Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Independence and InequalityIndependence and Inequality

Independence and Inequality

Ontario’s independent schools outperformed their government counterparts during COVID-19. Peter Stockland reports on policy recommendations from Cardus Education’s David Hunt to strengthen Ontario's education for all students.

Peter Stockland
David Hunt
4 minute read

In a policy brief submitted to the Ontario government today, Cardus Director of Education David Hunt says the COVID-19 crisis has exposed “the cracks” in the province’s government-run school system.

Hunt argues the “inflexibility, inequality and inefficiency” of government education stands in stark contrast to the nimbleness and responsiveness of Ontario’s independent schools, which he maintains did a far superior job of responding to the needs of the students and communities.

The solution? An overhaul of Ontario’s education funding model so that dollars can follow children to the schools their parents choose, Hunt says.

“Sure, independent schools tend to be smaller in size, so they were more nimble and better able to adjust (to the pandemic lockdown),” Hunt told Convivium. “But it’s much more than that. They pivoted so much quicker (because) there are no government subsidies to the independent school sector. If the independent schools don’t deliver, parents will walk away so the schools were highly motivated to act. Those in government run schools don’t have that motivation.”

Hunt stresses a primary attraction of independent schools is the sense of community that is their raison d’être but emphasizes the financial discipline of parental choice would be the shock to the system that’s needed to get government-run schools operating effectively, efficiently and equitably again.

“The system has long been inflexible. There was at least a two-week period where kids were not receiving any form of education. Once some form of online assistance was made available, it was very limited,” he says.

That, in turn, showed the cracks in claims of equality that government-run school supporters have long relied on, he says. The inflexibility in the fact of crisis meant those in socio-economic spheres who need education the most were unable to obtain it, a double burden borne by special needs pupils who cannot access educational funding anywhere but through government-run schools. Both failures are a function of inefficiency bred by complacency that’s function of refusing to let educational dollars follow the pupil, he says.

“I’ll admit what I’m proposing in the policy paper is ambitious, but I do not think it’s unrealistic or radical. My hope is that it helps shift the way of thinking so we can start having new, healthy conversations to bring innovation to the (educational) sector.”

Whatever the response of Ontario’s government educational establishment will ultimately be, numerous interviews with Christian independent schools earlier this month illuminated the extent to which the issue of funding is but a first-step issue. It must not be permitted to box-out a far deeper discussion about differing pedagogical approaches, said those whose stories will appear on Convivium this week and next.

In fact, for Justin Cook, director of learning for Edvance Christian Schools Association, the “transactional” issue of concern shouldn’t be the financial debate but rather a dialogue over how students learn best.

Schooling has for too long been mired in a transaction that exchanges grades for expectations of performance, Cook says.  

“The core of the educational endeavour, the currency of education, has forever been grades. ‘I’m the teacher. I have the power to dole out grades and you, the student, will do what I need.’ Obviously, there are students who are losing in that transaction. They will go from actual engagement to strategic engagement to ritual compliance all the way down to retreat or even rebellion. Those levels of engagement are profoundly shaped by whether the student is truly getting something in return for their engagement,” he says.

Cooks says the disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis makes the moment ideal for other school systems, especially government-run schools, to consider seriously the philosophy adopted and adapted by Edvance member schools.

“We don’t want a transmission of content for the transaction of grades ethos in our schools. That’s a really thin story, a terrible story. The current crisis we’re navigating has completely stripped away the possibility and integrity of grade transmission transaction as being integral.”

In an interview, Cook lights up at the example of a Christian school in rural Eastern Ontario where students learn in a sophisticated computer lab but are also responsible for tending to goats kept at the far end of the playground. It illustrates, he says, of seeing education as connected understanding, not the abstraction that grades represent.

“There’s an inherent learning in the relationship to the subject matter. They have to be out there doing their learning because the goat is going to live or die based on the way the children care for it. It’s a practical, meaningful learning encounter.”

The goats are emblematic of the way schools under the Edvance umbrella commit to project-based pedagogy. Even during the COVID crisis, one school that maintains a garden on its property to teach students the intricacies of picking, canning and preserving each fall kept the project going while observing proper social distancing protocols.  Other schools build two-day co-op placements into the regular rhythm of the weekly class rotation.

“Learning has happened in a bit of a hermetically-sealed environment within schools, walled off from the rest of life. But the COVID-19 pandemic experience has shown how we can actually do learning outside the building. It can creatively influence the way schools get more like a base camp, and less like a fortress.”

This is the first of Peter Stockland's series on how some Ontario independent schools succeeded in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Monday: Minutes to pandemic turnaround – how one school got back on track so quickly.

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