Rouble responds to education audit

Schools are not going to close, says Education Minister Patrick Rouble. He was speaking in the wake of a damning report of the Education Department by Canada’s auditor general Sheila Fraser.

Schools are not going to close, says Education Minister Patrick Rouble.

He was speaking in the wake of a damning report of the Education Department by Canada’s auditor general Sheila Fraser.

The audit found many Yukon schools are underused. This is most dramatically the case in Whitehorse, where there are nearly as many empty seats as enrolled children.

This inefficiency will only grow as enrolment continues to decline for at least the next five years, according to projections.

But Rouble has no intention of closing schools.

To do so would inconvenience students — they’d have to ride the bus longer — and their parents, who vote.

While his department plans to act on all the audit’s recommendations, Rouble has reservations about Fraser’s report, which found his department is incapable of measuring how well

it meets its goals of educating the territory’s children.

He rejects the idea that Yukoners may be getting poor value for money from their education system.

Yukoners spent $18,500 per student in 2005-06. That’s substantially more money per capita than other jurisdictions in Canada. The national average is less than $10,000 per student.

Yet Yukon’s graduation rate is the third-worst in Canada, ahead only of the Northwest Territories and Yukon, but behind all provinces.

A lot of that money is spent on teacher salaries. Yukon has one of the lowest student-educator ratios in Canada. This means Yukon students should have more one-on-one time with

teachers and assistants than elsewhere.

The number of teachers has grown in recent years, while the number of students has shrunk. Fraser found no policies to suggest this change was deliberate, although Rouble insists it was a conscious decision on his part.

Yukon’s poor graduation standing is likely dragged down by two country-wide demographic trends. Aboriginals across Canada graduate in fewer numbers than other students. So do rural students.

To address this, school curricula are being revised to better reflect aboriginal culture, said Rouble. New “bicultural” programs have been launched in schools in Carcross and Haines Junction.

Much of this work was not captured in the audit, and ought to produce “significant outcomes,” he said.

These programs are products of a raft of reports Rouble’s department has drafted — or, as is more often the case, has hired consultants to draft for them.

It started with the Education Reform Project, which produced 207 recommendations on how to draw First Nations into school operations in December of 2007.

These recommendations were then jumbled together, merged or altered to produce a new strategy, called New Horizons.

As a consequence of these changes, it’s hard to follow which reforms are being made. Changes were made because some recommendations were “very prescriptive,” said Rouble, and “we could hit the same target just by shifting to a different angle.”

New Horizons, in turn, splinters into other strategies. Little of this work has been tabled in the legislature or is available on the department website.

The department is training more administrators, preparing school plans and forming stakeholder groups as part of New Horizons, said Rouble.

Despite the department’s propensity for reports, Fraser found little in the way of actual planning. To address this, the department has promised to develop plans for how it manages human resources, finances, facilities and risks. It’s also drafting a long-term comprehensive plan and building a new database to track student performance.

Much of this work isn’t expected to be complete for several years.

Another concerning trend identified by Fraser is a spike in absenteeism in the past five years, to an average of 21 days from 16.

“By Grade 6 they’ve almost missed a year of school,” said Rouble.

But there appears to be little deep thought going into the reasons behind this at the department.

Christie Whitley, assistant deputy minister, attributed the rise in absenteeism to cold weather at a public accounts meeting on Friday.

Rouble, meanwhile, suggests it may be due to kids in rural communities who have to visit Whitehorse to see the dentist.

Cold weather and bad teeth existed in the territory five years ago, of course. They don’t explain the rise in absentees.

Missed days matter more in the Yukon than elsewhere, because the territory has among the shortest school calendars in the country.

Yukon tries to compress Alberta’s curriculum into a shorter school year, while also offering lessons to reflect regional influences, said Rouble.

Lengthening the school year may “very well be one of the solutions that might work,” he said.

Opposition critics blasted Rouble last week for remaining silent following the report’s release. But he had no choice but to remain quiet until the Public Accounts Committee sat on Friday, he said.

Rouble is a committee member and did not participate in the hearings to avoid a conflict of interest.

He refrained from commenting on the report for the same reason, he said.

Contact John Thompson at