In 2009, the B.C. Teachers' Federation launched the "When Will They Learn?" campaign that focused on school closures, overcrowded classes and the neglect of students with special needs.
The 2009 television ads featured images of public schools closing across the province. The text read: "177 schools closed. 10,000 overcrowded classes. Special needs still neglected. Things are getting worse for B.C. students."
Again, in 2012, the BCTF under the leadership of president Susan Lambert pursued the same theme with print ads in English, Chinese and Punjabi that identified public education as experiencing 12,000 overcrowded classes and 700 fewer special-needs teachers.
The BCTF ad campaign might have had unintended consequences - if the intention was to worry parents about the health and quality of life in B.C. classrooms, it worked.
More students than ever, according to a recent report by the Federation of Independent School Associations, are now attending B.C. independent schools, and preliminary enrolment figures suggest an extraordinary spike outside Metro Vancouver.
In the Cariboo and the North, it appears enrolment in independent schools has jumped more than 12 per cent, compared to a province-wide increase of 3.8 per cent.
In the Okanagan and the Kootenays, the increase is six per cent.
Parents offered a variety of reasons for making the switch, he said, including frustration with job action by public-school teachers last year and improved economic conditions in some sectors that make tuition fees more manageable.
It seems probable that the withdrawal of extracurricular activities last year, along with the negative ads, convinced some parents that it was time to look elsewhere, perhaps at independent schools that offer team sports, fine-arts and performing-arts activities and, most importantly, tutorials that shore up classroom teaching and learning.
For kids and their parents who have university aspirations, any additional academic support is a plus, given that getting into a university these days requires a Grade 11/12 average score above 80 per cent.
The same survey by FISA B.C. identified another reason that was unexpected.
Some northern parents said they opted for an independent school because they are uncomfortable with the Education Ministry's move toward personalized learning, also called 21stcentury learning, under B.C.'s Education Plan, announced in the fall of 2011.
There's a well-known blues song titled Never Make Your Move Too Soon. It might be that in announcing B.C.'s new education plan without a detailed explanation, the government has worried some parents.
Nonetheless, the ministry has done a pretty good job of seeking online reaction to the plan by collecting more than 5,000 responses. Respondents were pleased that, in theory, the new plan would "teach the competencies students will need in order to succeed in a rapidly changing world," but worried that this might be done at the expense of "important foundational skills [such as] reading, writing and numeracy."
Concern was also expressed that any major changes should "introduce choice gradually" because "students don't automatically have the wisdom, maturity or foresight to make good choices about what to learn."
These are familiar concerns to those teachers and administrators who have been running schools along the lines suggested by the new plan for some years now. Teachers at schools like Frances Kelsey Secondary in Mill Bay and Thomas Haney Secondary in Haney/Maple Ridge have solved many of the technical problems inherent in implementing the changes proposed by the ministry's new plan - and they've done so successfully.
Which makes it a mystery why all that experience was not engaged as part of the announcement of the new plan.
So here's a suggestion for the restoration of confidence in public education. First, some good news from the BCTF about how well kids in public schools are achieving on national and international tests, then some good news from the ministry about those schools that have ironed out potential problems in the new B.C. Education Plan, and, third, a labour-relations model that works for, not against, public education.
Can't be that hard.
Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.
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