Class composition: A crucial issue with few easy solutions

When the BCTF talks about what it’s bargaining for in this round of negotiations, the phrase “class size and composition” is frequently said.

Size is easy for parents to understand and administrators to define. Composition is a thornier issue.

Composition generally means the number of special needs students in a class, or the number of counselors, teacher assistants and librarians per student in a school. The BCTF would like to negotiate composition across B.C. – a right taken away from them in a contentious 2002 government decision still being litigated today.

“I think it’s fantastic that there are classrooms with such diverse needs and there are benefits to that but with things being stripped back and stripped back, it gets harder for teachers to meet the needs of every child in the classroom,” says Regan Rankin, who teaches special needs students.

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“You can have a class of 29 with one ESL student and maybe three students with special needs. Compare that to a class with 26 students with four ESL students and five students with special needs. The workload shifts significantly and becomes more difficult to meet the needs of all kids,” says BCTF spokesperson Richard Overgaard.

Since 206-2007, the number of classes with four or more children with special needs has risen sharply, from 9,559 to 16,163 in this school year.

However, the government and school administrators say those numbers don’t paint a full picture.

“Special needs are defined in 12 different categories in our school system,” says Baldrey.

“Everything from intellectual and physical disabilities, to emotional and behavioral issues…sometimes, according to administrators, it makes sense to have more special needs of a certain kind under than would be possible under a fixed limit.”

The BCTF would like to see composition numbers revert back to around 2002 numbers, but with a province-wide ratio instead of one that is separately negotiated district to district.

How much would it cost? The two sides disagree, but court documents submitted by school districts in February show that many large school districts would hire many new specialists, or “non-enrolling teachers”, if pre-2002 ratios were enforced.

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The three highest were Surrey, which said they would hire 275 (151 would be part of their “Learner Support Team”), North Vancouver (119.5), and Coquitlam (47.5). Other school districts, including Vancouver, would need to hire more regular classroom teachers but would be fine with their current number of specialists.

“All the research around the world has shown us and I know Mr. Iker [BCTF president] would say otherwise, that size is not the determinant of outcomes.  Composition has a role to play in that as does the quality of our teachers and teaching instruction,” says Education Minister Peter Fassbender.

Due to the issue still being tied up in litigation, negotiations over of class composition are even tougher than they otherwise would be.

“It’s a big cloud hanging over these negotiations,” says Baldrey.

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