Declining school enrolment will continue, says provincial government

Demographics loom over New Brunswick politics, no more so than in the field of education.

New enrolment statistics released by the Department of Education confirm several trends in the province's schools, trends that seem likely to continue.

The big one is declining enrolment: only 97,842 students were going to school in September 2016, down from 129,131 students in 1998 — a drop of 24.3 per cent.

At the same time, the number of students enrolled in French immersion is up again — the seventh straight year of a rebound after they hit a low in 2009.

Those trends has prompted heated political debates about whether small, underpopulated schools should close, when students should enter French immersion, and whether the government should guarantee a minimum number of teacher jobs regardless of enrolment.

Here are four takeaways from the statistical report:

School closures aren't keeping pace with declining enrolment

There were 336 schools in the province in 2004. This year there were 302. That's a decline of 10.1 per cent. But the number of students dropped by 16.5 per cent in the same period.

The Francophone South school district is still the only enrolment powerhouse in the province, thanks to continued growth in the city of Dieppe and neighbouring Moncton. It's the only district where enrolment increased in the last decade.

And the rate of increase is enough to make school administrators elsewhere jealous: enrolment is 8.6 per cent higher than where it was a decade ago.

Not coincidentally, the district is the only one to have seen a net increase in the number of schools in the same period.

The 'Syrian bump' wasn't spread evenly around N.B.

This year's enrolment decline was smaller than previous years. There were 70 fewer students in September 2016 than a year earlier, enough for the province to claim in a press release that the numbers were "stable."

The same press release attributed that to about 650 students from newly arrived Syrian refugee families, but the numbers suggest the boost wasn't evenly distributed.

The Anglophone East district gained 147 students over last year, Anglophone West gained 25, and Francophone South gained 351. The other four districts still saw a year-over-year decline in students.

There's no breakdown of how many of those gains are from Syrian families, but they make it clear the "stable" enrolment numbers were not uniform.

French immersion is bouncing back

The number of students enrolled in French immersion is above 20,000 this year, the first time it has been at that level since 2007.

Immersion numbers hit a low of 17,232 in September 2009, the year the then-Liberal government eliminated the Grade 1 entry point. They've been moving back up every year since.

At the district level, three of the four anglophone school districts have seen a steady increase in immersion enrolment year after year.

The only district where the French immersion numbers are flat is the Anglophone North district surrounding Miramichi, Bathurst, Campbellton and Dalhousie — an area of the province that has seen the largest overall population decline.

Immersion numbers should increase again next fall when six schools, mostly in smaller communities, begin offering the program.

Declines likely to continue

The overall enrolment numbers are down, but the reduction is more pronounced in the early school years — which means that as this year's kindergarten students move through the next 12 years of school, enrolment is likely to continue to drop.

This year, the number of Grade 12 students in the anglophone system is down seven per cent from what it was in 1998.

But the number of kindergarten students in the anglophone system has plunged 22 per cent in the same period. The number of Grade 1 students is down 24.5 per cent.

Government spokesperson Kelly Cormier said in an emailed statement that "projections continue to show enrolment decline, but we expect it to be slower than previous years."

Those projections show total enrolment dropping below 95,000 students in 2027 and below 90,000 in 2033, suggesting the demographic debate is likely to become even more acute in the years to come.