New provincial legislation will increase the compulsory education age from 16 to 18 in an effort to curb dropout rates in Manitoba.
The minister of education, Nancy Allan, said the proposed legislation reflects a changing society.
“We believe, as a government in this day and age, that students will be more successful in getting jobs and careers and going on into post-secondary education if they have high school diplomas,” she said.
Allan noted that the underlying purpose is to prevent student disengagement at an early age, through additional educational programs across the province.
The province is also looking to introduce new programs, including alternative high schools for students, as well as teacher-student mentorship for students that are vulnerable of dropping out.
“What is encouraging is that we know there is lots of great programming already happening in our high schools to engage youth and ensure that they stay in school,” said Allan.
Educators and parents across the province are enthusiastic about the proposed legislation, according to Allan.
“The response for the education community has been really terrific,” she said.
A new study by Statistics Canada found that although the dropout rate in Manitoba has decreased dramatically in the past 20 years, the province continues to have the second highest rate in the country, at 11.4 percent.
“We’ve made significant progress on this issue but we have to continue to do more,” said Allan.
The proposed legislation is set to be passed next spring. Allan said this will give the government time to dialogue with their education partners, such as the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils, in order to successfully implement the changes.
“The traditional classroom does not work for every child and this is really what it’s all about, finding what really works for the small percentage of students that we’re losing in the system,” she said.
The current laws require students to stay in school until the age of 16 or their parents could face fines of up to $500. The new legislation will also put in place fines for students who drop out before graduation.
President of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, Pat Isaak, said that although in theory the legislation is an important step, putting it into practice will be much more difficult.
“There are a number of questions that obviously need to be answered, but at the end of the day anything that we can do to keep students in school and ensure that they graduate will mean better success for them down the road,” she said.
Isaak agreed that there needs to be additional supports and programs put in place to make school attractive for students looking to drop out. However, she recognized that more programs bring issues of increased staffing, space and funding.
“There are some schools that are pretty crowded, so there may be some space and staffing issues in terms of finding teachers for specialized programs; [ . . . ] we need to start that process right now,” said Isaak.
Dean of education at the University of Manitoba, John Wiens, said he believes that the legislation is ambitious and idealistic, but that it is not a solution to dropout rates.
“I think it really doesn’t address the dropout question at all; [ . . . ] you can’t legislate good education” he said.
Wiens recognized that a lot more thought is needed to make the legislation meaningful and to ensure it doesn’t generate feelings of hopelessness among struggling students.
“We should actually talk about dropouts differently than we do,” he said. “I think that some people don’t “drop out” necessarily, but they take a different path.”
Wiens said that in order to ensure students graduate, the problem needs to be addressed earlier.
“People either decide or assume that they are going to go to college or university at a very young age,” he said. “Unless we pay attention to them a lot earlier, this is not going to make much difference in students’ lives,” he continued.
Wiens said it is important to focus on children whose parents may not have attended post-secondary education, especially immigrants and aboriginal youth, in order for them to see the value in their education.
“There’s a huge connection between poverty and discontinuity in school,” said Wiens. “In some cases, 16 year olds are the breadwinners of their families.”
Wiens said he believes that enforcing fines as punishment simply doesn’t work.
“They’re fining people who already can’t afford it with the assumption that somehow, if they did something as parents, they should be able to keep these kids in school,” said Wiens.
Wiens said that students should also be exposed to alternative opportunities and experiences as they get older. “I think there are many routes to becoming a good citizen other than the schooling route, and we just haven’t given those too much attention or credibility,” he said.
Daphne Super, a student in Grade 12 at Kelvin High School, said that she believes the proposed legislation will be successful in encouraging students to stay in school.
“No parent would like to pay a fine to let their child drop out,” she said. “Education and schooling is very important; [ . . . ] without a high school diploma finding a good job or career may be a lot harder.”