Thank you for the opportunity to contribute my thoughts regarding the VBE 2015-2016 proposed budget. I write as a professor in Adult Literacy and Adult Education at Simon Fraser University with an active research and community engagement program in the areas of adult education policy, adult learning instruction strategies and digital literacy and inclusion.
I have been following closely recent provincial policy moves with respect to access to adult basic education. Like you, I believe these policies to be egregious to the integrity of our public education system and to the rights of all people to a basic education that promotes citizenship and economic participation. Only 5% of jobs in Canada do not require a secondary school completion certificate, and indeed, many more require graduated adults to upgrade their qualifications to gain admission to post-secondary education and training. Restricting access to a basic education that is also a pathway to employment and further learning is a dangerous policy experiment that will lead to great inequality.
I know that you are all aware of these issues, that you have been strong advocates for adult education and that as a Board you have been placed in a very difficult position in pitting adult basic education against education for children and youth. I implore you to resist this dismantling of the adult education system; I believe it will only weaken the K-12 system further, since our education system only thrives when it can respond to diverse learning pathways and the changing learning needs of an increasingly mobile and diverse population.
First, please do not concentrate cuts to adult basic education and youth programs in one area of the City. The proposed cuts to 5 programs, from the Gathering Place downtown to the youth outreach program in Collingwood, represents the educational disenfranchisement of the entire Northeast of Vancouver. As a long time educator, I know that accessible learning programs work best when they are local. Youth living near Kiwassa, for example, will not be taking expensive and long transit trips to Gladstone. This geographic concentration of cuts will overwhelmingly effect Aboriginal citizens, the working poor, at-risk-youth and new immigrants. This will only make Vancouver more unequal.
Second, please reconsider raising the class enrolment hard target from 19 to 26. This will penalize education centres already struggling to fill their capacity due to what I think are unrealistic enrolment caps, given the barriers of poverty in these areas of the city. In my research, for example, I have come across classes with enrolments of 18 cancelled because they did not comply with the minimum of 19. This is more likely to happen in learning centres in lower income neighbourhoods such as those targeted for the cuts, because people have less access to childcare and other resources necessary to attend school regularly. When these kinds of class cancellations happen on a regular basis, the result is that hundreds of students who enrolled in a class and were ready to learn, lose access to the education opportunities they need. They are also lost to the education system. On the books, however, this is reflected as a program working ‘under capacity’.
The proposed minimum cap of 26 will be almost impossible to achieve, and will only exacerbate the cycle of class cancellations and under-enrolment, precipitating the end of youth and adult basic education in Vancouver.
My final point concerns digital inclusion. My research in digital literacy suggests that people in Vancouver rely heavily on public access wifi and digital instruction offered in learning centres and libraries. This is because the costs of Internet are prohibitive and people need to update digital literacy skills on a regular basis to communicate with online government, apply for employment and engage in learning activities. If the proposed closures of the 5 centres in the Northeast of the city go ahead, thousands of youth and adults will also lose access to digital literacy instruction. Libraries are already bursting at the seams: How will the closure of these centres effect Vancouver’s Digital Strategy and efforts to close the digital divide? How can learning centres be transformed into thriving hubs of digital learning that include basic education but also the skills of the 21st Century?
I appreciate that the VBE is under enormous pressure to make difficult cuts, and that you are trying very hard to protect our excellent public education system. I thank you for carrying out this very difficult work in such a careful way, and in that spirit hope that you will reconsider cutting all the youth and adult basic education programs in the Northeast of the city, and instead, explore creative possibilities to infuse 21st Century learning in this vibrant but vulnerable area of the City.
Suzanne Smythe, PhD
Adult Literacy/Adult Education
Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University