So much is happening in Ontario’s adult education system in a very short period of time that it becomes challenging to keep track of announcements and various initiatives. In just over a year, those working in LBS, ESL/FSL and Adult Credit have been caught up with
- The Highly Skilled Workforce Initiative,
- The LBS evaluation, a symposium and now a year-long engagement process (announcements here),
- An infusion of funding,
- Further development of the adult education strategy
- An extensive audit of ESL/FSL,
- And now a province-wide adult education consultation process, accompanying a reorganization of the adult education system.
For those working in the field, particularly for those involved with all three learning ministries (i.e. the Ministries of Citizenship and Immigration, Education and Advanced Education and Skills Development) any one of these efforts would have been enough to draw attention away from day-to-day program operations. Now there are six initiatives occurring at the same time.
The stated intention of the provincial consultation with current and former students and the staff who work in language, literacy, adult credit and college upgrading/bridging programs is to improve adult education.
The timelines to mobilize and provide input are tight. The process was announced in early December and ends January 31. Most adult education programs closed for a few days (even longer) over the Christmas and New Year holidays, and many school board and college programs are ending one semester and gearing up for another.
Program staff can participate in the consultation by responding to some or all of 27 questions developed by MAESD.
The process for student participation is set up differently. Rather than rely on emailed submissions, four focus groups are planned. A different and restrictive student participation process does raise concerns. Students must complete an online form, and then go through a selection process. Only four focus groups are planned for an annual enrollment of 200,000 students. There is no online information encouraging students to participate in other ways. Participation in a focus group is also a more intense and demanding form of participation compared to emailing a submission (e.g., a written or recorded response). The process also doesn’t permit anonymous submissions as part of a group effort, unlike the opportunity that staff have. Selection decisions will be made using very personal information related to age, gender, race, disability, indigeneity, cultural group, and disability. Why create a completely different process that is more restrictive and demanding for adult learners?
Overall, there is very little time for people to mobilize, learn about the consultation process and its goals, understand the broader context and coordinate responses to ensure key issues are brought forward. We also have to consider that people may not have the time and resources to provide input, and could be overwhelmed by the number of simultaneous reform projects.
Addressing a 30 year old concern: The adult education system needs to be better connected and more coordinated
The main concern of the government since the 1990s seems to be the lack of coordination in Ontario’s adult education system. This current reform effort shares the concern.
Better coordination among ministries will support the government’s goal of making the system more seamless and learner-centred and will enable more adults to participate in lifelong learning to upgrade their knowledge, literacy, numeracy, language, and digital skills ( Strengthening Ontario’s Adult Education System 2017, p. 10).
In 2005, Kathleen Wynne who was then the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Education (and an advocate of adult education) summarized some key issues after an extensive consultation process in the 2005 document Ontario Learns. Those issues included the need for stronger “links between programs…so that learners can more clearly see their way into the system and the path forward.”
While a key policy response to the extensive review that took place in 2004-2005 was put in place, the creation of the Adult Education Policy Unit within the Ministry of Education, adult education programs remained in three different ministries.
The concerns over a lack of coordination and cohesion expressed in 2005 were not new then. As parliamentary secretary, Premier Wynne referenced a comment made by the former president of Lakehead University in 1994 who stated that “adult education is much like an archipelago without a good ferry system.” She then added her own statement and concluded “we are dealing with much the same situation today.”
In the fall of 2016 Premier Wynne mandated the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD) to “lead the development of an integrated, learner-focused Adult Education System, working with the ministers of Education, and Citizenship and Immigration.”
It’s important to recognize, particularly for those who have built strong working relationships with their partners in MCI and EDU that the three ministries are not equal partners in this coordination effort. In other words, we don’t have some sort of newly developed body and set of policy mechanisms supporting a tri-ministry partnership. What we have is a lead ministry accompanied by significant organizational changes that have already been made to support MAESD’s leadership role. I will look at these in the next post. I’ll also further examine MAESD’s main concerns and projects already underway to fulfill the mandate to develop “an integrated, learner-focused Adult Education System.”