School system in Canada’s Northwest Territories needs major reform, education minister says

Education Minister Caroline Cochrane, right, says her department is in need of structural changes to improve the quality of education in the Northwest Territories. But those changes will have to wait. (Kirsten Murphy/CBC)
The education system in Canada’s Northwest Territories is failing students and is in desperate need of reform, but it will need to wait until after this fall’s election, says Education Minister Caroline Cochrane.

Cochrane offered her frank assessment of education in the territory in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday, responding to questions from Sahtu MLA Danny McNeely.

“It’s time that our whole system is looked at,” she said. “We’re failing our children, our graduation rates are low, our early developmental index is coming in low, it’s not OK.

“Our children are our future — we keep saying that. As a society, we have to put our energy, our resources behind it, and the next government has to focus on that,” she said.

As part of that reform, Indigenous governments would take a larger role in education, especially as more communities reach self-government agreements, Cochrane said.

“It’s time to start engaging with our Aboriginal governments, it’s time to start working better,” she said. “They have a right, they have concerns, and we can’t solve this on our own.”

Cochrane, who was named minister of education, culture and employment in April 2018, says there isn’t enough time to conduct a full review of the Education Act before the territorial election. Instead, it’ll be an issue for the next legislative assembly to tackle, she said.

We’re failing our children, our graduation rates are low, our early developmental index is coming in low, it’s not OK.

Caroline Cochrane, N.W.T. Education Minister

That’s becoming a common theme from cabinet ministers as the 18th Legislative Assembly wraps up over the next two weeks — further movement on major issues will have to wait until after the election Oct. 1 and the new assembly is sworn in.

Cochrane, who has announced that she intends to seek re-election, promised McNeely she would make her desire for reform known in the department and write a personal letter outlining her issues to whomever succeeds her as education minister.

“It’s time for a change, we have to look at the Education Act in the next assembly,” she said. “We can’t really say what the 19th Assembly will take on, but I’m hoping education will be a priority.”

Indigenous leaders have long expressed concerns with the quality of education in the territory’s small communities.

In the 2016-17 school year, only eight per cent of students enrolled in Grade 9 in small communities achieved acceptable standards in standardized math tests. In regional centres, 41.2 per cent of students were at an acceptable level.

In English language arts, 17.7 per cent of Grade 9 students in small communities were at an acceptable level, while in regional centres 53 per cent were.

Last month, representatives from the Sahtu region met with McNeely and other education officials in Deline, N.W.T., to talk about updating the Education Act and discuss the issues they see, including students graduating without basic reading, writing and math skills.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: First Nations in northwestern Canada fed up with education system, after auditor general’s report, CBC News

Finland: New climate studies program coming to schools in Finland, Yle News

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

Alex Brockman, CBC News

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