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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 4, January/February 2006

The problem with flexibility

by Anne Jardine

Flexibility means that the school principal and sometimes the school staff (if the principal has a democratic character or if the staff has asserted its rights) get to decide how the school’s inadequate resources will be distributed. Things they typically might decide are: How many library blocks will be lost in order to make class sizes more equitable? How many learning assistance blocks can be provided by increasing class sizes? Can the school afford to offer a music program? Will the art supply cupboard have 10 colours of paper or only 6? Can the school get along for one more year with its rickety furniture? or Will there be a bus for the Grade 7 field trip? They essentially get to decide how to trim the school’s aspirations so they can fit into a drastically inadequate budget.

The principals are still thinking that their decision-making role will somehow be crimped or hindered if the School Act limits class sizes. How does the right to set class enrolments over 30 improve the system? How does it make the school better?

The trade-offs that are made in the name of flexibility are rarely educationally based. How can one who reduces a school library program in order to accommodate a learning assistance class claim to be exercising educational leadership? How can flexibility to advance one essential program and diminish another essential program be educationally justified?

Secondary schools have to have certain small classes in order to sustain important programs such as senior physics, chef training, or photography. These programs should not be offered—as they have been in far too many instances—at the expense of the effectiveness of the core courses such as math, social studies, or English. The core courses in many secondary schools seem to be the shock absorbers of the timetable. They are often enrolled in early September at 30 pupils and then by October, attrition takes them down to the high 20s, or flexibility pumps them up into the 30s.

The core subject classrooms are often bursting with 30 or more students who are required to complete the courses in order to graduate. Many of the students are not happy or co-operative about mandatory subjects. This means that the management and motivation of students becomes the main priority for the teachers. Classroom atmosphere is often tense with distractions, power struggles, and behaviour issues. The actual delivery of curriculum is often compromised, and artistry and enjoyment are often lost entirely. This daily tension—together with the efforts necessary to keep up with individual needs, planning, marking, evaluation, and reporting—can be extreme when the teacher’s total student enrolment typically exceeds 100 pupils.

To insure that students have the best opportunities to succeed in their required courses, the courses need to have comfortable and effective learning environments. The teachers need to have adequate preparation and collaboration time. The students who have learning difficulties need to have appropriate, timely assistance.

The sanity of classroom teachers who deliver the fundamental courses should not be sacrificed on the altar of "flexibility," or traded off in favour of specialized elective programs. Those are not educationally sound trade-offs. In fact, when choices like those have to be made, the school’s overall educational balance is lost. It is not fair or healthy that some teachers have to bear the burdens of impossible workload to accommodate the existence of important school programs. If the programs are important, then they are worth funding in their own right. The funding should not be taken from math or English. It needs to be fully covered.

The school’s plan should allow for small numbers of students in those special electives as well as reasonable class sizes (low to mid-20s) in the core academic courses. Such planning makes educational sense. It makes sense in terms of mental health for both students and teachers. It will save counseling time. It will save administrative time by reducing stress-related behaviour problems. It leaves a bit of space in case a new student joins the class.

The kind of flexibility that allows management to routinely assign class sizes in the upper reaches of the 20s and into the 30s is not educationally sound. Over a period of years, this kind of flexibility normalizes an atmosphere of anxiety and tension, and it drags down the school culture and the staff morale.

The kind of flexibility that expects schools to use library and counselling as flex programs to balance class sizes and solve timetable problems is not flexibility at all, but educational irresponsibility. Library and counselling are central services that need to be available to all students when they need them, not just when they can be worked in.

Let’s recognize such flexibility for what it is, a flesh-eating disease. The current ministry thinking is dominated by a poverty mentality that uses flexibility as a means of masking inadequate resources. The starved system feeds upon its own flesh and the educational leadership continues to wave the tattered flag of flexibility. By lowering everyone’s expectations, our government has succeeded in convincing both the public and the educational leadership that flexibility is a worthy goal. Flexibility, as it has been used in recent years, means making the kinds of choices that poor people have to make about whether to buy the groceries or pay the landlord. Well, this just in: we are rich enough to do both!

If the educational leaders will not demand that we fully fund the reasonable service levels that the system so clearly needs and the children of British Columbia so dearly deserve, then the teachers of this province will continue to make that demand. We hope that parents and communities will add their voices to call for the two new F-words: Fair Funding!

Anne Jardine is president of the Windermere Teachers’ Association.

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