Canada’s Auditor General gives northern territory of Nunavut failing grade in supporting student career goals

Audit Principal James McKenzie presented the audit to media at the Nunavut Research Institute on Tuesday. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)
The office of the Auditor General of Canada has found that Nunavut isn’t doing enough to help teens and adults further their education and achieve their career goals.

The report, called “Support for high school students and adult learners,” was tabled Tuesday in Nunavut’s Legislative Assembly.

It made 12 recommendations for the Departments of Education and Family Services as well as Nunavut Arctic College and highlighted the following roadblocks:

  • There is no plan for recruiting and retaining teachers and government support staff.
  • Students receive spotty support to transition between high school and post-secondary education.
  • Student attendance and performance data is not reliably collected or shared between organizations.
  • There are limited ways adults can get a high school diploma.
  • Financial aid programs don’t cover adult learners for part-time or catch-up courses and only one program helps support the dependents of adult learners.

Nunavut has agreed to work on improving all the identified roadblocks.

Nunavut Arctic College’s Adult Basic Education core program focuses on teaching literacy and academic skills. It was only offered in eight communities in the last five years. (Michelle Pucci/CBC)

James McKenzie, who led the audit process, says fixing the gaps identified in the audit would help the government reach a representative workforce that is 85 per cent Inuit.

“Increasing the number of Inuit with high school diplomas or post-secondary education would help the government of Nunavut meet its obligations under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement,” the report said.

Of the government’s 3,500 employees, 50 per cent are Inuit.

There are 1,500 vacant positions, most of which require a high school diploma, but 52 per cent of Inuit between the ages of 25 and 64 have not completed high school, according to Statistics Canada data from 2016.

Adults seeking education find ‘dead-ends’

McKenzie says adults in Nunavut who want to upgrade their education are finding “dead-ends.”

While other jurisdictions offer equivalency exams that stand in for a high school diploma — such as Ontario’s general education development (GED) test — that’s not an option in Nunavut.

In Nunavut there is only one way for someone to get a diploma, according to the Auditor General’s findings — a person must get 100 high school credits and pass a standardized exam borrowed from Alberta’s high school curriculum.

The 100 credits can be achieved in three ways:

  • At a local high school, where adults older than 21 must get approval from the district education authority to sit in classes;
  • online courses that are not reliably subsidized for adult learners and can cost up to $1,000 per course; or,
  • the Pathway to Adult Secondary School graduation program (PASS) which offers the option for students to take up to seven courses online (the equivalent of 35 credits).

But the report identifies problems with each of these three options.

The Department of Education does not have specific policies or allocate additional funding to support adult learners in a high school setting.

While the report acknowledges schools were making do — some had classrooms for adults and were flexible on attendance and deadlines — one of the schools assessed had to end the special classroom for adults due to a staff shortage.

For online courses, neither of the two main adult student funding options (Financial Assistance for Nunavut Students or Adult Learning and Training Supports) subsidized the classes.

“Financial aid was not available to adult learners taking part-time programs, adults taking high school courses, and learners taking most adult basic education courses,” the report said.

PASS fails

The audit looked at five semesters of the PASS program starting in 2016 and running through fall 2018.

In that time, there were 452 applications to the program, but more than half were denied entry because they didn’t meet the basic English literacy requirement to enrol.

Most of those who didn’t meet the requirements were from communities where Nunavut Arctic College hadn’t run its Adult Basic Education program in the last five years — meaning there was little opportunity for applicants to improve literacy and math skills without leaving their community.

Of the 286 accepted to the program, nearly 60 per cent didn’t have enough credits already accumulated to get their high school diploma, even if they achieved the full 35 credits the program offered.

Since the PASS program was implemented in 2013, according to the government of Nunavut’s numbers, only eight participants have successfully gained a high school diploma.

The average success rate for a PASS course is 14 per cent.

This graph included in Auditor General of Canada’s report illustrates the number of students who couldn’t graduate even if they successfully completed the full PASS program. (Auditor General of Canada)
High schoolers need guidance

The report also found that the Department of Education does not have a plan to help high school students prepare for employment or post-secondary education.

It does not have formal guidance counsellor positions in its high schools, though two of the seven schools the report surveyed had teachers assigned to the role.

Only four of the seven schools had students prepare career plans, despite it being a curriculum requirement.

Without sustained career guidance, students can graduate high school with the required number of credits, but might not have the prerequisites to get into their desired post-secondary program.

For example, the nursing program offered by Nunavut Arctic College needs students to apply with certain math and science credits.

However, the audit did find some bright spots in hands-on learning to encourage students. One example is the pre-trades program at Kugluktuk High School.

The program combined building kayaks or furniture with academic-level studies like math. Enrolled students visited mines and the Alberta Institute of Technology.

The school says 75 per cent of participants in the program have graduated and many have gone on to be employed in the trades or pursued post-secondary education.

Now that this report has been tabled in the Legislature, it’s up to Nunavut’s MLAs to ask the departments for progress updates on the recommendations.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Proposed changes to Nunavut education act would phase in Inuktitut over 20 years, CBC News

Sweden: Inequality a problem in Swedish schools: UNICEF report, Radio Sweden

United States: Proposed Alaska budget could cut programs to bare minimum, school district says, Alaska Public Media

Sara Frizzell, CBC News

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