Class sizes to go down in labour deal

MONTREAL — The unions representing the majority of the province’s elementary and high school teachers are hailing a new collective agreement signed on the weekend that will mean smaller class sizes, more staff to work with children with behavioural difficulties, and moves to attract more people to the profession.

The changes, some of which teachers have been pleading for since 1993, are expected to improve Quebec’s record on student retention and its high school graduation rate, which hovers around the 70-per-cent mark. Some of the changes will come into effect at the start of the school year in September. If the collective agreement is accepted by the unions’ members, it will lead to the hiring of 3,200 new teachers.

The adoption in principle of the collective agreement, signed Friday night only two months after the last contract expired, signifies a marked change in relations between the teachers’ unions and Quebec. Their last contract was imposed by decree in 2005.

"For us, this is great because we’re sure (the reduction in class sizes) is going to help reduce the numbers of dropouts, which is a huge concern," said Serge Laurendeau, head of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT), which represents about 8,000 teachers who work in English schools.

"By having smaller classes in high school, you’ll have more time to devote to those students. We’re sure this will improve success rates and reduce dropout rates."

The agreement signed with QPAT and the Fédération des syndicats de l’enseignement (FSE), which together account for 70,000 of Quebec’s 100,000 elementary, high school, vocational and adult education teachers, focused on three targets regarding working conditions.

– At least $60 million in funding that brought extra support for elementary and high school students was maintained, and another $20 million was granted to provide additional services for children with behavioural disorders. Those services may include extra teachers, special classes or even a new centre to help the children integrate into regular classes, Laurendeau said.

– Class sizes will be reduced in certain grades, going from a maximum of 29 students in Grade 6 to 20 students at schools in low-income neighbourhoods. Class sizes in all elementary grades are expected to drop by three students.

Over the next few years, class sizes in Grades 7 and 8 are to fall by four students, from the current maximum of 32. In addition, classes with children who have behavioural or developmental problems will have fewer students.

The smaller class sizes will lead to the hiring of at least 3,200 teachers and involve new spending of $200 million a year, the unions estimate.

"Finally, we are getting some breathing room for our teachers," FSE president Manon Bernard said.

– As well, it will be easier for prospective teachers to attain part-time status and the resulting benefits in job security, sick pay and insurance, with the aim of attracting more people to the profession. Prospective teachers at adult education centres, for example, will have to work only 240 hours to achieve part-time status, as opposed to the 480 hours required in the past.

Laurendeau extolled the speed with which the deal was signed, saying it was possibly the first time in the history of provincial negotiations that teachers’ unions signed a new contract only two months after the old pact expired.

"Normally it takes over a year, 15 months," he said.

The unions have been working since 2007 on a contract that would satisfy all sides to avoid being hit with another decree, he said. And the Quebec government has recognized the province’s low retention and graduation rates "were major problems to which we had to find solutions, and they listened to what we were asking for," Laurendeau said.

The government was happy with the outcome, Education Minister Michelle Courchesne said. "Important steps for the educational success of our students have been taken," she said in a statement.

The Quebec Federation of Parent Committees also said it was pleased by the additional measures announced, and that the students’ school year was not jeopardized by rancorous contract talks.

Negotiations aren’t over yet, however. Talks with the Fédération autonome de l’enseignement, representing another 32,000 teachers, continue.

And while the deal signed this weekend dealt with teachers’ working conditions, the one covering salaries and pensions is being negotiated by the Common Front of unions this summer. Teachers are seeking a five-per-cent pay raise over five years.

"It’s not going to go as easy," Laurendeau said. "We know there are budget parameters, the budget has been approved and the government has said it wants to run a zero deficit.

"It doesn’t take away the chance there could be strikes in the fall."

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