ALBERTAS EDUCATION SYSTEM-IS IT A MODEL FOR REFORM?
Coalition loves the model-but very different to ours
Canada has a similar reputation to Finland when it comes to social equity and the excellence of its education system.
In Canada, education is the responsibility of each of its the ten provinces and three territories, creating considerable internal diversity. The proportion of between school variation in Canada (15.1 per cent) is less than half that of the OECD average (33.6 per cent). This suggests that parents can be fairly confident of consistent attainment standards across the education system, and that performance is less dependent on the particular school one attends.
Alberta has long been of interest to Goves education team, indeed since well before the election, as it introduced to a significant degree, system wide choice, within schools and between schools, in the early 1990s. And Canada does well against international benchmarks.
Charter schools were welcomed in Alberta making school choice a central feature of its education reforms. In fact, Alberta is the only province in Canada with charter school legislation, although there are just 13 charter schools in Alberta, serving approximately 7,500 students and representing not much more than one percent of Alberta’s total K-12 enrolment. Alberta recognizes that parents have the right to choose a private school too for their children and has provided financial support for private schools since 1967. From a rate of $100 per student in 1967, government support has increased to the current level of 60% of the base instruction rate for school jurisdictions for all level 1 funded private schools, and 70% of applicable per student grants for level 2 funded private schools It is the only province to provide financial support for those who teach their children at home.
Edmonton Public School Board for example has a highly diversified system, with the types of schools provided: starting with the local neighbourhood schools, then charter schools, private schools (partially funded by government with 4.5% of pupils attending private schools ); French speaking schools,single-sex schools, gifted schools, and specialist schools in sports, arts, social sciences, and so on. Alberta is also sympathetic to home education. Calgary is fairly similar, although choice is much more restricted in rural areas. The diversity of schooling options within Alberta’s public sector – has created strong competitive pressures between school boards. As the richest province and fastest-growing economy in Canada, Alberta has invested a considerable amount of money in education. From 1993 to 1996, there was large scale educational reforms in Alberta. Klein’s Progressive Conservative Party introduced several pieces of legislation, most notably the Deficit Elimination Act and the Government Accountability Act, which radically changed the educational landscape. The number of schools boards was radically cut, funding schemes redesigned ,school based management was introduced, with schools obliged to establish school parent councils , there was more province wide testing and provisions were created for the establishment of charter schools. In addition in 2002, in response to public demands, the government established ‘Alberta’s Commission on Learning’ to conduct a comprehensive review of the K-12 education system.
Some of the success of oil rich Alberta has been put down to its wealth but , even when their relative socio-economic advantage is taken into account, students in Alberta still perform better, on average, than their counterparts in other provinces.
When the think tank Policy Exchange undertook research into Albertas success it found that most educationalists it interviewed thought that its performance could be attributed to the combination of a centralised curriculum and clear provincial standards. The Education Ministry also attributed Alberta’s performance to the overall quality of its teaching force. Alberta is the first (and, to date, only) province in Canada to adopt a teaching quality standard (Alberta teachers are among the best paid in Canada too). However, in terms of accountability the province opts for collective, rather than individual, accountability- it has no system for instance of regular inspection. As Policy Exchange found ‘ there is a shared perception that the best way to get all stakeholders on board is through organic dialogue and relationship-building and not by ‘holding a hammer over them’. In short, Alberta Education has chosen not to develop prescriptive measures on the grounds that each school is best equipped to identify the strategies that work best in their circumstances. While competition is seen as a driver for change in Alberta, the government and stakeholders, as recent Teachers TV programmes found, have also encouraged collaborative practices and networks across schools, districts and stakeholders. This approach is evidenced in the Alberta Initiative for school improvement which is described as ‘a bold approach to supporting the improvement of student learning and performance by encouraging teachers, parents, and the community to work collaboratively to introduce innovative and creative initiatives based upon local needs and circumstances.’ And Heads are encouraged to move schools regularly. What is interesting though is the approach of Principals of community schools in Alberta to charter schools and to competition. If a Charter school opens up in their vicinity rather than moaning about the threat of sink schools, privatisation and a two tiered system they more often than not aggressively compete with that charter school, to try essentially to make it irrelevant and to close it down. But unlike many teaching leaders here , they don’t challenge the right of a charter school to exist or for it to compete in their area , seeing it as more of a positive challenge than a threat.
There is a broad curriculum entitlement for all Alberta schools with added features in some and high status for non academic , more practical courses. The curriculum and exam system are the same throughout the province, enabling province-wide comparisons of student and teacher achievement. Alberta doesn’t stream or set children until they reach 16.
When a parent chooses in Alberta that is it, the choice happens (notwithstanding some limitations in rural areas) while money flows to the provider, and that must be good.
Rhonda Evans made two films about Albertas system, for Teachers TV which are worth looking at. She has suggested that the Alberta system, given its focus on equity and collaboration, is almost socialist in its approach- but she misses the point. Socialism places little value on individuals freedom to choose, which is at the heart of Alberta’s system-socially democratic looks like a much better and more accurate description.
Rhonda Evans’s two films about schools in Alberta can be seen at http://www.teachers.tv/videos/autonomy-choice-and-competition