Opinion

Want a 10-Year School Deal, BC Liberals? Try These Terms

Europe's ambitious education strategy is no summer daydream.

By Crawford Kilian 21 Aug 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

It's been a running gag for ages: Christy Clark's Liberal government wants a 10-year contract with the BC Teachers' Federation as the solution to half a century of school wars.

Those wars have gone on so long it's hard to imagine an education system without them. But many systems flourish in peace, notably in Europe. As we approach the new school year while the current teachers' strike goes on, we might consider what the Europeans are doing that we're not.

The Europeans have a Europe 2020 Strategy with two major goals: To reduce the share of early school leavers to 10 per cent from the current 15 per cent, and to increase the share of the 30 to 34-year-olds with higher education from 31 per cent to at least 40 per cent.

By comparison, BC Stats reports that in 2012-13, 19 per cent of our Grade 12s didn't graduate, and the six-year completion rate reduced that number only to 16.4 per cent. In other words, one in six of our working-age young people lack basic qualifications for a job.

Finland, a country with about the population of B.C., is determined to ensure all its young people are highly qualified and highly competitive. In its 30 to 34 cohort, 38 per cent already have higher education, and the country is aiming for 42 per cent by 2020.

In fact, the current Finnish education plan calls for Finland to be "the most competent nation in the world" by 2020, with a highly adaptable and resourceful population able to turn its hand to anything that comes up.

What's more, "Measures will be taken to reduce inheritance of education and to minimize gender differences in learning outcomes, participation in education and in the completion of studies."

Finnish schools are already the envy of the world, and their education plan involves a lot more than training skilled workers to staff liquefied natural gas plants: "Special development targets in the Plan are to alleviate poverty, inequality and exclusion, to stabilize the public economy and to foster sustainable economic growth, employment and competitiveness."

That's not just political hot air: "The starting point for achieving the targets in that sufficient funding for education, skills and research will be ensured by the Government. Education leading to a qualification will continue to be provided free of charge at the basic, secondary and tertiary levels."

Go the distance in education

In other words, you can go as far in your education as your brains will take you, without burdening yourself and your family with debt. The deal even applies to international students. We just shake them down and send them home, but the Finns teach them without charging tuition and hang on to half of them as permanent workers.

The Finns are comfortable with a shocking aspect of the Europe 2020 Strategy: "The Government will allocate special subsidies for the reduction of group size in education. Similarly, the provision of intensified and special support will be back by government subsidies. The realization of pupils' right to support will be monitored."

This is not some BCTF talking point, but hard government policy. Smaller classes are more effective classes, and if kids need extra help they are guaranteed to get it -- government auditors will police school spending to make sure.

On top of that, Finland offers its kids a youth guarantee: "that each person under 25 years of age, and recent graduates under 30 years of age, will be offered work, a work trial, or a study, workshop or labour market rehabilitation place within three months of registering as an unemployed jobseeker."

This also offers a chance to kids who drop out before going on to upper secondary: "a study place for each young person finishing basic education."

Finland is not awash in oil money like Norway, and it's suffered its share of economic reverses lately. But the Finns understand that today's economic life preserver is tomorrow's millstone; the way to survive and prosper is to develop all-round competence, not just a few skills to subsidize the latest get-rich-quick scheme.

If a B.C.-sized country like Finland can afford to spend $3 billion yearly on its own armed forces, and provide free education for everyone as well, what's our problem?

How to stun the teachers

Suppose BC Liberal Education Minister Peter Fassbender sat down with the BCTF and dared the teachers to reject a 10-year contract based on the Europe 2020 Strategy.

Smaller class sizes? Absolutely. Special support for special needs? Yes, and we'll enforce it.

Not only that, but any kid who drops out before high school graduation gets a guaranteed shot at Grade 12 completion plus free post-secondary, whether academic or vocational.

And suppose Advanced Education Minister Amrik Virk offered post-secondaries a similar deal: government covers tuition costs all the way to grad school, including international students. Yes, we know you're going to need huge capital spending; it's committed. Get out and hire the teachers you need.

Imagine the stunned silence that would fall on the trenches of the school wars. The BCTF would be shocked into acquiescence, quibbling only over the contract length: "How about 20 years?"

The colleges and universities would panic, wondering how high to crank their standards to control the deluge of eager students from around the world.

Businesses would squawk about the horror of higher taxes until they understood the money to be made serving a far more reliable industry than lumber or mining or LNG.

The next round of B.C.'s international exam scores would mortify Korea and Shanghai, maybe even Finland. The Finns want to be competitive by 2020? We could show them some real competition.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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