Sunday, 5 February 2012

The ARC That Should Have Been, part two: Demographics and Education Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Four years ago the Ministry of Education put together a couple of  trustees, some school board administrators, a municipal councillor, and an MPP, called them the “Working Group on Declining Enrolment,” and charged them with examining the challenges of “re-sizing” our education system. They produced a document called Planning and Possibilities, which you can access here.

The group began their report by pinning 2002-03 as the pivotal point at which the phenomenon known as “declining enrolment” spread across Ontario. You may remember that this was also the last year in which the “OAC” (Ontario Academic Credits, formerly known as “Grade 13”) were part of secondary school education.

Giant school boards, minimal governance, "declining enrolment":
does this man's legacy know no bounds?

The move to phase out OAC was one of the last educational “reforms” initiated by the Harris government, then in its death throes. Harris, not too dim to see that the government over which he had presided was about to run aground like an Italian cruise liner, jumped ship in April 2002, leaving Parry Sound MPP Ernie Eves to oversee the administration’s disastrous end, and be defeated in October of 2003 by Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals. Meanwhile, the “double-cohort” of graduating Grade 12 and Grade 13 students over-crowded Ontario’s post-secondary institutions and precipitated the phenomenon of “declining enrolment.”

On page 4 of Planning and Possibilities is a total Ontario student enrolment graph beginning with 1998-99 and projected through to 2012-13. I've copied and pasted the graph below. You can see that it has been obviously designed to make the annual decline appear precipitous by using an x-axis baseline not of zero students but of 1.8 million students. Observe that there was almost no decline between 2003-04 (the first year without OAC) and 2005-06, indicating that almost the entire decline between 2002-03 and 2003-04 was due to the elimination of OAC.

Even in 2006-07, the first year in which there were significantly fewer students enroled than in the years preceding, the total of 1.95 million is about the same as 1998-99, the first year in the survey. If we need to establish a date at which Ontario’s student population began to noticeably shrink, then, it would be 2006-07, not 2002-03.

The Planning and Possibilities group projected that between 2006-07 and 2012-13 the total number of students would fall by 100,000 to 1.85 million a decline of less than 1% per year. During this same period, according to the province’s “demographic fact sheet,” Ontario’s total population continued to rise by just over 1% per year.

Have a quick look at the government’s demographic webpage and you’ll find that in 2002 there were about 12 million people in Ontario, meaning about one-sixth (16.7%) of our population consisted of school-age children and teens. In 2010, our total population had grown to 13.2 million. In late 2008, when Planning and Possibilities was presumably written, the Ministry was projecting that our student population would be about 1.88 million in 2010, meaning a drop to about 14.2% of our total.

How accurate were the Ministry’s projections?

Let’s look at a more recent document on the Ministry website, called "education facts"Here we find the total Ontario student population for 2009-10 listed at about 2 million, even if we calculate half-day Junior Kindergarten students and part-time returning seniors as “half-students,” the way the Declining Enrolment Working Group did in their chart. This is equal to 15.5% of our total population.

In other words, by the Ministry’s own count, the decline predicted for 2009-10 didn’t happen.

The grade-by-grade “snapshot” of 2009-10 provides a picture of what the immediate future may hold for Ontario schools, as we mentally advance the cohorts through the grades. However, it doesn't tell us anything about what future Kindergarten enrolments might be - and therefore what the differential will be between a graduating grade twelve cohort and a group entering Kindergarten. There were 126,000 SK students (the first year we can expect a full complement), compared with 148,000 grade eight students, and more than 160,000 secondary students in each grade of high school. The larger-than-average differential between grades eight and nine reflects transfers into the system, and the large number of grade twelve students indicates that around one-third of students take five years to finish high school, proof that the Harris elimination of the OAC year never quite caught on.

Ont. student pop. 2009-10

Jr K
Sr K

We have been led to infer from the trend in lower numbers in each successive cohort in the above "snapshot" that future cohorts will be correspondingly smaller still. But on what basis can we make this assumption, given that Ontario’s population keeps growing?

Glance back at that “demographic quarterly” webpage and you’ll see that from July 2010 to July 2011, there were 144,000 births, 96,000 deaths, and about 100,000 new arrivals to Ontario, All these numbers are roughly consistent with the pattern established over the preceding five years, with the births and deaths increasing proportionally with the total population, and the number of immigrants dropping slightly.

If this is the way things are going, then, what will the future look like? We can find a “big picture” analysis of Ontario’s future in a document entitled Ontario Population Projections Update,” accessible here.  A few minutes gazing through the government finance department’s crystal ball will leave you enlightened as to the “reality” of “declining enrolment.”

The increase in total population over the next 25 years is projected to be in the neighbourhood of one-third – or about 4.5 million. This is the effect of an annual growth rate of just over 1%, which is roughly consistent with that of the past fifteen years.

Skim through the document’s “highlights” and you’ll find these important statements regarding the future school-age population:

“Over the next five years, the number of children aged 0–14 will be relatively stable around 2.2 million, before rising more rapidly to almost 2.9 million by 2036.

The children’s share of population is projected to fall from 16.7% in 2010 to 16.2% in 2015, and to rise slightly over the 2015–2027 period to reach 16.7% as the baby boom echo generation (children of baby boomers) have children.

Thereafter, the share is projected to resume declining, falling to 16.1% by 2036.”

Note that the proportion of the population under age 15 over a twenty-year span will fluctuate only between 16.1% and 16.7 % of the total population –  a range almost exactly equivalent to the range existing between 2010 and 2015, of which we are currently in the midst. But because the total population is expected to continue to increase steadily, so will the actual number of children.

What is the upshot of all this demographic speculation for our education system?

There will be no decline in the number of children needing Ontario schools in the foreseeable future. There will only be an increase.

All that is fine and dandy for Ontario, you might say. But what about Peterborough? Don’t we have a reputation for having an “older-than-average” population?

A quick trip through the “charts” in the “Population Projections Update” will tell you the real story. Skim down through the document’s colour-coded Ontario maps, beginning with one at the top of the document identifying Peterborough County as “Census division 14.”

Chart 7 acknowledges that it is true that we will experience negative “natural” growth over the next quarter century.

But continue on to Chart 9 – evidently, there will be a continuing influx of newcomers to Peterborough, as we are coloured light blue, signifying a 15%-40% total population growth over the next 25 years.

Chart 10 tells us that these people won’t all be retirees, either, as we are projected to have a significantly smaller proportion of seniors than the surrounding areas by the year 2036, between 25% and 30%. Chart 11 confirms that the growth in the numbers of seniors will be lower than in neighouring counties.

And Chart 12 tells us that we can expect a 10%-25% growth in the number of children, higher than in Northumberland, Hastings or Victoria.

Knowing that the student-age population of the Peterborough area isn’t likely to decline any further beyond the current baseline, and will likely begin increasing again in about five years, how can KPR justify taking the axe to Peterborough schools?

We must remember that while overall student numbers in Peterborough County aren’t likely to decline, the trend may not be uniform. What about the city of Peterborough as opposed to the county? And what about our pattern of urban growth, which has been relatively symmetrical so far – will it continue that way? Are some schools becoming overpopulated while others become underpopulated?

Now that we’ve looked at the big-picture demographics, and have eliminated the idea of across-the-board “declining enrolment” as a factor in our decision-making, in our imaginary roles as school board managers we'll begin in the next post to “zoom in” our focus to examine the enrolment patterns and organization of Peterborough-area elementary-secondary school networks in their neighbourhood contexts to determine which might ones might need to be the subject of an "accommodation review."

Monaghan Road landmark Queen Mary Public School,
one of four PCVS "feeder schools"

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