Ontario's governing party hopes that educational change will boost its image. By Alan Freeman. Canada's largest province has embarked on a broad reform of its public education system that is designed to improve student performance, increase the accountability of educators and give parents and members of the community a bigger say in the operation of schools.
Ontario's provincial government has moved quickly to implement many of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Learning, which handed down a four-volume report with 167 recommendations in January.
With the approach of a provincial election, the governing New Democratic Party has latched on to educational reform as a theme that it hopes will overcome its low standing in public opinion polls and propel it to another electoral victory.
While many such studies often languish for years as politicians hesitate to move on their recommendations, Ontario education minister David Cooke made several rapid announcements within weeks of the tabling of the report.
The most controversial reforms are those aimed at raising the standards for teaching in the province, in particular a plan to require teachers to be recertified every five years.
That proposal has drawn fire from teachers' unions who see the move as an attack on their professionalism.
One union leader has called the recertification requirement "a system of perpetual probation that no profession would allow to happen to it", while another said she fears "a potential bureaucratic nightmare".
The recertification requirement would be one of the major responsibilities of a new professional body to be known as the Ontario College of Teachers, whose governing body will include teachers, parents, students, education professors, as well as representatives of school boards, government and the private sector.
The college, which will share some characteristics with the General Teaching Council for Scotland, will set standards of practice for teachers, extend basic teacher training at university from one year to two and establish a complaints process for students and parents.
The college will also require new teachers to pass an admission examination to be certified to teach in the province and will require practising teachers to upgrade their knowledge and skills as well as renew their certificates every five years.
"The reforms will promote the highest standards of excellence in teaching and put Ontario in the forefront of teacher education in North America," said Mr Cooke.
The proposed reforms also include measures to re-establish province-wide testing of children in grades 3, 6, 9 and 11 in reading, writing and mathematics.
The province is also setting up a new industrial agency that will set the tests, administer them and make public the results.
Although standardised testing will be limited to those four grades, report cards in all schools throughout the province will be standardised. At present report cards vary from school to school and district to district.
The province also plans to make the establishment of school councils mandatory at every Ontario school, starting in September 1995. Each council will consist of parents, community, the school principal, a teacher and a non-teaching member of the staff.
A student selected by the student body will also be a member of the councils in secondary schools while it will be up to principals in elementary schools to determine whether student participation is appropriate.
Parents will chair and form a majority on the councils. Among the councils' responsibilities will be to help set curriculum and programme priorities, and advise on the selection of principals, details of the school calendar, and the setting of a code of behaviour.
Paul Farlinger, a chairman of the Ontario Parent Council, an advisory group to the ministry of education, said his group is encouraged by the initial reforms announced by the province.
He believes they will help make the system more accountable to parents, who are looking to be better informed on the contents of their children's curriculum and what the standards are in the classroom.
Another government proposal calls for a cut of up to 50 per cent in the 168 school boards across the province to encourage administrative efficiency and the elimination of costly duplication and overlap of services.
The government's speedy implementation of the commission report has not satisfied everyone. Monique Begin, one of the co-chairs of the Can$3 million (Pounds 1.5m) royal commission, has criticised the government for moving too quickly.
"I feel like telling the minister to put on the brakes and stop the car at the side of the road to check the road map first." Ms Begin says, worried that Mr Cooke did not first consult everybody in the educational world and without being assured of solid support from the public.
Ms Begin was particularly disappointed by the government's decision not to go ahead with one of the report's main recommendations - making full-time schooling available to children across the province from the age of three.
In the face of widespread opposition to the proposal, which was viewed as too costly and inappropriate for children, the government said instead that it will extend existing programmes for four and five-year-olds.
The cost of the extended programme will be offset by savings made by the phasing out of the fifth year of high school, known as grade 13.
Ontario is the only north American jurisdiction to have a 13th grade and the royal commission said it was superfluous.