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UPDATED: Almost 30 per cent of BC residents know a kid who's not in school: poll

Almost 30 per cent of British Columbians know a school-aged child who is not currently enrolled in school, according to a poll released today from the Focus Foundation of British Columbia.

In an online poll (see bottom of page) conducted last January, 802 randomly selected British Columbians were asked a series of questions about their impressions of the province's public school system. With a margin of error of 3.5 percent, the poll found 27 per cent of people knew a child under the age of 19 who was neither enrolled in or graduated school.

Focus founder Bob Kissner says it's a number that calls for future investigation.

"I'd also like to take a look at kids that are not in school and what their circumstances are -- because clearly some of those kids could be working for a family or something like that. Or alternately there might be other circumstances, so I'd like to understand that," he said in an interview.

Other questions included asking participants to rate the overall state of education in B.C. (55 per cent said "good" or "very good"); estimate the percentage of kids who fail to graduate each year (estimated average was 21.4 per cent, most recent rate is 18.2 per cent); and decide whether or not government "has the responsibility to fund specialized programs for youth who have specific learning conditions beyond the resources in the regular school system." (Eighty-four per cent said "probably does" or "definitely does".)

The poll was conducted Jan. 17 and 18 this year by a "major Vancouver polling firm" that Focus would not name, saying it was pro bono work based on an agreement not to disclose the firm's name.

Focus Foundation of BC, which operates two independent schools or "learning centres" in the Lower Mainland that combine therapy and education for kids who drop out or are expelled from public schools, says it wants the poll to draw attention to kids struggling in the public system. But they didn't release the numbers until now because the foundation, a non-profit with charity status, didn't want the poll's release to come too close to the provincial election the following May.

"I think we have a much more constructive dialogue right now," said Kissner.

Instead they decided to release the numbers close to Sept. 30, the deadline for public school enrollment numbers to be submitted to the provincial government. The province uses these numbers to calculate school funding levels.

"Any child that isn't in school on Sept. 30, there isn't a huge incentive at a human level to do further outreach."

The poll also showed about three-quarters of respondents were "very concerned" and "moderately concerned" about "bureaucracy/poor management" in schools and "labour disputes between teachers and government". "Inaccurate resources" and "lack of safety in schools/bullying" closely followed at 70 per cent.

When asked if the looming election or BC Teachers' Federation and government labour disagreement happening at the time may have influenced respondents, Kissner said "probably in a few select cases. I'm not sure, really, how aware people were at the time."

"On the other hand, a lot of the questions we were asking were largely factual and I don't think that would have changed. I think what'll be interesting is if we're able to do this type of poll in January or February again, and then in fact immediately release it, whether or not some of these numbers have changed."

The Tyee contacted the ministry of education for a response to the number of British Columbians who knew a child who wasn't in school, and received this emailed statement: "The Ministry does track provincial school completion rates. For 2011-12, the completion rate was 81.8 per cent, an improvement of more than five percentage points compared to 2000-01. As well, the Aboriginal student completion rate has climbed more than 14 percentage points since 2001 – from 42 per cent to 56 per cent."

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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