Higgs dismisses January immersion consultations as 'shouting session'
Premier Blaine Higgs has dismissed public consultation sessions held last month on French immersion as "a shouting session" that didn't contribute useful ideas to fix the province's anglophone school system.
Higgs said despite last week's cancellation of a plan to replace immersion, he still hopes to address problems created by what he calls a two-tiered education system.
But the public meetings his government organized — including large, packed sessions in Moncton, Saint John, and Fredericton — had failed to generate potential solutions, he said.
"Many of the teachers in the English system have great ideas," Higgs told reporters Monday at a news conference in Prince Edward Island with the other Atlantic premiers.
"Unfortunately in these sessions, rather than get to the root cause of how do we fix this, which the commissioner wrote the report on, it becomes a shouting session, and it becomes distracted in terms of what is the real point."
In fact, many current and retired teachers attended the sessions and offered ideas on how to address the issues Higgs identified.
Higgs did not attend any of the meetings.
Olivia Donovan, a retired Hampton teacher who spoke at the Saint John session, said she disagreed with the premier's description.
"That's a funny thing to say, if you weren't in the room."
In Saint John, Donovan proposed smaller class sizes and more educational assistants as ways to address issues such as streaming and classroom composition.
She said she found most participants in Saint John "very measured" in their comments, with many relying on prepared notes.
"People were very, I guess, controlled in what they were saying. I didn't feel anyone was shouting at all."
The meetings in Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton attracted more than 300 people each. Among dozens of participants who spoke publicly, no one endorsed replacing immersion.
Education Minister Bill Hogan made it clear last Friday that this played a role in the reversal.
"Clearly, the more we consulted, the more that we heard … it became clearer and clearer as we moved through that this wasn't the best choice for all our children."
The premier said Hogan "had to make a change, given where we were," but said he hoped "the conversation has only just begun."
He said "the very severe streaming" of students with learning challenges into non-immersion classes, and the low number of immersion students fluent after Grade 12, still need to be addressed.
Hogan said his department will revisit how to assess immersion grads, including their oral language skills as well as reading, writing and comprehension.
He also said a "stakeholder group" involving parents, experts and the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, will be set up "to inform the development of next steps."
NBTA president Connie Keating said Tuesday the province already has reports and studies pointing to what's needed.
Like many teachers who spoke at the public sessions, Keating said more teachers, smaller classrooms and additional resources would address the disruptions caused by a concentration of children with learning challenges in non-immersion classrooms.
More resources would also help some of those children to opt for immersion, she said.
"We're ready to get to work and I hope government is as well," she said.
But Keating warned that the turmoil created by the premier's plan led many teachers to consider leaving the profession.
"There was a lot of dismay and anxiety that was created by the proposed changes," she told CBC's Information Morning Fredericton.
"A lot of teachers were questioning whether or not they were going to stay in the profession … because there's the flip-flop every time we have a new government."
Opposition parties also disputed Higgs's description of the consultation sessions.
Liberal Leader Susan Holt said she took "pages and pages of notes" full of ideas from participants at the Saint John event and also heard many important personal stories.
"It's a little bit dismissive to call the sessions 'shouting sessions,'" she said.
Green MLA Megan Mitton was at the meetings in Fredericton and Moncton and said she heard "a lot of important things and a lot of solutions proposed."
Last week, Fundy-The Isles-Saint John West Progressive Conservative MLA Andrea Anderson-Mason said she hoped the government had "turned a corner" after hearing from teachers at the sessions.
"I'm excited to see a new path forward. I hope it opens up a whole new level of communication between government and educators, because we saw educators turn out," she said.