An elementary school teacher in Mission, B.C., has compiled statistics on the size and composition of more than 70 classrooms across the province and posted them online in a bid to illustrate one of the major sticking points in the dispute between the province’s teachers and the government.

Provincial laws dictate how many children are allowed in a single classroom, but the picture painted in the blog post, compiled by Scott Susin, isn’t rosy: a Grade 12 chemistry class with 36 students, some of them sitting on counters or sinks; a Grade 4 class with 28 kids, 21 of them learning English, and no educational support staff.

“I want parents to really be upset about this,” Mr. Susin said.

“Whenever there’s a labour dispute with the BCTF [BC Teachers’ Federation] and the government it seems like the big focus from the media and the public is always on the salary and the wages,” Mr. Susin said. “The reason why I did this is that I really felt like I wanted to give teachers a voice, and really get their message out there. We hear so much from [union president] Jim Iker and the union and the government about class size and composition, but I don’t think people really understand what composition means.”

But the Ministry of Education said in a statement it could not verify some of the claims on the blog. For example, after sifting through its own data, the ministry said it couldn’t find a chemistry class with 36 kids, like the one reported on Mr. Susin’s blog post. It did find an advanced class for chemistry and environmental science with 35 students. The specialty class allows advanced students to gain a university credit.

“Students that enroll in these types of courses are usually highly motivated and need very little direct assistance or supervision,” a ministry spokesman said in a statement.

Provincial guidelines cap class size for kindergarten at 22 students and for Grade 1 to three classrooms at 24. For every grade above that, there is a soft cap of 30, meaning that a classroom can exceed 30 kids with the principal and superintendent’s consent.

But there are no caps on how many students with special needs can be in a class. The government provides additional funding to each school based on the number of kids with learning designations and the severity of their needs. For example, a student for whom English is a second language comes with an additional $1,340 in funding.

A level 1 special-needs student receives $36,600 for additional support, while a student with a level 3 need comes with $9,200.

Decisions about how to allocate that money – such as how many educational assistants to hire and what classrooms to place them in – are made by the schools.

Shelley Green, president of the British Columbia Principals’ and Vice Principals’ Association, said some children with designated needs may be fairly self-sufficient, which would allow the school to redirect some of the funding from those students to help others who may need extra assistance but don’t yet have designations. There is a waiting list for assessments.

In the statement, the Ministry of Education said that in some cases, it makes sense to group students with special needs together, so that an educational assistant can be assigned to the group on a full-time basis, rather than having the assistant split his or her time between multiple classrooms.

On the whole, B.C. does not have large class sizes, the ministry noted. The average size of a Grade 8-12 class this year is 23. Less than 2 per cent of classes have more than 30 kids in them, and the majority of those are in subjects like drama or band, where larger classes are desirable.

But Mr. Susin noted it’s the composition of the class – and not just the size – that can determine the quality of learning that students receive. Teachers may find themselves devoting most of their energy catering to the kids who need extra help, leaving the others to learn on their own.

“We spend 90 per cent of our day putting out little fires for these special-needs children who aren’t being serviced adequately,” Mr. Susin said.

As for teachers’ claims there are more special-needs students in their classrooms than ever before, Ms. Green wasn’t sure that’s accurate.

“The diversity is probably not all that new,” Ms. Green said. “It’s just that we understand our children so much better than we ever did before, and the diagnosis by our medical people has become much tighter.”

Teachers began limited job action in April, moved to rotating walkouts in May and launched a full-scale strike June 17. Although the two sides have moved closer on the issue of wages, the government says the $225-million annual workload fund that teachers are demanding – to deal with class size and composition – is unreasonable.

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Jun. 29 2014, 7:47 PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Jun. 29 2014, 7:47 PM EDT