FREDERICTON (GNB) – The Office of the Child, Youth and Seniors’ Advocate has publicly released its response to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s proposed education reform Green Paper. The advocate’s submission is titled Defending Child Rights in Schools and through Education. The release is being published during Child Rights Education Week, held from Nov. 15 to 21.

By releasing this paper to the public, Child, Youth and Seniors’ Advocate Norman Bossé reiterated his intention to collaborate with the department and other stakeholders in the development and implementation of reforms to the education system.

Originally presented to the department prior to the pandemic, the six recommendations aim to help protect and respect the rights of every child. The submission outlines strengths and identifies areas for improvement to respond to a number of emerging trends and challenges in school environments observed in the advocate’s data and case files.

“The goal is to help all New Brunswick public school students fully engage as active learners, while finding rewards in learning in respectful school environments that promote child rights and nurture global citizenship,” said Bossé.

Using a child-rights-based lens to offer solutions to improve the provincial education system, the advocate encourages a focus to be placed on five fundamental starting points which must include the human rights of children as their priorities:

  • inclusive education today;
  • supporting schools and teachers;
  • student wellness;
  • engaged learners; and
  • investing in early education.

“Based on our observations over the years and the discussions we have had with many parents and professionals, providing children and youth with all the necessary support would not only help them reach their full potential academically, it would also address the serious issues that classrooms face,” said Bossé.

He said he is very much encouraged by the tone and the scope of the Green Paper but would caution the department that in keeping with its commitment to integrated service delivery, a discussion about education reform and exploration of current systemic issues within education systems cannot be fully appreciated and undertaken without a shared commitment from the ministers of Health; Social Development; and Justice and Public Safety.

He said he is encouraged that the department is staying the course with its 10-year education plan and heeding the advice of the auditor general to maintain stability in education systems, while leaving room for teachers and students to innovate. At the same time, the Green Paper outlines a host of proposals for reform, many of which, in Bossé’s view, are very welcome.

In particular, he supports:

  • keeping politics out of education by establishing an all-party committee on education with a mandate to review the Education Act every 10 years;
  • decentralizing decision-making by empowering school principals, teachers and, importantly, students;
  • setting ambitious targets for measured progress, such as being a top-10 jurisdiction in education by 2030;
  • raising expectations across the province in terms of the importance of education, the role teachers play in society and the concomitant respect their profession deserves;
  • the strategic emphasis on literacy as a foundational early learning tool, keeping in mind that we must be concerned not only with whether our students can read, but whether they can read with discernment and critical thinking;
  • the emphasis on cultural knowledge translation that supports reconciliation with First Nations and Métis communities and welcomes immigrant communities, while respecting New Brunswick’s two official-language communities;
  • the emphasis on student wellness and engaged learners; and
  • the continued priority on early childhood education, which he believes must be strengthened even further than the department’s Green Paper suggests.

However, Bossé sounded a note of caution about the approach to second language reform and the proposed phased elimination of grade levels in New Brunswick schools. This would entail massive changes to the school experience and classroom composition and seems inconsistent with the auditor general’s advice to stop reinventing education.

“We realize that more and more responsibility is being piled upon teachers, the lives of young people are increasingly complex, and the nature of education is changing,” said Bossé. “Considerable lack of access to timely and efficient mental health support, continually emerging issues such as cyberbullying and sexting, and high numbers of children living in poverty are all factors that contribute to education challenges. These factors and others need to be systematically addressed for any reform to be effective in schools. It is necessary that a shared funding commitment be undertaken to prioritize youth in this province and right the ship for future generations.”

The advocate’s submission paper also emphasizes the importance of assisting the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in achieving its goal of developing a world-class civics program that is strongly informed by child rights and infuses that into the curriculum through the reform of school governance models.

“For effective, rights-based education reform, there must be mechanisms to regularly engage all children and youth and solicit their input to express their views in all matters affecting them,” said Bossé. “Just as communities rallied to support our health-care workers and our transportation workers in the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we now have to stand in solidarity with teachers, educational assistants and all school personnel who have stepped into the front-line of our pandemic response and who are maintaining educational services in very trying circumstances. Maintaining educational services is a key deliverable in advancing children’s rights and best interests in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis. At the same time, we urge the government to take stock of our present circumstances, reflect on the reforms initiated last fall and boldly envision how we can build back better.”

Child Rights Education Week is a time to celebrate, promote and advocate for the rights of children and youth across the country. A series of activities are organized to engage youth in a conversation and raise awareness about rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.