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`It's been a tough year'

Canada's public education system is coming under increasing pressures from parents frustrated with what are seen as poor academic results, and from officials anxious to reduce their budget deficit.

"It's been a tough year," said Allan Bacon, president of the 250,000-member Canadian Teachers' Federation.

Teachers have had to live with the effects of continuing budget cuts, as Canada's 10 provincial governments try to slim down education spending by reducing salaries, eliminating programmes of study and in some cases instituting special fees. At the same time, there is increasing concern that quality is slipping.

According to a Gallup poll taken in July, 58 per cent of Canadians were dissatisfied with the education children are receiving. Only 36 per cent were satisfied.

That is the highest level of dissatisfaction since Gallup began surveys on the issue in 1973. In the last survey, the worst outcome was in the western province of British Columbia, where a scant 24 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the education system.

William Robson, a Toronto economist and director of Ontario's Coalition for Education Reform, said: "Ontario is the nadir of the things that are wrong (with education) in Canada. There is no curriculum and no systematic assessment, and as a result there's no accountability on the part of the teachers, the schools and the boards of education."

Even Ontario's premier, Bob Rae, has expressed frustration with the system after the results in the autumn of the first province-wide reading and writing test taken by ninth grade students since 1967. It showed that 90 per cent of them met or exceeded the standard set by the Ministry of Education, but almost half were only at the minimum acceptable level.

"It's not good enough for people to say, well, everybody got a C. Isn't that great?" Mr Rae said in a speech to a business group.

"We have to set higher standards for ourselves and offer more challenges to our kids. My fundamental gut view is that the more we challenge our children and the more excited we get about their education, the better we do.

"The problem is not more money. We spend more per student than almost every other part of the globe. The problem is focus, direction, standards, and the capacity to evolve, adapt, change, and show a flexibility in making that changing."

Pressure is also increasing in some provinces for disclosure of test results school by school. In primarily French-speaking Quebec, the provincial Ministry of Education for the first time ranked all schools, both public and private, on the level of pupil success in provincial examinations; teachers' unions remain largely opposed to the move.

Unions are also disturbed by the actions taken in Alberta, which has cut in half its funding for kindergarten programmes. Hence some school boards in this western Canadian province are charging as much as Pounds 215 a year for kindergarten, which has led to a drop of enrolment among the poor.

"Once you start to make those services available only to those who can pay for them, you end up with a two-tier system", said Allan Bacon.

Teachers, whose salaries bounded ahead in the 1970s and 1980s, have found themselves facing new constraints. In Alberta, their salaries were cut by 5 per cent, while in Nova Scotia wages were first cut by 3 per cent, then frozen at the lower level for another three years.

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