When it comes to schools, small is beautiful (and can be cost-efficient, and effective)

A few decades ago we had hundreds of small schools dotting the PEI landscape, their locations determined by how far a child could reasonably be expected to walk to get there each day. Today, in line with the general trend to centralization of everything, we have a few “families” of schools, and with this week’s recommendations from the Public Schools Branch, a few more of the children in those families of schools are being cut loose as being no longer viable.

The world changes, and constant adaptation is a necessity for all governments, and while I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not advocating a return to the days of one room schools in every small community (many of those communities, like the schools within them, are now gone anyway), I am questioning both the trend to consolidation generally and the specifics of last week’s announcement.

The arguments put forward to support the recommended closures center on two themes – cost savings, and the ability to provide equal learning opportunities for all Island children. I contend that the cost savings are minimal, and the claim that learning outcomes will be improved is unsupportable, so why are we continuing down the path of centralization? The ideology of consolidation hasn’t just brought us an ongoing enthusiasm for school closures, it has resulted in an Island where once hundreds of family enterprises in fishing, retail and farming, have been displaced by box stores, factory trawlers and industrial agriculture.  

While it is one thing for the School Board to make recommendations to government, it is quite another for government to accept and implement those ideas. Even if we might save a few dollars in closing these schools (doubtful though that claim is), government must look at this through a broader lens, measuring not only the impact the proposed closures will have on the bottom line of the department of education, but on the collective well-being of our province. I wonder if the education department has spoken to the Department of Workforce and Advanced Learning to see how these closures might impact the province’s population strategy? I wonder if they have spoken to the Department of Economic Development and Tourism about how rural economic vitality will be impacted? I wonder if they have spoken to the Department of Health and Wellness about how this might impact physician recruitment and retention in rural areas? My belief is that they haven’t, because if they did, they would clearly see that school closures and the associated impacts have a devastating effect on the viability of a small community. And let’s not forget that the three biggest sectors of our provincial economy – agriculture, fishing and tourism – are all predominantly rural affairs. The collective economic health of PEI is dependent on both rural and urban PEI flourishing. How can we expect our whole province to thrive when we have a government that continues to make decisions which compromise the well-being of our rural districts?

There is nothing – I repeat nothing – that any child up to grade 6 or so needs in order to receive a perfectly good education that can’t be provided in a small local school. And furthermore, with distance learning, it is now possible to have interaction between teachers and students within and beyond our education system, allowing access to virtually any programming at any school.  

Somehow our government is able to see potential economic and cultural spinoffs when shelling out millions of dollars to keep a chronically insolvent golf resort limping along, but can’t see the big picture when it comes to how vital schools are to all aspects of community well-being. If government accepts and implements the recommendations of the Public School Branch,  they will be demonstrating their lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, and more importantly their lack of vision for our province.