Back-to-school week brings changes to thinking on education

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2007, 12:00am


It's back-to-school week and the government has high hopes for children gaining knowledge - and losing some fat.

In British Columbia, 25 per cent of children are overweight or obese, and the government is laying down the law. Junk food sales in schools are banned and a new basic is added to the curriculum - 30 minutes a day of physical activity.

'We are helping to create a culture of health in our schools and for our children,' Education Minister Shirley Bond said. The government had planned to ban the sale of junk food in schools by 2009, but last week announced it was moving the ban forward. Ms Bond said the ban and forced exercise routine made the province a leader in fighting obesity among children.

The biggest pressure may be on school finances.

While no one says children should be eating more potato chips and chocolate, sales of carrot sticks are not exactly soaring in vending machines or school cafeterias, cutting into school revenue.

While parents have long paid out for extra-curricular activities such as field trips, other fees have crept into classrooms, such as those for eggs in cooking class and chemicals for chemistry.

With school fees adding up, it is little wonder that more parents are taking a second look at private schools. Despite an outcry in some communities, public schools are closing and staff are laid off across the province.

Student numbers in private schools are growing, while public schools' enrolments are declining.

It is because of declining enrolment that some districts like the Vancouver suburb of Delta are considering traditional schools. The emergence of these schools, with emphasis on stricter discipline in classrooms, uniforms and a more rigid adherence to curriculum and homework, came in the 1990s. While not exclusively, many of the proponents of the traditional schools are Chinese parents.

University of British Columbia professor Charles Ungerleider said one source of the appeal of the schools was that people were often comfortable with the familiar.

'Some parents seek schools that appear to offer what they remember - not always with accuracy - the schools they attended when they were students,' he said. 'Another factor in the appeal of traditional schools is parents' desire to ensure their children have a solid foundation in the basics.'

Professor Ungerleider said what many parents advocating for a return-to-basics type of schooling may not realise was that, when it came to the basics, Canadian students performed near the top internationally in reading, mathematics and science.

In the district of Surrey, where traditional schools first made their mark, there are more than 1,000 children on waiting lists for three schools. But in Vancouver, while the idea has been brought up in the past, opening traditional schools is not being considered.

While the declining number of students in public schools is a sign of changing demographics, the increased demand for private or traditional schools outside Vancouver is also a notable shift. Increasingly immigrant populations, which appear to be a major driver for traditional schools, are moving to the suburbs when they arrive rather than staying in the city.

Vancouver school board chairman Ken Denike said the real divide was over whether to open more neighbourhood or specialised schools.

While parents are pushing for closer access to schools because of denser neighbourhoods, others want schools that focus on specific areas.

Even though enrolment is declining, the demand for certain programmes, such as French immersion, remains high.

'In Vancouver, the traditional school lobby never came from one particular school so it hasn't been high on our agenda,' Mr Denike says. 'There's a feeling that it is an important option in the community and if it's brought up again, we would certainly look at it.'