everything is political here and it’s easy to attack that consultation because of its timing, but I really want people to believe in it and participate in it so that we can produce the most meaningful results possible, because we’re also going to be going to parents, we’re going to be going to families, and we’re going to ask them what they need to help identify the demand out there that families have for the child care sector, and that will help us focus our spending in the right ways that will help them grow and provide what they need for our families.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, again, a lot of questions coming out of that. You used the word “tandem” a bunch of times, but what I heard in terms of numbers is $5 million, $50 million-ish, so that’s sort of like the hare and the tortoise who don’t often run in tandem - one runs way faster than the other. I guess I’ll just leave that particular line of questioning by asking, what is the plan?
Mr. Chairman, through you to the minister, I’ll just say, which I’ve said in this House before, that I was in the position as someone with a career of looking for regulated child care for three one-year-olds in the space of 18 months. I was able to secure that care, I believe mostly because of my socio-economic status because I knew that I had to get my children on the list in utero, because I knew that I had to call back every two weeks, that I needed to bring the daycare director cookies - all the things that I needed to do in order to be a productive member of the workforce because, frankly, without that care, I could not have done that.
Now, luckily, I’ve had a varied career so my seniority wasn’t impacted, but I would suggest, Mr. Chairman, and through you to the minister, that for women who are trying to build a career for themselves, if we continue with the system where we have uneven and expensive access to early childhood care, that it continues to be an uneven playing field, quite frankly, because we know that women often bear the majority of the child care duties, or at least the responsibility for arranging child care and when those spaces don’t exist, it has a direct impact, and even the pre-Primary, which now ends at 2:30 p.m., I would suggest at least for now - I understand there’s wraparound care coming maybe - it has that same impact.
My question coming out of all that is, what is the plan to expand affordable, regulated child care spaces for children under 3.8 years old?
MR. CHURCHILL: Just to go back to the member’s comments on numbers, I do think there needs to be some clarification for the House. The $50 million that the member referenced is what the cost of the universal, free pre-Primary program will be after Phase IV, so after full implementation of this program. That is to fund sites that will grant universal access, free access.
That budget this year is approximately $6 million to implement the 53 spaces that we currently are moving forward with, so we have a $6 million investment that’s opening up 53 new spaces and we have a $5 million investment for the private, not-for-profit child care sector. I hope the member can see that there is a balance in terms of where these investment dollars are going.
Overall, when you look at the global numbers, assuming full completion of pre- Primary, it’s $50 million. What we’re paying now to subsidize a sector that is providing supports for 25 per cent of the student population, that number is actually higher than what the pre-Primary cost is going to be at its full implementation.
Right now, we’re investing $53 million into the private, not-for-profit child care sector, so that’s supporting them and there’s only capacity to take on 25 per cent of eligible students in the province. If you look at pre-Primary, $50 million is actually going to grant universal access to four-year-olds. There is a numerical argument to be made here in favour of pre-Primary, and the fact that it’s going to be free for parents, I think, addresses many of the issues that the member has brought up in terms of accessibility.
There are financial barriers for families to get into these programs. We are subsidizing it to bring those levels down to the best of our ability, but still the hundreds of dollars that it costs every week, every month for these families does matter to them. We don’t want finances to be a barrier for our families, particularly families that might have children in the most vulnerable situations and will benefit the most from this program.
This is about addressing that very issue that the member has brought up, and having a free universal program that we know, based on the evidence, is going to be beneficial to them we really do believe is the best way to do this, no matter from what angle you are looking at this.
That does not mean we are not going to keep working on growing the child care sector, we have a vested interest in them - a vested interest. There are a lot of public dollars that go into them because we know it’s for the public good; we know we need them; we want to grow them; we want to grow their capacity; and we are committed to doing that. It is in the action plan for the child care sector.
We are negotiating with the federal government who, thankfully, this is a priority for as well, to have additional dollars that we can put into that system to help them grow and to make sure that they are meeting the needs of our families - and listen, I recognize that having a new free universal program for four-year-olds is understandably creating anxiety in this sector; I completely understand that. I am very empathetic and sympathetic to that fact.
What I do want them to know is that we are going to work with them. I do believe there is a lot a room for partnership here for wraparound care for the earlier years. And we are committed to forging ahead with a true partnership with that sector so that we are all achieving what I think our goal is, sector and government, to make sure that more kids are accessing these programs, because we know its important.
I do look forward to completing those negotiations with the federal government so we have a better understanding of the dollar figure we are going to be looking at from them, but I know that would be a great benefit for the sector here in the province.
MS. CHENDER: I will ask my question again, what is the plan for expanding the regulated child care system for children under 3.8 years old?
MR. CHURCHILL: I do have some information on the specific area of focus for the federal government and for us. This has already been negotiated, although we don’t have a finalized dollar figure in terms of where the money will go, but this is where investments will be going; this is where the focus will be.
The action plan, for the member’s information, is: to grow child care in communities that need it most; government-funded growth must occur where child care is lacking; and funding will only be approved for new centres or family home daycares in communities with demonstrated need. So, growing the scenarios where we don’t have these services currently - and there is a big gap right now in terms of which communities have access to these and which ones don’t.
To improve supports for children with special needs; to develop and implement a new early learning curriculum for child care centres and regulated family home daycare providers; to introduce new standards and competency based assessments to assess and recognize professionals with relevant post-secondary training to work in regulated child care; to raise training standards to require all early childhood educators entering the regulated child care profession have a degree, diploma, certificate, or other recognition through competency based assessment; and to develop a new funding model for regulated child care. That is the last component of this.
These are the areas where funding will be going; the focus is going to be growing it strategically in the areas that need it. Funding for special needs, because we know how complex not necessarily the classrooms but these daycare spaces can be, with them being inclusive environments. And we look forward to continuing negotiation with the federal government to see what that funding model is going to look like.
MS. CHENDER: The minister has referenced “federal funding” a couple of times - was there federal funding involved in funding this pre-Primary program in particular, and/or can the minister identify specific budget items or budget lines in this Education budget, period, that the federal government transfer would have been part of?
MR. CHURCHILL: There is no federal funding for pre-Primary, this is a provincial initiative and the dollars that are budgeted are provincial dollars. The additional funding which is on par with pre-Primary spending this year for the child care sector in the form of $5 million, that is also provincial and is not reflected by new funding from the federal government. This will be new funding that is provided for specific purposes in the child care sector.
We don’t know what that number is going to be right now, but I very much look forward to completing those negotiations so we can inform the sector, because I think it would be good news for them, and so we can inform the House.
MS. CHENDER: The minister referenced a couple times now the idea of “demonstrated need” - that is, serving areas with demonstrated need. I’m wondering, can the minister or staff point to any information that shows how they determined where the need was for these pre-Primary programs, and this first phase in particular?
MR. CHURCHILL: There are two ways we identify need: areas where these services are not being provided currently, so where there’s no space available, that is our focus; and we use the EDI. I use those acronyms so much, I sometimes forget what they mean. (Interruption) Early development indicators. Those are assessments of basically the learning and behavioural needs of children in our various communities. We use EDI and physical space. Those are the two determinants of how we moved forward with Phase I of this program. That will inform how we move forward with Phase II, and that will inform how we move forward with the strategic growth of the private not-for-profit child care sector.
MS. CHENDER: Just a clarification - I happen to know in the HRM of two centres that in fact are adjacent to early childhood education regulated child care centres that do have space. One of them is Needham Preschool, and the other one is in Cole Harbour. Given that there was no consultation, and we FOIPOP’ed this and can’t find evidence of any consultation, and you have said as much yourself, minister, that the consultation is coming now, which as you can imagine I have problems with, but we’ll leave that aside for now - can the minister tell me how he determined, I understand the EDI, but how was it determined that there were no competing available spaces?
MR. CHURCHILL: The areas the member is referencing - it’s not perfect across the system. There is a small number of areas where we do have pre-Primary sites, where there’s regulated child care as well. That was based on an assessment of need and demand from the school boards. These are areas of potential high need like the north end of Halifax and I believe Cole Harbour. It was determined by the boards that there was demand for these services, there was demand for free services, to make them more accessible, and where there was a need based on EDI of kids in those catchment areas. We did our best to mitigate conflict with the private and not-for-profit sector here, but our number-one focus was on making sure the kids who need it the most were accessing it. There are some communities of high need that we did bring these services into.
MS. CHENDER: The minister said in this House, in response to a question I asked, that this program was absolutely inclusive, and went so far as to accuse me of misleading this House and the public to suggest otherwise. That was my first question, by the way, in this House. Perhaps on the advice of his staff, the minister later backtracked somewhat in a response to a question from my colleague, the member for Dartmouth East and noted that inclusion is difficult, which we all know, and a work in progress.
At this point, I would like the minister to please describe for me exactly how this program is truly inclusive in his words, and if the minister has a definition for inclusion in answering this question, that would be especially helpful to me.
MR. CHURCHILL: There are a number of pilots that existed in the province, early learning centres, which I believe the previous government actually invested in as well. We expanded that; that was kind of the pilot test for this program.
They are inclusive learning environments. That means we do not say no to anybody. Families can bring them in. They are play-based curriculums; the curriculums are inclusive. For children who do have special needs, we are actually able to identify those special needs earlier and make sure that they are connected to - if it’s hearing and speech help, that those supports are there, whether it’s EIBI for children who are on the autism spectrum, or early intervention.
The feedback from families of children with special needs has been positive from those early learning centres. The feedback from the administrators and educators who have done those, who are in those classrooms, has been positive. We are very confident in our ability to provide these services to everybody in the way that we have in these eight centres, which no one has criticized - we have not had criticisms about these early pilot centres. I’m not aware of any that have come in from the department. I have not heard anybody in this House suggest that they didn’t work.
All the evidence and feedback points that they are providing good learning environments for all kids, that early childhood educators who are professionals in this field know how to handle the complexities of these learning environments and we’re actually linking children at an earlier age to the supports that they might need.
I really have full confidence in this and I’m really excited to make this more accessible to more people.
MS. CHENDER: Okay, so I have a definition which is that inclusive is not saying no to anyone - I suspect that the commission on inclusive education might take some issue with that, but we’ll go with that for now. I will point out that at the Law Amendments Committee meeting last night we heard from a number of parents of children with diverse abilities who pointed out that this would not be an environment that would be inclusive for their children nor would they send their children there, but putting that aside, is there a specific portion of this funding package that we’ve been talking about that’s set aside to ensure that the programs are inclusive?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, just to clarify. I said yes, we’ll bring everybody in, but also ensure that the appropriate supports are there, so linking them with those appropriate supports is important. I do think that’s important to clarify because the member did only reference one part of my answer there.
Also, in terms of funding, there is funding available to the boards that allows them to hire additional staff if staff is needed to provide additional assistance to children with special needs. There is funding available for that to occur.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, can the minister tell me what funding is available and where I might find it in this budget or other documents?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, this funding is embedded in the operational funding for the boards and the member can find that under Education and Early Childhood Development on Page 7.5 of the budget.
MS. CHENDER: Homework, thank you. Can the minister tell me who will make decisions about what supports are needed or provided and whether there’s a process for requesting those supports and what that process might be?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, those requests would be initiated by the early childhood education staff and those go directly to the coordinators at the board level.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, thank you to the minister. Can the minister tell me if there is a specific portion of funding set aside for working with African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaq communities to ensure that the curriculum is culturally responsive?
We heard yesterday that the Africentric program for pre-Primary students, I believe in New Glasgow, haven’t been able to hire an African Nova Scotian educator, and members of the community have noted this is problematic. We know this to be an issue across the province so, I guess, two questions. Is there funding set aside and, also, is there a portion of the consultation plan that will focus directly on these communities?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the curriculum, the curriculum was developed with an inclusive lens to make sure it is supportive and sensitive to the cultural and linguistic diversity of our student population, and so a lot of work went into making sure that that was the case.
In terms of the Africentric program in New Glasgow that you mentioned, in that area the school board did decide to move the Africentric program into the pre-Primary program which we happily accepted. I know there have been some long-standing challenges before the pre-Primary program, in terms of ensuring that staff was reflective of all the students from that community, all the kids from that community. Right now, I know they are working on bringing in mentors from the African Nova Scotian community to assist in that regard. When it comes to hiring that is also, I know, an issue of importance for the school board.
MS. CHENDER: So back to the two questions I asked: is there a portion of the funding that is set aside to help with Africentric and Mi’kmaq programming specifically and, also, is there a consultation plan for those communities?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, again the curriculum is inclusive. We can get the member a copy of that, and I’m very happy to have any feedback on the curriculum. All of our curriculums in the province need to be evolving continuously and we’re never going to prevent ourselves from enhancing those. I do have confidence in this curriculum; we had a lot of good people work on it. There have been jurisdictional scans, I think, from Ontario where they brought in this program, to make sure we’re doing the best we can to make sure that the diversity of our kids in this province, their cultures, are reflective in this curriculum.
I think we’ve achieved that, but of course we are always willing to have more feedback. Part of this consultation - this just is not a consultation with the sector, this is a consultation with families as well. We will be going directly out to families to talk about their specific needs and what they’re looking for - and that’s all families of all cultural backgrounds. So that is an important focus of this consultation as well, Mr. Chairman.
In terms of the timing, I know the member has had an issue with the timing, so I do want to take a moment to provide some commentary on that. The reason why we didn’t want to wait was because we didn’t want to miss a cohort of students, Mr. Chairman. I’m very happy that we had the ambitions we had, in terms of implementing this program, because had we heeded the calls of the Opposition to delay implementation, there would be 818 kids who wouldn’t be accessing these programs this year. We don’t know how many of those kids will have a life-changing impact happen to them as a result of this program, so leaving 818 kids behind was not an option for us.
In terms of implementing it, though, recognizing the impact this is going to have on the sector, we did work very hard to move in areas where these services were not being provided. That is not uniform across the board because our number-one priority was need, from a student perspective and a community perspective, and I think we have done that effectively.
I know there have been three businesses that have reached out and said they have a staffing issue related to this - that’s 3 out of 384. It’s not perfect but it is as close to perfect, I think, as we can expect. That has allowed us, moving forward in that way, to have time to then go out and consult with the sector, before Phase II, on the impacts this will have on their businesses, to discuss how we can further invest in them to help them with this transition, to help grow that sector and to allow us to do labour market research for the sector, reaching out directly to parents to understand the scope of their needs so we can tailor the sector and this program to meet all of them.
This is going to be a very good process. We’re going to have labour market research done for the sector that I know will be beneficial to them and we’re going to talk about where we spend the next round of dollars to assist them with this. So, we are moving forward collectively in a way that makes sense and is supportive of one another, and recognizing that we all know that increasing access to early learning initiatives is critical to our students.
There is a fundamental goal that unites all of us. Outside of the immediate anxiety over bottom lines in the business, every single early childhood educator and every business owner knows the important impact they can have on kids, and they know that we need to expand this program. So, there is an objective that does unify government with that sector, and there is a willingness to continue to invest in that sector to grow it so that we are moving forward together in a way that’s going to have the greatest impact on our families possible.
MS. CHENDER: On the topic of providing opportunities, can the minister tell me how many of the children currently enrolled, the 818 lucky souls who will certainly all become brilliant, accomplished people - how many of these children were already either in regulated, unregulated child care, or preschool programming prior to the rollout of this program?
MR. CHURCHILL: We don’t have the specific information that the member is talking about because we didn’t screen based on that criteria. What I can tell the member is we moved in areas primarily where these services were not being provided. So, the catchment areas of these pre-Primary sites are in areas of need - where either these services aren’t there in the communities, where there aren’t spaces available and, from an EDI perspective, where we know there is an educational need for these things.
I think the logical assumption we can make is that a large number of these students did not have access to these programs, simply because of the rationale we used to implement this. I think that’s a logical assumption that we believe to be true.
MS. CHENDER: I’m not sure where screening came in - what I’m asking about is data. So, we don’t have data on that. Is the department collecting data about the demographics of children involved and that could later be used for outcomes and other information - so income level, gender, race, language, any of that information?
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of data on where students are coming from, that is data that we do have because they’re entering from specific catchment areas; that’s criteria that school boards have. In terms of broader data, yes, there will be data accumulated through this. I’m not sure what specifics the member is talking about, but perhaps she can just inform me.
MS. CHENDER: I’ll just repeat my question. I’m interested in whether we’re collecting data related to income level, family, gender, race, first language - any of this information that then any number of organizations or agencies or government departments can use to track outcomes and understand better our young population.
MR. CHURCHILL: I don’t know and the group I have here does not know if we’re collecting data on income levels or race for this, but what we will do is get the data that will be collected available for the member to take a look at.
MS. CHENDER: I’ll note that if it is discovered that we’re not collecting that data, that there is a recent UN report, which I don’t have with me and I can’t table and don’t even know the name off the top of my head, but could also find that does suggest that particularly for racialized people that it is helpful to collect this data because we can then link that to all kinds of other information - but I’ll wait for that information.
The other question that I have is related to this in that vein. Will we be able to track outcomes for these children, and specifically whether or not they graduate? I know that, and I think still, or at least up until recently, we didn’t know that about children entering Primary. Are we going to know that about children entering pre-Primary?
MR. CHURCHILL: There is a process through the public school system of self-identification for racialized individuals, as the member mentioned. That is there already. In terms of outcomes, absolutely - these will be tracked from day one. This is critical data that will be accumulated through the systems that we already have in place - PowerSchool, TIENET. That will be the home of that information as we move forward.
That infrastructure is already in place for that data collection, as these new cohorts of pre-Primary grads move throughout the system. That’s incredibly important for monitoring the program, for the evaluation of it, to make sure we’re achieving what our intended objectives are. That will happen; the infrastructure is in place for it to happen and I hope we have as good results here in this province as every other jurisdiction that has brought this in has had - because if that’s the case, we’re going to be doing very well for these children.
MS. CHENDER: I’m assuming that there will be an evaluation component built into this program, especially because the information about the program going into it was so scarce. My hope is that at least on the other end we will have some kind of coherent information by which we can understand and judge the program. Will an evaluation be conducted, and is there money built into that - and anything else you could tell me about how we’ll be monitoring this program?
MR. CHURCHILL: We are partnering with the McCain Foundation that have been great champions of early learning in our country. They will be assisting us in developing the metrics of evaluation for this so that we’re evaluating it in the right ways, to ensure that we’re producing the best results possible. That is critically important for this. I recognize that, and I think that we are connected with the right partner to help us achieve that to the best of our ability.
MS. CHENDER: I just have a few more questions about the early childhood sector. In the 2016-17 budget, there was funding related to the recommendations from the review of regulated child care. At that time, the then-minister said implementing those would take more than one budget. I’m curious - maybe I’ll answer my own question - is it the $5 million that is the funding allocated in this budget towards that, or is there another number?
MR. CHURCHILL: Yes, it is the $5 million. Plus, there will be additional federal dollars that we will be able to access once negotiations are complete that will also be infused into the system for investment in the strategic areas that I mentioned earlier, but primarily for capacity building for that sector.
MS. CHENDER: One of the recommendations in that review was to improve access to infant care and to children with special needs. I’m wondering - and I’ve been asking questions along these lines, but is any of that $5 million specifically related to that recommendation?
MR. CHURCHILL: That is not reflected in the $5 million. The $5 million is for the wage ceiling for ECEs, to bring their wage levels up to a more competitive level. The federal dollars that we will acquire will be invested, as I mentioned earlier, to improve support for children with special needs. That is part of the federal negotiations so those dollars - and there are other areas that I mentioned earlier that the member can reference from the record - but those dollars will be specifically allocated for those things.
Obviously, we’re eagerly awaiting those negotiations to be completed because I think there is going to be a lot of good news for the sector, a lot of good news for families, and some dollars that will be made available to invest in the critical areas that we need to invest in the child care sector.
MS. CHENDER: There aren’t any regulations currently governing pre-Primary programs, and so I’m wondering what the government’s timeline for developing these regulations is - and then, more generally, why weren’t these regulations developed before we put children in these classrooms?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, the usual legislative process that takes place is you get the law in place first and then you develop the regulations. We also want some time before we develop a finalized regulatory framework to consult the sector because we want the pre-Primary regulations to be harmonized with the child care regulations. So, the information that we garner from the sector will be really important to achieving that.
In terms of timing that’s why, but that does not mean that school boards are acting outside of their authority in any way. The Education Act does allow them to execute on this program right now. It allows them to solicit wraparound care for children if they are looking for that as well, and once we complete the consultation, then the regulations will be fully developed and will have, I think, a really good regulatory framework that’s going to be consistent with the child care, and that’s going to help us all move forward in a harmonious way to do our very best for our kids and our families.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, with respect, I would suggest that the normal process would be legislation, regulation, consultation, then children in the classroom - but that’s fine, we did one piece first.
Further to that, my question is, since we are finally getting to consultation, I’m curious, what has been allocated in this budget to cover that cost and how exactly will it be conducted?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, in terms of the cost for the consultation, that is going to be absorbed from the department’s operational spending. We’re anticipating approximately $50,000 to conduct this consultation and that is easily absorbed in our department. But I do want to talk about this position that the New Democratic Party has taken on delaying these services, because I want it very clear for Nova Scotians - had we heeded the call for the New Democratic Party to not move forward ambitiously with this program, there would be 818 families who would not access this program; there would be 818 kids who wouldn’t be accessing this. That’s not acceptable to us.
So, yes, we’re ambitious; we had an ambitious timeline. We’ve executed on that timeline thoughtfully. We thought we were going to have 30 classes, but when it came to the demand and need in our communities that was being expressed to our school boards, we realized that we actually needed more classrooms. We’re now up to 53. This is because of demand; this is because of need; and this is because we’re being responsive to what communities are asking for.
Delaying this and saying no to those families has never been an option for us, although I know it is what the New Democratic Party wants, but every single year we are
going to have more kids in this program. Every single year of our mandate, we’re going to have more families access this and we’re not going to allow the Opposition to prevent us from forging ahead on that because we do not want to leave any children behind. (Applause) Thank you, member.
Delaying this was just not an option from the get-go because there would be almost 1,000 kids who wouldn’t have access to this in the areas of highest need. There would have been 1,818 children in the areas of greatest need in our province who would not have access to pre-Primary because that member thinks that we’re moving ahead of the sector.
Simply put, that member is acting on pressure that she’s receiving from the child care sector - and I get that pressure; I understand why they’re anxious about this. But we also have a greater good that we need to keep track of here, and that’s making sure that four-year-olds are accessing these programs as quickly as possible, that we’re achieving full universal access at the end of four years. Had we delayed, that would not be possible and that has never been an option for us. So, I take exception to the calls to delay, because kids need it; families need it - the demand that has been expressed in our communities is incredible.
The biggest complaint we’re getting from parents out there now is that they don’t have access to this new program in their community, which I sympathize with as well. We’ve moved in a way that has mitigated conflict with the private sector - the numbers speak for themselves in that regard. We’ve moved forward in a way that has been thoughtful. We’ve moved forward in a way that has been responsive to the needs that have been expressed by community members and our school boards and, because of that, we now have 818 children who are going to be accessing this program.
I will never ever heed the calls to delay. I think it’s wrong and unacceptable, and I want to make that very clear in this Chamber.
MS. CHENDER: I have now, for the second time in less than a month in this Chamber, been personally accused of not putting the best interests of children of Nova Scotia in front of me. To say that I find that offensive is an understatement. My assumption on assuming this role was that we would have the opportunity to talk about policy, the opportunity to talk about what really mattered, the opportunity to make laws and discuss those laws, and the opportunity to serve our constituency. This is the second time that I am being prevented from doing that by the grandstanding and name-calling of the member opposite. Mr. Chairman, I would just like to say for the record that I find that offensive.
Moving forward, I will say, furthermore, that my interest in this area is not because my hands are tied by the child care sector. To the extent that I am concerned about the child care sector, as I opened these remarks with, I am concerned because there are so few regulated child care spots for children, and I, myself, have had the experience of searching for those spots. I have said, every time I have risen in this House to discuss pre-Primary, that I support the program.
I am fully aware that the program has now been rolled out. I was there at the opening and I exchanged pleasantries with the minister. I am happy that it’s happening; I have never said anything otherwise.
I think that it’s somehow telling of this government that when a program that they institute is questioned, when the lack of consultation is highlighted, and when the rollout is sloppy, they immediately resort to name-calling and grandstanding.
On that note, I will use my last three minutes to turn from pre-Primary and ask about inclusive education. As I said in my opening remarks, I understand that inclusive education is something that is currently being studied by the commission. I heard all of the wonderful things that were said about that commission on inclusion. I take no issue with that. By all accounts, those are all wonderful and very knowledgeable folks who are on that commission.
My question is, given that we have such a crying need for supports for inclusion in our classrooms, and given that many of those needs are being withheld pending the decisions of this commission, can the minister tell me what the plan is and where the dollars are to support the findings of this commission?
MR. CHURCHILL: Mr. Chairman, for the record, I have not, to my knowledge, levelled any personal attacks towards that member. What I have made very clear is that that member’s policy decision, which she has articulated consistently in the House, to delay the implementation of this program, is not acceptable. I stand by that fully. It’s not acceptable to me, and it’s not acceptable to our government, which is why we didn’t heed those calls. I really hope the member does not take that to be a personal attack on her; that was not my intention.
It is a difference of policy position on this. The member has made it very clear that she did want us to delay this program, that the NDP wanted us to delay this program in order to conduct consultation with the sector. I have stated the position that we didn’t want to do that because we wanted to get a new cohort of kids into the system - that has been our priority - in the areas of highest need in our province. That is all that has been stated in this House in this debate.
Furthermore, I think there’s policy rationale to have moved forward with this without that consultation because the consultation is not going to be about the curriculum; it’s not going to be about how we implement this. We had a number of years and eight early learning centres where we have already that work to get us to this point. The consultation is about the transition of the sector, about labour market research for the sector, and moving forward as we have in a way that mitigated impacts to the sector - that gives us plenty of time to have that consultation before we move into Phase II, Phase III, and Phase IV, which will have a greater impact on them.
I think there has been good rationale applied to how we move forward. We’ve moved forward in a way that will ensure that this cohort of kids have access to this program and these families have access to it in the areas of greatest need in our province. This is simply a difference on policy and positioning of the Parties - it’s that simple. I do not want anyone to take those comments personally because they were not intended that way and I do not want the member to take them that way either.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time allotted for the NDP caucus has expired for this hour.
I just want to touch on something briefly before I recognize the next speaker. In now, day five of the Estimates, I have allowed things, as chairman, in the Chamber to be fairly casual between the exchanges of member and minister, and I would like to be able to continue to do that. I’ve not called either minister or member on some of the more formal things that have been let go, and I appreciate the debate is sometimes lively. Let’s keep it that way. I would prefer to keep it casual and not have to call on every single issue that arises - continue the debate in a casual and meaningful way so that the most is gained through the Estimates by members asking questions of ministers.
The honourable member for Dartmouth East.
MR. TIM HALMAN: Mr. Chairman, going into the budget, but also going back to the topic that we left off - specifically technology - it indicates in the budget that coding and computer skills will be emphasized. Although coding and computer skills are beneficial, is this going to be enforced in all the curriculum - specifically the teaching of code and computer skills - is there going to be a specific course set up or will this be imbedded throughout the entire P-12 curriculum?
MR. CHURCHILL: Yes, the coding curriculum will be embedded from P-12.
MR. HALMAN: Could you provide some more specifics on that as to the nature of the curriculum and, also, will the teachers be given some specific training? As you’ve indicated, it will be P-12. I think we all recognize that if that’s a new outcome or outcomes that need to be taught, will the teachers in our public school system be given the necessary training, and has that been allotted in the budget to provide that professional development for our teachers?
MR. CHURCHILL: I’m happy to read out the specifics of the rollout program for coding. We do have $1 million allocated specifically for training for teachers in this regard. So those dollars are already committed and that of course will be a focus of ours. I think the original intent was to bring some outside experts into the system to do coding training, but I think that created a problem for the union. They did not want to have outside consultants coming in and doing that work, so we’ve changed our strategy to make sure that teachers are properly trained and brought up to speed on the latest developments.
I’ll just run through the various items that coding will cover, the description of how they’ll be implemented and the budget lines associated with it for the member, for the specifics. The Acadia Robotics Grant - that is to promote coding and computer science, and through a competition program there is $32,500, 2016-17, and the same number for 2017-18.
Brilliant Labs in 2016-17 is for hands-on learning, promoting coding and computer science, 10 fixed makerspaces, 10 mobile carts and the STEAM lead teacher, that’s for $400,000 in 2017-18, that will be for hands-on learning, promoting coding, computer science and makerspaces, one for each board - except for HRSB, which will have two.
Coding and lesson plan development - that’s a group of 12 teachers from CCRSB and it will be the integration of coding into the P-3 curriculum, lesson plan development to support coding for P-8, dollars associated with that for 2016-17 are $4,500, for 2017-18 are $50,000; coding strategy and supports, extended mathematics 11 support, to advise and support the implementation of coding strategy plan for P-12 coding overview; P-3 basic computer skills as part of their integrated subjects; Grades 4 to 6 students will have the opportunity to earn virtual badges and ICT coding in computer programming; Grades 7 to 8 coding will support exploration, innovation and design, face-to-face and online blended options; Grades 9 to 12 students will have an opportunity to work toward completion of a global-ready certificate program; also, there will be extended mathematics 11 which will be a full-year course - two credits, one math, one technology - includes big data and data analytics and the number affixed, the cost for these will be $61,000.
Teach Today for Tomorrow, IT Summer Learning Academy for Teachers, this is professional development, learning opportunities held at Mount Saint Vincent and that will provide learning for approximately 250 teachers; P-3 coding supports will be programmable floor robots, support maths, and beebot charging stations and cost for that in 2016-17 would be $300,000, for the year following, $25,000; Girls Get WISE at Tech workshop grant, workshops for girls around the province - this is for coding - approximately 50 participants per session, that’s $15,000; Hour of Code, 190 schools registered through code.org and over 300 public schools events will be recorded through that and there’s not a number associated with that - that will be at no cost.
There’s a back page to this as well. Grades 4 to 6 innovation exploration kit extension, that’s additional kits to supplement larger schools, housing, Grades 4 to 6, it’s $0.5 million for that; there’s also professional development with partnerships to help support coding in schools and that includes a variety of partnerships, costs associated with that for 2017-18 will be $125,000; Grades 2 to 3, coding supports, this is $0.5 million that will be used for the purchase of programmable robots, approximately five per classroom, development of lesson ideas to support the integration of coding into the curriculum; Grades 7 to 8, develop online coding models for those grades; instruction designer for modules, provide coding kits to support coding modules and that’s about $1,500 per school for that - overall costs will be $750,000 for the implementation of that; Grades 4 to 6 there will be a develop a badge system for ICT skills and coding, implement a badge system for ICT skills and coding; and print and digital resources, for approximately $125,000.
Now I do have to go on the record and state that I have no expertise in this area. I did not have coding as I grew up so I most likely will not be able to provide specific insights into these various things. Of course, if the member does have questions that are outside my area of expertise and knowledge, we’ll make sure that the appropriate staff are able to run him through these various programs, projects, and curriculum initiatives so that he has a full understanding - and I might join him in that brief as well, Mr. Chairman.
MR. HALMAN: It’s good to see Reading Recovery brought back and this is a successful program that unfortunately was previously cut. Unfortunately, at times my experience in the classroom you would often see sometimes students promoted to the next level who didn’t have the skills to navigate at that level, they had difficulty with reading and numeracy.
My question for the minister is, will this funding for Reading Recovery make Reading Recovery available for all students who need it in elementary schools? Certainly, by the time we get to junior high, when we get to high school, you often see those gaps; you see those students who, for lack of a better term, fell through the cracks. Will there be more funding for Reading Recovery for all students?
MR. CHURCHILL: Very important question, and it is important to note that the previous NDP Government did cut Reading Recovery. They did that as a cost-saving initiative that I believe both Opposition Parties at the time, Liberal and Progressive Conservatives, did oppose. It has taken us a few years to recover from that so we had to engage in retraining initiatives for lead teachers in this regard.
There has been a reset in that system. But I am happy to say that we are getting back on track with this critical support program and while not all schools have access to this program now, our plan as laid out currently will have full access by 2019.
MR. HALMAN: Mental health and access to mental health services needs to be a priority. I believe that I have been clear in the House regarding that. For a number of years in our education system, we have had a number of teachers trained by Dr. Kutcher and they became Go-To people in our schools.
I’m wondering, what are the plans for Go-To training, if that would be enhanced? Certainly, this Go-To training, I know in my discussions with teachers they feel at times it is just a band-aid, that many of the mental health issues that they are confronted with as the Go-To person is beyond their skill set. They are not mental health professionals. So, my question is, what are the plans for the Go-To program, what money is being allocated for that program and for those teachers interested in the Go-To training - will there be more opportunities to receive that training?
MR. CHURCHILL: Just a couple of comments. While the Commission on Inclusive Education is going to be directing in their final report a lot of the investments in these areas, right now we are moving forward with the Go-To programming.
I do not have the final dollars associated with that available to me right now - David is working diligently on that to try to find that for the member. We are also expanding our SchoolsPlus program. Our goal is to, by 2019, have a SchoolsPlus site in every single school in our province.
That will extend the mental health clinicians extensively for our students and I think we can all recognize how important mental health services are for our children. That is a priority for us. Because of the leadership of the previous minister and the Premier, funding for the special needs supports have not been reduced despite boards that have seen decreased enrolment. There has been consistent funding for that. I will go over some of the specific investments that have been made to help support mental health for our students - and this is not to suggest that it is the be-all and end-all, this list or this complement of supports. Again, we have to keep ensuring that our system is evolving to meet the needs of a changing student body.
Recognizing that, this is not to suggest that we have answered all of these challenges. Absolutely. But for the member’s edification, I do want to highlight some of the investments that are being made.
In terms of the commitment to ensure that no board receives less in special education funding even if there is an enrolment decline, this has a cost of $2.6 million in this year’s budget. Special needs support grants, which we introduced in 2015 by our government, that’s $1.5 million to boards to deal with complex cases. SchoolsPlus has seen investment of $1.8 million of new investments in this year’s budget. That brings the total of investment to SchoolsPlus to about $8.2 million, and this supports, right now, 31 hub sites, 37 mental health clinicians, and covers approximately 280 schools across the province. All schools will be under the SchoolsPlus umbrella by 2019; that is our commitment.
We have invested in a project with Mount St. Vincent to help clear the backlog of students’ psychological assessments that did result from the work-to-rule situation from the labour dispute. Because of work to rule there was a backlog of cases that needed to be properly addressed that weren’t. So thankfully, Mount St. Vincent has come on board and helped us clear out that backlog so these students can get what they need. That has been approximately $1 million invested into that, but that has made sure that 300 backlogged assessments were completed from one end of the province to the other.
There have been 20 FTEs to school boards for critical professional supports to students - FTEs are used for either speech language pathologists or school psychologists, depending on the needs that the boards have identified. That has cost about $1.4 million in this year’s budget.
Also, in response to the incredibly tragic situation in Cape Breton and the recommendations that have come forward from Dr. Stan Kutcher, there was an additional $192,000 for three physicians, two guidance counsellors, and one social worker.
That is a list of the supports that are accounted for in this year’s budget, but supports for mental health will be an ongoing concern for the department, no matter which government has the honour of sitting on this side of the House. We of course are always willing and open for feedback from communities and from subject matter experts to enhance our abilities to provide the supports to our children, particularly those that are experiencing anything from mild depression, to anxiety, to moments of incredible personal crisis. We do have a responsibility to be responsive to those.
I will also note that we have to recognize when it comes to mental health, this isn’t just an issue for the education system. We cannot just expect our teachers or guidance counsellors or administrators to be the only group of people who respond to these, because they might not have the training necessary or the knowledge to deal with certain cases. So, we are also linking the support network for kids to other government departments - the Department of Community Services, the Department of Health and Wellness of course, the Department of Justice - to make sure that the breadth of services that can be available and the breadth of expertise that is in the system can be accessed for our students.
That is also an important point to make, that this isn’t just about the education investments. This is about linking students to the various levels of supports that are available to them in the system, while we enhance those as well.
MR. HALMAN: Keeping with the same theme of mental health supports in our schools, the budget indicates $2.1 million to increase community and mental health supports for students through the SchoolsPlus program. As you may know, however, the ratio students to school psychologists and guidance counsellors is very high. If you speak with our guidance counsellors and school psychologists, I think they’ll indicate that.
Moving forward, will the budget or future budgets address that ratio? Are there plans to deal with that? Because if you speak to our guidance counsellors in our province, they often feel that there is too much on their plates and the supports we have in place - whether it’s Go-To teachers who have volunteered and received the training from Dr. Kutcher - what supports would we put in place, what resources will be deployed to assist our school psychologists and our guidance counsellors?
MR. CHURCHILL: As previously mentioned, there are 20 additional FTEs that we have funded in this budget for speech and language pathologists or school psychologists. Each board will allocate those FTEs as they deem appropriate, based on the need that they’re experiencing in their system. There was $1.4 million of investment in this budget for those purposes specifically. We’re also going to be taking our lead from the Commission on Inclusive Education, in terms of other areas where we can improve these supports.
You know, we’ve had a funding model in the province that has been strictly tied to enrolment for a very long time. I don’t know if it’s ever been different. We need to look at that funding model, because I think we can all recognize, it makes more sense to fund our boards based on their need than it does based on their enrolment because with complex classrooms, with a complex student body, with a host of needs that we are getting better and better at understanding and better and better at providing supports for, it just makes sense to have a funding model that is responsive to those needs, as opposed to just funding strictly on enrolment purposes.
There are two ways that we’re looking at the funding model, and perhaps this will impact the guidance counsellor ratio that the member referenced. We’re looking at this through two lenses. One is the Commission on Inclusive Education. I anticipate recommendations that come forward from them to help us improve funding for special needs students in our system and I am putting a lot of faith in them and their abilities based on their expertise and commitment to this issue. We’re also doing a complete administrative review that may lead to suggestions that relate to funding models. Of course, neither of those processes has been completed to date, but they will be.
We’ll be acting on those recommendations as they come forward, but I do think we can all recognize that that funding model is not responsive to the needs of our diverse student body or the needs that each board experiences individually. I do think that needs to be an area of focus for us and we’re committed to looking at it.
MR. HALMAN: I know we both recognize that ensuring those mental health supports needs to be a priority. I just wonder though, for example in my constituency, if mental health and those supports are a priority, how is it that when a school psychologist or a school nurse transfers to another school, that there’s such a gap of time? If something is a priority, then you have a plan in place. I referenced in the House last week how at the local high school in Dartmouth East there are students right now who don’t have access to those mental health supports, those professional mental health supports, and that professional who can help navigate and find those services. While you say it’s a priority from a financial point of view, from a planned point of view, this is a question I think that’s on the minds of a lot of people in our province. How is it that there will be these gaping holes where we have a high school right now that doesn’t have a professional in place?
MR. CHURCHILL: We do not make any claims that the system is perfect. We recognize that there are gaps and we’re committed to filling those. We have to do it in a thoughtful manner and address the challenges from a systemic perspective, and that’s what I believe we’re moving forward with and doing. Some challenges that the boards have - first of all, I do want to recognize the financial supports for special needs have remained consistent, no matter whether enrolment has dropped or not for school boards. We’ve made a policy decision and an investment decision to do that, recognizing that the funding formula does not account for needs. While we review that formula, while we seek for better ways to fund our education system, this has been a stopgap in place to make sure that, to the best of our ability, those supports are out there.
Boards do have challenges because of the funding formula, in terms of how they allocate our resources. There are incredible challenges and I do not envy the boards the decisions they have to make in this regard, but we do trust them to make the best decisions possible in terms of allocation of resources. They are on the ground. They are closest to the communities and best in a position to understand the needs of those communities. I think a challenge they have is that we fund them based on enrolment, and that isn’t necessarily reflective of the needs that they have within their community that they’re servicing. So I think we have a lot of work to do in terms of figuring out a funding model that makes more sense, is more responsive to the needs in our various communities. I think that will assist the boards in ensuring there’s proper supports so they can fill all the gaps that they have, in terms of providing these for those with special needs.
MR. HALMAN: There’s a common theme in your answers, minister, and often the common theme is deferring to the council. Maybe you’ve picked up that there’s a common theme to my questions and the discrepancy between a policy and how it is implemented on the ground.
Allow me to illustrate. We have $10 million in this budget to respond to the recommendations of the council, including expanding province-wide class caps to Grade 12. However, I’ve been hearing of some real challenges, as I’m sure you have been as well, in terms of, with these caps - and caps are important, just as the composition of a class is as well, but we’re hearing some real challenges, specifically related to the high school level, where it’s limiting course options to students. Not only that, we’re seeing a teacher shortage. What’s the plan to address that teacher shortage, specifically with French immersion and core French?
While I think most Nova Scotians are probably in favour of class caps - class composition is a different topic altogether, which we’ll get to in a few moments - what’s the plan to deal with that teacher shortage we’re seeing throughout the province, as a result of the class caps? Why didn’t the department factor that variable in when bringing in the class caps? Again, that’s a concern I have, where a policy makes sense but doesn’t seem to be thought through of how that execution will happen on the ground. Often I get the sense that there’s not a plan to deal with how it’s implemented.
MR. CHURCHILL: Just to tackle a few of those questions, in terms of our involvement of outside expertise to help us guide policy development and allocation of resources, I see that as a positive thing. One of the things that I heard directly from teachers in my constituency, I saw it online during the height of the teacher dispute, is that teachers did not feel they had a voice when it comes to policy development in the department. They did not have a voice when it comes to allocation of resources.
What has happened is, every government allocates their resources, develops policy based on the best information they have. We’ve done that with the best intentions and yet we have a workforce that expressed extreme frustration with a lot of those policies and a lot of the data-entry programs that we have in place.
In terms of unilateral decision making in the department, we’re beyond that now and that’s not what we’re going to do. We have to be more inclusive in that decision- making process to make sure where we’re investing, these limited and important public dollars are going into the areas that are going to produce the best results for teachers and for our students.
I see it as a positive thing that we have, for the first time ever, a group of teachers and a parent and student and a guidance counsellor who are helping us develop policy in areas of key concern for teachers. They have a budget, they can allocate resources. This is the first time that has happened. I see this as a positive thing, not a negative thing.
Inclusive education, that is a complex, challenging issue that not everyone in government is an expert in. So we need to lean on the expertise that is out there, particularly in the academic community, because we have individuals whose names I referenced earlier, who have studied these things and bring a breadth of knowledge that I don’t have, as minister. That’s valuable and we need that to happen.
This isn’t just about deferring decision-making authority. I have final authority, along with the Treasury Board, in terms of where all these things happen. I’m accountable for these decisions at the end of the day. It’s my choice as minister, and it’s the choice of our government, to do all of these things and move in these policy directions. To have an inclusive process to get us to that point will serve teachers better, serve students better, and serve our families better, I think. I’m very proud of the work that we have done to expand our decision making outward to include teachers, to include experts, and to include students and parents. I see that as a very positive thing.
In terms of numbers of teachers, since our government took office, this is the first time that new teachers have been hired into the system. I remember the days when I was in Opposition, and both Parties, the previous governments, actually cut teaching positions in our province. They did that based on the argument that enrolment was declining. So for the first time in my memory, from when I have been paying attention to these things, we actually have boards who are hiring teachers, more teachers at moments of enrolment decline.
I heard from a friend of mine from the education system in Yarmouth. He’s retired now, but he was an administrator for a long time. He was a principal and teacher, a very respected voice from the education community. I heard from a former teacher and current board chair of Tri-County Regional School Board, who said this is the first time that we didn’t issue layoff notices to teachers - the first time in a long time. That’s because we’re hiring teachers. We’re not using enrolment as a rationale to cut expenditures in education like the previous government did or like the government before that did.
That has created an issue in terms of filling temporary positions in the province. There used to be hundreds of new grads waiting to fill these temp positions for maternity leaves, for sickness, or whatever the reasons are that these temporary positions come up. There’s a challenge in actually finding those bodies to fill those spots, because these teachers are now hired full time in the system. That has created some challenges.
But let’s think on the other side of this equation. Those challenges are there because there are more full-time teachers in the system who are working, who are members of the union, who have full benefits now, and who will be there for the duration of their career. That’s a good thing. We have hired close to 750 new positions. That’s a good thing. That’s a good thing, but we have created challenges on the other side.
We are working with the B.Ed. programs in the province, to make sure that the graduates who are coming out are linked to the demand for positions in the system. That’s a conversation that has been ongoing now. We’re working on that, very closely with the Minister of Labour and Advanced Education and with our post-secondary institutions who deliver B.Ed. programs. I think we’re going to do a better job working with them, linking grads to the demand that’s out there and the market for teachers.
The challenge around French-speaking teachers is nationwide right now. That is not a Nova Scotia-specific challenge. That’s a nationwide challenge. Again, we’re working with our B.Ed. programs to, hopefully, produce more French-speaking teachers into the system. We’ll do our very best to recruit them from outside of the province as well. Of course, we want them working here. But that is not a situation unique to Nova Scotia.
In terms of the other two issues that the member brought up, class caps and composition, this is a very interesting conversation that we do need to have. I heard very loudly and clearly from a number of teachers from my area, and I know my colleagues heard as well, that the number of kids in the class really did make a difference in terms of their ability to teach and provide for each of those students. Class caps seem to be a priority amongst a large group of our teachers out there - not to say that every teacher agrees with that. But it was decided by the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions that this would be an area of focus, to have class caps from Primary all the way to Grade 12, so that there are fewer kids in our classes, the rationale, of course, being that this will allow teachers to better educate those students.
But there does remain a question: is the issue actually numbers, or is the issue class composition? That is an important question to ask, particularly when we’re investing these dollars and hiring teachers and allocating resources in the system. I don’t have an answer to that question today, but we’re working on answering that question - bringing expertise into the department through the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, working alongside the union to do that.
I think that’s also important to recognize too. You know, we came through a very difficult period with the union and with teachers because of the labour dispute, but we’re actually in a position now where the union and government, despite the fact that we were fighting certain positions out in court, we’re actually working together in areas of mutual interest which is making sure kids are getting what they need. The Council to Improve Classroom Conditions, we’re working in tandem with the union on that. The Commission on Inclusive Education, we’re working with the union on these things and the union is represented in both of those groups. I think that is important to note as well, because we do have to keep the labour stuff in perspective. That wasn’t the first difficult labour negotiation and it won’t be the last. We negotiate again in two years and that process will unfold as it does every single time.
I remember Brian Forbes, who was one of the former union presidents who involved themselves in the labour dispute in a way that I believe was not helpful or professional necessarily and contributed to, I think, the unrest that was out there. Nevertheless, that happened. I remember when he pulled us out of class in Grade 8 to go down and protest in front of the Progressive Conservative Government’s local MLA offices in Yarmouth. So, we have to keep a perspective on those things. Labour challenges are going to happen. It’s inevitable, but the fact that all these parties can come together, work together in areas of common interest which are our kids, I think speaks volumes to what we can do when we maintain perspective on what’s important in our system.
Back to class caps and composition - very important questions. Right now, at this particular point in time, class caps have been determined to be a priority for teachers. The council has directed allocation resources for hiring teachers to achieve those class caps. Will the Commission on Inclusive Education change the frame of the conversation around class caps? I don’t know. I don’t know at this point but I do look forward to seeing what they’re going to say because I really do believe they have the right people doing that work and they’re going to provide us with recommendations and a blueprint to help us achieve, really, what I believe will be transformative changes in the system, transformative changes for teachers, transformative changes for our students and for our families, because we hear time and time again, like, let’s just consider these facts.
We have more FTEs in the system dedicated for students with special needs. We have more TAs in the system. I think in Halifax alone, there are maybe 40 or 50 more TAs but we’re hearing from parents that the needs of their children still aren’t being met. So, that tells me there’s a broader systemic challenge here. You know, it just isn’t about resources and TAs. It’s about, okay, how is this system working as a whole and how can we improve it to make sure it’s doing better for everybody? We’re committed to doing that. These are important conversations that I know I and this member might be having for the next number of years and I anticipate they’ll yield positive results for this House and, hopefully, for our kids.
MR. HALMAN: Just going back to the shortage of French teachers in our province, is the department considering or are there examples of unqualified teachers in the classroom? For example, in the Province of Ontario, I know if there’s a shortage, if someone is competent in French and if they have a university degree, they’ll put them in the classroom. Are we considering that as an option to deal with the shortage of French teachers in our province, specifically in our rural parts of the province? If you could address that, that would be great.
MR. CHURCHILL: I know that the CSAP does do that. They look at French qualifications so they can bring in folks who don’t have a B.Ed. to fill in spots, so that is something that the CSAP does do. We’re also very lucky in Nova Scotia to have a French university, Université Sainte-Anne, which I know the member for Clare-Digby is very proud to have in his constituency. That presents great opportunities for French learners and French educators in our province as well. I know they have a really good program there.
I think the leadership under Allister Surette has been remarkable to say the least for that institution and we continue to work with Université Sainte-Anne and our other B.Ed. providers to make sure that the grads we’re producing are going to be able to fill the spots that are required in the system to give our kids the education they need.
MR. HALMAN: According to the Auditor General’s Report, over the last 10 years, education funding has only increased by 7 per cent. Minister, I know we both recognize that there are clear problems that need to be addressed. When we talk about supports for some of our students, I think we have an opportunity, with the role of teaching assistants or EPAs as they are known in metro - program assistants - they often feel under-valued. The training they get is very basic - WHMIS, first aid, conflict resolution, things of that nature.
What’s the plan for our program assistants? What do we hope to do with our teaching assistants? If you speak to them they’ll often say there is so much more that they could do. When we talk about increasing supports for our students in the learning centre, in the inclusive classroom, is there a plan for an increased role for program assistants, teaching assistants, in our province? If you could comment on that.
MR. CHURCHILL: I appreciate the time to go over the budgetary numbers. Yes, the member is accurate. If you look at the last 10 years, there has been approximately a 7 per cent increase in these supports. That is because for four years under the NDP Government every year there was funding cut from the education system, to the tune of $65 million. That impacted these supports.
However, if you look at the increase from 2014, this Liberal Government’s first budget, to the current moment in time, the core student funding has gone up about 15 per cent. I do recognize that if you take a 10-year view, the number doesn’t look that great. That is because we had a government in place who made their own difficult decisions, in terms of allocation of resources and decided that cutting from the classroom and cutting teaching positions was the right thing to do.
We very much disagreed with them at the time and since we’ve taken office those dollars have been restored. We’ve hired approximately 750 new teachers and a big component of those teachers are hired for supports for kids with special learning needs as well. I do want to add that. There are speech pathologists, and math and literacy support teachers. These are all critical to achieving our broader goals of improving our outcomes for students and making sure that we’re better preparing them for their future lives.
In terms of TAs, of course they are valued assets in our education system. We want to make sure that they are properly supported and that there are enough of them in the system to give our kids what they need. I think the Commission on Inclusive Education will also help frame that conversation a little bit, in terms of where resources are going, how TAs can best be utilized and how we can actually change the system to make it better for all the kids, so that all the pressure isn’t being put only on the TA, because we don’t think that’s fair, either.
The system is creating problems, so we do have to address these systemic issues. I think that will improve the working conditions of our TAs and allow them to focus on areas that are deemed to be most important for them. I know that the union also has a position on TAs. I do not want to speak to that position. That is not my role, but if the member is interested in terms of what the union position is, I would advise him to reach out to - I don’t know if he is a former union executive or if he is a current member of the NSTU - I would encourage him to reach out to those folks because they can better articulate their position on TAs and their role in the system.
MR. HALMAN: Definitely, the role of EPAs plays an invaluable part of our education system and I hope that the department will develop a plan to further enhance their role. They can play an even greater role in the education of our kids.
Minister, as you know, I have had some great concerns about the priorities you have established over the past few months, specifically with the implementation of pre-Primary. I am not opposed to pre-Primary. My own kids benefited from a pre-Primary program with the CSAP grandir en francais, which helps prepare students for the francophone system and also facilitates a lot of the outcomes that exist in pre-Primary programs.
As I have been clear with you, my concern has been with respect to the rollout. When this was announced officially in July, it was indicated that consultation was taking place with our existing daycare infrastructure. My conversations with daycares is that they have not been consulted. As a matter of fact, at Law Amendments Committee last night, one of the individuals that testified, I asked him if he had been consulted and he said never.
I would like to go back to those days in July. I would like you to sort of outline, who did the department consult with as you were beginning to, very quickly, and as I have said, in a very hasty way, roll out a program that I know we agree is very valuable to our young learners. Could you comment on who the department consulted during the rollout of pre-Primary?
MR. CHURCHILL: I appreciate the member’s position on this. I will state for the record that it is very different from what I have heard from other members of that caucus. The member for Pictou East was very specific that if he were Minister of Education that there would be no pre-Primary in Nova Scotia. I do look forward to clarification on what the official caucus position is of that Party, because right now I am a bit confused in terms of where they do stand.
In terms of consultation, as we stated from the beginning, consultation was scheduled for the Fall. That consultation will begin by the end of this month. That consultation will be specific to the transition of the child care sector to the new reality of free universal pre-Primary in the province. That consultation will include market research, reaching out to parents, surveying them, what do they need, what are they looking for to have a complete and robust system of early childhood supports in the province. It will be directed towards the sector, where do you want the next round of investment dollars to go? How can we best help you transition? How do we work together to make sure we are achieving our collective goal of making sure more of our kids are accessing these critical programs? That is the nature of that consultation.
The reason why we did not wait, as I mentioned previously today and previously in the House on a number of occasions, is because we do not want to leave any kids behind. We knew there were areas in the province that are underserviced, where there is no access to these programs. We know based on EDI numbers that there are areas of great need for this program. We were not going to delay a single moment or waste a single day in terms of getting these kids into this program, because we know it is going to help them.
In terms of what informed our overall decision to move forward with pre-Primary, we have had early learning centres in the province - I believe there are eight of them across the province. That was an initiative of our government, to expand those early learning centres. The feedback we received for all involved and all being serviced by these early learning centres, was extremely positive and was consistent with the body of literature and research that is available on pre-Primary or pre-Kindergarten education.
The body of research is extensive and it’s conclusive that the impacts this program can have on the lives of children, on their academic careers and beyond, is profound, it’s meaningful and for some, more than others, recognizably it can be life-changing.
In terms of what informed our overall policy decision that led to our previous allocation in the budget before the election that led to our platform commitment to Nova Scotians, it is entirely based on the evidence available. Our Premier has stated time and time again that if he leaves one mark on Nova Scotia, if there’s one legacy that he can look back on and be proud of, he wants it to be the education system. That is where his heart is, I’m telling you. For anybody who knows him, for anybody who has taken the opportunity to speak with him openly and frankly about his views on this matter, you know he is speaking from the heart when he says this. That is reflected in the investments that we’re making. It is reflected in the priorities of our government. It has been reflected every single year. Every single year that fact has been reflected in everything that we do.
He knows and we know that early learning is a critical component of an overall healthy education system that is producing the kids that we want, giving them the supports they need so they do well, they achieve their very best in school and beyond that. That’s where all this comes from. If you consult with anybody who is an expert in early learning, if you consult the body of research that is available, every single person will tell you that this program will matter. It has mattered for kids who have accessed it, it will matter for future generations who will access it.
This is linked to incredible things - cognitive benefits, emotional benefits, lower levels of anxiety, better outcomes in school. Kids who are in pre-Primary often do better than kids who weren’t, later on in school by the time they are 15 years old. It matters.
In terms of why we did this, we know it’s necessary. We know it’s a missing component of our education system, it’s a missing critical component of our education system, and we are absolutely committed to fixing that. In a way, that is ambitious and that allows us every single year to get more kids into these programs, because we know it’s going to matter for them and it’s going to matter to the budgets of families. This is now a free program for families. We don’t want there to be a financial barrier to these programs. This matters to families who are trying to make ends meet, who are making very tough budgetary decisions within their family unit that can have an impact on the lives of their children and the supports they are getting in our communities. Having this free, having this accessible everywhere, I think will be a game-changer in that regard. Thank you.
MR. HALMAN: Again, we have been clear on our position. The member for Pictou East is correct, that if you look at our platform, we were focusing on mental health. We were focusing on the inclusive model. We were focusing on improving attendance and behaviour. Our plan for vocational training was to build in a period of consultation with all the stakeholders. Yet by contrast, minister, you consult while implementing. That’s where I have grave concerns.
My colleagues and I are not opposed to this in principle but we have great concerns about the hasty rollout, and that hasty rollout goes against the implementation of other programs that we have seen in this province. When International Baccalaureate and Options and Opportunities were implemented, time was built in, capacity, so I think a lot of people in this province have questions around the hasty rollout. As I said in this House a few days ago, I have grave concerns that you are putting politics ahead of good education policy.
Last night, at Law Amendments Committee, we heard from a few people who expressed those concerns, that they believe the energy of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development should be devoted to focusing on our inclusive model of education. There is an opportunity there to get to work on that right way - not necessarily wait for the key recommendations coming out of the commission.
With respect to pre-Primary, because of the hasty rollout, you hear examples around our province where, you know, the furniture hadn’t arrived the day the kids went to school. In some cases, because of the rules around the catchment areas, we have some pre-Primary classes that have less than 10 students. If this had been planned properly, those issues could have been addressed. While this was being rolled out, were conversations taking place about how the catchment area would impact different areas at different schools in which it is being implemented? My question is - it comes back again - can you explain why the quick rollout, when there are precedents when we brought in new programming that lots of time was built in?
MR. CHURCHILL: I don’t think it’s clear where that Party stands on this particular issue. We have heard very different statements made. What is consistent is an argument that is being put forward by all members that suggests that pre-Primary and the challenges that we face in our P-12 system are mutually exclusive. That is the argument that has been made. I disagree with that. I think the evidence is very clear that these are not mutually exclusive things. They are tied together. I want to bring the members’ attention to some key research findings in this area that I think validate my point.
This is from a report: Starting Strong 2017, Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care. This is very new and relevant data. “Research in neurosciences has shown that the brain sensitivity of highly important developmental areas, such as emotional control, social skills, language and numeracy, peak in the first three years of a child’s life. High-quality ECEC can result in better outcomes in subsequent stages of life. Children learn more quickly during their early years than at any other time in life. Children who are already falling behind in the first few years of their childhood face greater obstacles to catch up and succeed at school and beyond. Research shows that disadvantaged children can benefit the most from attending high-quality early childhood education. Later interventions are less efficient because they take place after children’s ‘development window’. Disadvantaged children have the greatest benefit from attending high-quality ECEC, and interventions targeted at them will have highest returns. Research highlights a need for more analysis and international comparative indicators on the short-term and long-term effects . . .” - but what has been indicated is that there are key cognitive benefits associated with this.
Let’s talk about that for a second, we talk about the needs of our children later on in life. We can help address those issues earlier on. These are not mutually exclusive things. These things are tied together. In order to achieve the best outcome for students, pre-Primary does seem to be a part of this. To address the member’s concern about a hasty rollout, I disagree. This has not been hasty; this has been thoughtful. It has been ambitious and a lot people worked really heard to make this happen.
There were staff working nights, weekends, to make sure we executed on this commitment to Nova Scotians, so that the 818 kids who are now accessing this, they did not lose that opportunity this year. The rollout, it has been argued by all members opposite - they used terms as “sloppy,” “rushed,” and “hasty.” I just want to bring the member and the House’s attention to what people on the ground are actually saying about this.
This is an article from the Hawk in Cape Breton. “Superintendent says pre-primary program off to a good start. The Superintendent of the Strait Regional School Board says the new pre-primary program is going very well. Orientation day for six new locations within the Quad Counties was September 5th. Ford Rice says enrollment is 111 children at eight total sites. Overall, the opening has gone very well - families seem to be very pleased with the program, and staff report that the children are responding very well and settling in.” You have to remember, some of these children are three years old.
On the ground, Mr. Chairman, there is a very different story that’s being told than what’s being told in this House by members opposite. We have moved forward in a thoughtful way that has targeted the areas of greatest need in our province, that has mitigated impacts to the private sector to give us time to consult them on what the transition can look like, because that’s what the consultation is about. It’s not about the effectiveness of pre-Primary. We already have the answers to that. This is about how we best support the sector and families.
We’re hearing from principals. We heard from a principal, I believe, in the Pictou area who said they’ve already screened a number of kids whom they otherwise wouldn’t have had, for learning disabilities. We know now a year earlier what we need to do to help them succeed.
This is moving forward thoughtfully. It’s moving forward smoothly, no matter what members opposite are saying. I would just encourage them to actually talk to people on the ground, talk to the 818 . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. The time for the PC caucus has expired. I would ask the minister, please, given that you read from a document quite in depth, at some point to please table that. I will now recognize the New Democratic Party with 42 minutes left in our day today.
The honourable member for Dartmouth South.
MS. CLAUDIA CHENDER: When my time elapsed the last time, I was asking about inclusive education. My apologies if this is repetitive. Where can we find money in this budget, allocated to implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Inclusive Education?
MR. CHURCHILL: While the commission has provided a preliminary report, their final recommendations that will be tied to their blueprint and funding objectives won’t be finalized until March. They’re not reflected right now because we don’t know what those are going to be.
MS. CHENDER: I understand that the final report hasn’t been tabled, but that it will be tabled in this fiscal year. We know from the interim report that they have as much as said that they will be recommending sweeping changes to the way inclusion is implemented in our P-12 schools. Recognizing that there is no money in this budget to implement that commission - if I heard the minister correctly - could the minister give us some indication of what we might expect in the next budget? I know that the funding formulas haven’t been announced - however, it seems all but certain that there will be a significant price tag. I’m wondering what plans, if any, are being made to accommodate that spending?
MR. CHURCHILL: I’m not in a position to preclude what the recommendations are going to be from that commission. What I can tell the member is, this is a priority for our government. Our intended goal is to achieve transformative changes in the system, that will fix the model of inclusion and best prepare the system to support all students in our system. We are committed to achieving that. Of course, we have to work within our budgetary process and our financial capacity, but the commitment and intention is there.
I do also want to bring the member’s attention to dollars that are in this budget that are intended to support those with special needs and mental health issues and other needs in the system as well, because what needs to be made clear is that there is funding in this budget for this area of concern that the member has identified - despite the fact that we haven’t had the report concluded by the commission yet.
The significant investments that have been made to support mental health and students with special needs in this budget are: $2.6 million to ensure that no board, despite enrolment, has a decrease in special education funding. That’s really important because boards are funded on enrolment. That’s not reflective of the needs that each board faces. So, we are ensuring that each board is able to hold the line no matter what enrolment is for special education funding.
There are special needs support grants. There’s $1.5 million in this budget for that. That was first introduced in the 2015 budget and has been reflected every year since and this is to assist boards to deal with complex cases. There’s a SchoolsPlus program. There’s another $1.8 million of new investments for this budget, which brings the total to $8.2 million for the total program budget. This supports currently 31 hub sites and 37 mental health clinicians, which covers approximately 283 schools. These are hub sites. All schools, however, will fall under the SchoolsPlus umbrella by 2019, so that is built into our budgetary process as well. That funding will increase every year to ensure every single school has access to these critical supports.
As a result of the work to rule situation because of the labour dispute, there was a backlog in psychological assessments in our education system. That’s extremely problematic and there was a backlog of approximately 300 assessments or more, actually, so we have invested $1 million and we’re working with Mount Saint Vincent University to help clear up that backlog as quickly as possible. Currently, we have had approximately 300 assessments that were in backlog, completed across the province, which is very good news.
There are 20 FTEs to boards for critical and professional supports for students. These are used for either speech language pathologists or school psychologists. It is up to the board to decide which of those positions they need more. So, there is $1.4 million in investment in this budget for that and in response to, as I mentioned earlier, very, very tragic situations in Cape Breton, we did bring in Stan Kutcher to provide some additional advice on how to best support the community and that board to make sure that the appropriate supports are in place and we did bring forward a budget of $192,000 to allow the board to hire positions that were previously cut from their operational budgets. (Interruption) Sorry? Yes, and that was based on the operational decision of the board.
We did provide them that funding that they indicated they needed to have these positions reinstated and that is a highlight of the investments that are going in these key areas for supports for mental health and students with special needs.
MS. CHENDER: Thank you to the minister for that answer. Just on that last piece, I believe I heard the minister say that those FTEs were allocated to the boards indicated on what they said they needed. If I heard that correctly, then, I suppose my follow-up question is, is that all they said they needed or did they express that they might need more supports in the realm of full-time experts?
MR. CHURCHILL: These FTEs have been funded for the boards. Just to clarify my comments. It’s up to them to decide whether they need speech pathologists or student psychologists, depending on the needs of their student community so, of course, we will leave that decision up to them. They are on the ground, they have the best information possible in terms of which of those two support mechanisms and staff they do need.
MS. CHENDER: Moving on to capital planning, a November 2016 report by the Auditor General found that a lack of attention by the department’s school capital planning had led to inadequate processes. The Auditor General recommended that the department and school boards should work together to create a long-term plan, that the department should work with Finance to develop appropriate forms, follow clear and open processes to evaluate all submissions, and manage P3 decisions in more timely and comprehensive manners. Are there any funds allocated in this budget to address the AG’s recommendations on capital school planning?
MR. CHURCHILL: I just confirmed with staff - there is a capital plan that was released last November, which we’re currently operating under. It’s not reflected in the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s budget because it’s deemed to be infrastructure. I believe it’s managed in TIR so that will be reflected in their budget, not the department’s budget because it is infrastructure and capital.
In terms of the process that we undergo, we do work hand in hand with the boards in terms of identifying priority areas. There is a lot of capital pressure on our system. We do have a lot of schools that are dated and require updating or replacement. That is always a challenging exercise for any Party that sits on the government side of the House.
In terms of how that process looks, I’ll run through the specific bullet points for the member on the steps that happen for that. Each year, the Department of Finance and Treasury Board asks the department to identify multi-year capital funding requests. School boards are asked to submit individual requests outlining each project’s objective and estimated total cost. Projects are summarized at a budgetary level on a template created by the Department of Finance and Treasury Board. The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal develop a potential capital plan financial impact for Treasury. The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal work with school boards to determine detailed project scope and budgetary requirements. The Department of Finance and Treasury Board - the TCA committee provides recommendations to the Treasury Board for consideration. Our department submits the finalized capital plan to Treasury Board for approval. We coordinate cash flows with the Department of Finance and Treasury Board. They incorporate the cash flows into their capital plan, and government announces its capital plan in the late Fall or early winter of each year.
So, there is a pretty detailed process that is co-operative, is lead by the school boards. They present the areas of greatest need that we need to focus on. They identify the capital projects of greatest priority and then we also use our metrics to make sure that there is an appropriate allocation that takes into consideration the needs of our communities - regional balance in terms of capital expenditures, so it’s not all going into one area, and then we move forward with announcing.
We are in the process of finalizing our recommendations for the capital plan, as we speak. That is not finalized yet for this year, so we’re still operating on last year’s capital plan. I hope that clarified the process a bit for the member.
MS. CHENDER: If we could have a copy of that, I would love to see it, or if the minister could direct me to where I could get a copy, that would be great.
I want to go back for a minute to student mental health since that came up when I asked about inclusive education. We did talk about the funding for that, but I would like to get a little bit more into the number of those FTEs and how they’re distributed. Can you tell me what the current number of guidance counsellors are in the province, currently working in the system?
MR. CHURCHILL: I do have that information for the member. Currently, there are 230.5 FTEs in the system for guidance counsellors.
MS. CHENDER: Can the minister advise how many additional guidance counsellors were added this year and how many were added last year? I’m looking for a trajectory here.
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the complement of guidance counsellors, that number remains static. It is based on ratio. If the member referred to the FTEs year over year, she would see a number that’s very consistent. Where we have increased supports is in speech language pathologists and school psychologists. There are also additional mental health clinicians who have been hired for the system. We have hired - I think at this point it’s around 37 new mental health clinicians in the system. We will bring that number up to 51. In terms of overall teaching positions in the system, there were close to 750 new positions that we have hired. A lot of those are focused in literacy and math supports. Those numbers also reflect the 140 that were hired for class caps. Broadly speaking, a large contingent of that are for extra support for kids in certain areas in the system.
MS. CHENDER: Just to clarify, those 37 moving to 51 mental health clinicians, does that fall under the headline of psychologists? If not, could the minister let me know the current number of psychologists, and how many have been added this year - same question - and how many were added the previous year?
MR. CHURCHILL: The mental health clinicians are under the SchoolsPlus program, in that budget. That’s where the member will find that. That is separate from the student psychologists. In the system right now, there are close to 72 FTEs for student psychologists plus the additional 20 FTEs who can either be allocated for student psychologists or speech language pathologists, depending on the needs of those boards. That decision is up to them, but currently, there are approximately 72 FTEs in the system for student psychologists. That number will increase once boards are able to hire more because of the investments in this budget.
MS. CHENDER: I’m really not trying to be thick, but just to clarify, 72 plus whatever portion of those 20 FTEs the boards want to allocate. That 20, are those the additional investments in this budget that you’re pointing to? Yes? That’s fine. I just wanted to clarify that.
Mr. Chairman, through you to the minister, could you direct me to the budget line that would include funding for educational assistants? Where do I find that funding here?
MR. CHURCHILL: Again, just to clarify, the mental health clinicians are separate from student psychologists and guidance counsellors. The number of 72 will increase. That number will be confirmed in October. We will actually know the breakdown of which school boards hired student psychologists and which hired speech language pathologists. That number will clarify itself by the end of the month.
In terms of funding - the second question was EAs. That can be found on Page 7.10, under Formula Grants to School Boards. The member will note that there has been an increase in that budget line as well.
MS. CHENDER: Can the minister advise what is the current number of EAs in schools across the province? The same question, how many were added this year and how many were added the previous year?
MR. CHURCHILL: Currently there are 1,772.5 FTEs for EA or TA positions in the system.
MS. CHENDER: Can the minister tell me how many - was there an increase or a decrease in this number from last year? Do we anticipate an increase or decrease in this number going forward?
MR. CHURCHILL: The member will note that in terms of funding from the province, that is based on a ratio system currently as well, so the funding will be consistent. From year to year, I think there is a slight increase.
However, school boards have utilized their own budgets to hire additional EAs or TAs, whichever they are referred to in that board. They have taken it upon themselves to hire those positions and every school board has hired more, I’ll let the member know. Those positions will not be reflected in the provincial budget but will be in the operational budgets of the school boards because they’ve allocated more resources for hiring.
I think the number is either 40 or 50 in HRM, in the member’s area. I do not have the numbers from each of the boards but staff are telling me that that number has increased in every single board, although it’s not reflected in the provincial budget.
MS. CHENDER: Understaffing, can the minister advise how many classrooms are over the new class caps this year?
MR. CHURCHILL: Coincidentally, the boards report on that in early November every year, so we will be receiving that report most likely this week or next week. We do expect that all boards will be following the guidelines. There may be a small number of classes that might be over by one to three students, but that only happens when the teacher agrees and the administrator of the school agrees that that’s necessary because of size or space constraints in the school.
Those decisions are made at the local level because they are the ones who are best able to decide, if this is a space issue, is it better to have an additional one to three kids in the class or do we have a whole new class? If they’re not able to do that, then they usually make that decision, if that makes sense to the member. That report will be out this week.
MS. CHENDER: Mr. Chairman, I would ask the minister, through you, if he could share that information with us when it becomes available, or maybe it will be made public but I’d love to know where to find it. Anecdotally, we’ve heard of a number of classes that are over the cap. Of course, that rationale makes sense, but then again, if that’s happening everywhere we know we have a systemic problem in that the class caps aren’t able to be accommodated in the way that we hoped that they will.
The minister stated that more teachers were hired this year than in any of the previous 20 years. I believe he gave a number - I don’t have it but I believe that there is a number. I’m wondering if you can just repeat that number of teachers who were hired this year. Also, just going back, if there are any hard numbers you can compare that to - like, how many teachers were hired in each of the previous 10 years, say, if we’re going to make that comparison?
MR. CHURCHILL: Just on the class cap question first, we have asked boards to produce that information publicly, so that will be made available for all members of the public once that data comes in.
We do expect less than 1 per cent of classes to be over the class cap, that’s our anticipation. We’ll see if the numbers reflect that assumption.
In terms of FTEs, since taking office in 2013 we have hired 761 new FTEs into the system. A portion of that is for math and literacy supports, a portion of that is for class caps. Those are new FTEs into the system.
We can produce a document that shows what the rolling number is over a 10-year period, if the member is interested in receiving that, that is a document we can produce for you. It might even be available online, I’m not sure, but we’ll make sure that you get a copy of that.
MS. CHENDER: I’d love to see that, so if you can point me in the direction or provide it, that would be wonderful.
On Page 7.4 of Estimates and Supplementary Detail, two FTEs were added to senior management within the department. I’m wondering if you could tell me what those positions are.
MR. CHURCHILL: Those two FTEs are associated with the International School Programs. We have 15 international schools - or more, actually - we have 18, most of which are in China. This is actually a revenue-generator for the province and is also a good recruitment tool in terms of bringing international students into our post-secondary institutions as well.
While these FTEs are new to the department, they are not new to the system. Previously, for reasons I don’t know, those FTEs were in the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board. They were in charge of overseeing the international education program. It was a decision made by Finance and Treasury Board to bring those positions into the department. They are not new positions to the system, although they are new positions to the department.
We can all recognize the logical sense of having those two positions, in particular, in the department itself, not in just one of the school boards.
MS. CHENDER: I agree with the minister that it makes more sense to have them there than in the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board.
On Page 7.6, there are two fewer FTEs under the Centre for Learning Excellence. I’d love to hear whether there were positions that were cut and, if so, what they were and if you could otherwise explain that change.
MR. CHURCHILL: There weren’t two positions cut. They were actually reallocated in the department. Those two positions moved from the Centre for Learning Excellence to the Student Equity and Support Services Branch, and they are there to support the SchoolsPlus program. It’s a reallocation of FTEs to support the SchoolsPlus program.
MS. CHENDER: Just to follow up, when those FTEs were in the Centre for Learning Excellence, were they also supporting the SchoolsPlus program and, if not, what were they doing there?
MR. CHURCHILL: They were actually under the Centre for Learning Excellence. Those positions were actually vacant. We moved those FTEs to the Student Equity and Support Services Branch to fill them and to allocate those resources for the implementation and expansion of SchoolsPlus.
MS. CHENDER: My last question on staffing: on Page 7.7, I see three fewer FTEs within Education Innovation Programs and Services. Can you speak to that?
MR. CHURCHILL: I can provide clarity on that. Two of those three positions were IT positions. Those have moved to the Department of Internal Services where all IT positions have been consolidated. The other position was actually a borrowed FTE from the Department of Community Services. A staff person had come over to assist the department with a particular project, and once that project was completed, that staff person and that FTE was then moved back to the Department of Community Services.
MS. CHENDER: In trying to understand this very complex area, I did my best to read through this budget, and then on advice also looked at some of the Public Accounts information just so I could see some of the supplementary detail. I noticed in Public Accounts, Volume 3, which sort of lays out the daycare centres and all of that - which was interesting, because I get to check my own daycare centre and see how much money they’re allocated - I note under “Other” that the first three lines are Nova Scotia numbered companies and that the amounts going to them total just around $2 million. The first is 3032185 Nova Scotia Ltd., the second is 3032514 Nova Scotia Ltd., and the third is 3299418 Nova Scotia Ltd. I would like some clarification on where those payments were going.
MR. CHURCHILL: The two larger items were for technical maintenance and upgrades for our P3 schools in the province. That’s what those were allocated for. The $5,000 number, we do not have the answer to that for you right now but we’ll make sure that we track that down.
MS. CHENDER: Just to follow up, technical maintenance and upgrades to P3 schools. Would payments for non-P3 schools be otherwise covered by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development somewhere, but in the case of P3 schools, that money gets paid to a private company or can the minister clarify?
MR. CHURCHILL: These numbers are reflective of the requirements of the contract for the P3 schools. Specifically, there is money that goes through the correct budget line as property services funding, which does go to all boards for the rest of the schools. So obviously, technological upgrades are important for all of our institutions. This was just part of the contractual obligation for funding for the P3 schools specifically, there’s 39 of those, and for other boards, that goes through the property services funding line.
MS. CHENDER: Just a last follow-up there. The P3 schools have some kind of - the work that would normally be done in a non-P3 school by government employees, the money would flow through that budget line that you pointed to, in this case would be done by a private contractor, is that right? Or by the builder of the school?
MR. CHURCHILL: Yes, that’s correct.
MS. CHENDER: Thank you. I see that time is running a bit short, so my last question just in relation to the budget is, in the ministerial briefing binder that was made available through access to information and which of course you received, we noted that there are seven separate pieces of litigation the department is involved in and I’m wondering if we see funds set aside in this budget to cover litigation costs, which we of course know are expensive.
MR. CHURCHILL: In terms of the legal costs, those are reflected through the Department of Justice’s budget and their allocations of lawyers or hiring. There’s no money in our budget for settlements, if that was what the question was. Maybe you might want to clarify.
MS. CHENDER: Just to clarify, litigation may result in settlement or it may just go on and on. It’s all the costs associated with litigation - staff costs, funding, court orders, whatever else is involved in that.
MR. CHURCHILL: All of those are provided through the Department of Justice not the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.
MS. CHENDER: We heard today in Question Period from our caucus about all the temporary workers that we see in various government departments and so we are asking this. I will ask the minister, can the minister tell us how much the department has spent on services provided by temp agencies in the past year, and whether or not this minister is budgeting for those services in this year and where we could find those in the budget?
MR. CHURCHILL: The use of temporary agencies is so small that it is not actually budgeted for. There is usually enough funding through vacancies to do that, and that is the only time we would actually use temporary staffing, primarily for positions like administrative assistants, in particular, that is where we utilize temporary agencies. But that number is so small you wouldn’t see it reflected here because the savings in the vacancy itself actually provide the funding to fund those positions if they’re needed.
MS. CHENDER: Can the minister tell us how much the department spent on employee overtime last year and how much is budgeted for overtime in this budget?
MR. CHURCHILL: There is no budget for overtime. Back to the number - David found the number for temp. It is between $11,000 and $20,000 for temp, so a very, very small number in a budget that is now at $1.3 billion. It would be a very, very small number.
MS. CHENDER: Just to clarify, no money budgeted for overtime. I don’t know if I am actually supposed to keep talking until you stop me . . .
MR. CHAIRMAN: You have 40 seconds left, honourable member.
MS. CHENDER: I will thank the minister and staff for being here.
MR. CHAIRMAN: Order, please. Time has expired for the Committee of the Whole on Supply for today.
The honourable Deputy Government House Leader.
MR. KEITH IRVING: I move that the committee do now rise and report progress to the House and beg leave to sit again.
MR. CHAIRMAN: The motion is carried.
[The committee adjourned at 7:08 p.m.]