Education for the people?

Two back to back encounters on the weekend had me thinking about the recent announcements about education “reform” from Doug Ford’s government for the people.

First, was a conversation I had with my seven-year-old grandson. He was playing a game with an elastic band by which, according to him, he could tell whether someone was “a boy or a girl.” I asked: “What about people who are neither one?”

This was not a concept he had ever considered. His position was without malice and pretty straightforward: people were either a boy or a girl and that’s all there was to it. I talked a bit about how people can be something other than what their bodies identified them as being at birth. His eyes grew wide and his face reflected utter puzzlement as he gave this some serious thought. This seemed to be the most extraordinary thing he had ever heard but he was prepared to take my word for it.

The second encounter happened a few minutes later, when friends arrived for dinner. One told us that her three-year-old great-nephew had decided to wear a dress to day care recently, which was fine with his parents. However, it was not fine with the day care centre, and he was told to take the dress off.

Not until grade eight

Thanks to the new (or is it the old or the old/new or the new/old?) sex ed curriculum that will be introduced in the fall, neither my grandson nor my friend’s great-nephew will be able to learn about gender identity until the second half of grade eight. Fortunately for both of them, they are part of families where these topics will be discussed and they will be supported to be whatever kind of kid they believe themselves to be.

But not all children in Ontario are in such a fortunate position. Denying them access to important education about gender identity until they are fully launched into puberty is wrong.

Also delayed in the new approach to sex ed is any discussion about consent which, like gender identity, will not be presented to kids until grade 8. This won’t be much help to children on sports teams who are molested by coaches, in classrooms with predator teachers and in families with uncles, older brothers, fathers and step-fathers who sexually abuse them.

Also of concern is that parents can opt their kids out of these classes if they don’t want them learning about consent or gender identity.

I won’t apologize for sounding cynical in saying that I don’t think the online modules the government is promising for families who want to discuss these topics privately at home will offer the kids in those families the safe setting they may need to explore issues that may relate directly to them.

Building successful lives, families and businesses

There are other changes coming this fall. Class size in intermediate and high schools is increasing with, according to the government, no loss of jobs to teachers.

Not so, says Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation: 20% of public high school teachers will be affected. So will learning: with more kids in a class, there will be less opportunity for individualized attention.

There is yet another version of new math on its way. It’s back to “fundamentals” and a focus on financial literacy, which is consistent with the government’s message that its education reforms are designed to “ensure that all Ontario students will acquire the skills they need to build successful lives, families and businesses right here in Ontario.”

Access to post-secondary education

Two of our grandchildren bookend the education system: the youngest is just entering elementary school and the oldest is getting ready to embark on post-secondary learning. The challenges he faces are largely financial.

I read the government’s backgrounder and news release on the changes to student loans, college and university tuition and student fees and, perhaps because I have not benefitted from the new math with its focus on financial literary, could not make head nor tail of any of it. These two documents are doublespeak at its best.

Fortunately, I was able to turn to mainstream media for some clarification, and now I understand that the government is eliminating free tuition for low-income students while also lowering overall tuition rates by 10%. Money that used to be available to students in the form of grants will now be available only as loans.

When I went to university for the first time, straight out of high school, the grant/loan system allowed me to live almost entirely off grant money and build up relatively little debt. However, when I returned in my mid-30s to go to law school, the system was reversed, and I left with massive student debt. Eventually, because it depressed me so much, I rolled it into the mortgage on our house so, in effect, as I approach my 65th birthday, I am still paying it off.

I was hoping for something better for my grandchildren, but this is what my grandson and thousands of other students are facing: years and years of potentially crippling debt at the end of their education. Not so much a step in the direction of building successful lives, as promised by Ford and his cronies.

Walkout Wednesday

College and university students are concerned about these changes as well as the introduction of an opt-out from student fees. While these fees can add up to $2,000 to a student’s tuition, they pay for important services and organizations on college and university campuses. If students can opt out of paying for activities they don’t agree with or engage in, campuses may lose student governments, radio stations and newspapers, all of which help make these institutions transparent.

Interestingly, the most expensive item paid for from student fees is also the one used by the fewest number of students – athletics – yet it is not on the list of opt-outs. Got to keep those football teams going, no matter what.

Student walkouts are scheduled for noon on Wednesday March 27th.. The students have done the math – new or old –and know that poverty lies ahead for them unless these changes to post-secondary tuition are stopped.

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