VICTORIA - The British Columbia government is scrapping the standard September-to-June school calendar, which the province's education minister says he hopes will encourage more schools to offer year-round classes.
Education Minister George Abbott has tabled legislation that would get rid of the standard school calendar beginning in the fall of 2013, instead relying on local school districts to each set their own schedules, provided they meet a minimum number of teaching hours.
Abbott said the traditional school calendar, with its long summer break, is an outdated relic from a time when many children were needed on the family farm to harvest crops in July and August.
The calendar isn't based on what's best for students, he said.
But the announcement has taken the B.C. Teachers' Federation by surprise, and its president Susan Lambert is already raising concerns about the bill and its impact on students and families.
"British Columbia is a far different place today than it was a hundred years ago," Abbott said in an interview.
"While there are still obviously important agrarian elements in our society, some would say a 10-week break in the middle of summer may be for some parts of the province an anachronism. We do know that student learning is not aided by a long break in the summer."
Year-round schooling is already allowed in B.C., but it remains relatively rare.
Currently, schools must follow a standard school calendar that sets the precise dates when schools will be in session. For the current school year, classes started on Sept. 6 and will end on June 29, with 193 teaching days in between.
School boards could deviate from that calendar if they consulted with parents and staff and then sought permission from the ministry.
The result has been that all but a small handful of schools stick to the standard calendar.
Notable exceptions include Glendale Elementary School in Williams Lake and Kanaka Creek Elementary in Maple Ridge, which both teach classes from the beginning of September until the end of July, with additional breaks spread throughout the rest of the year.
Abbott said from a practical sense, not much will change for school boards interested in extending classes into the summer. School boards will still need to submit their calendars to the ministry for approval, whether they plan year-round classes or not.
But Abbott said he hopes the elimination of a standard school calendar will remove a psychological barrier in which parents and school officials see the September-to-June calendar as the only option.
"For a number of school districts, the existence of a standardized school calendar has proven to be a barrier for them in terms of a constructive engagement with the public," he said.
"A school district might say, 'From a learning perspective, this 10-week break is not appropriate.' And then they run head-on into, 'But, surely, we wouldn't have a standard school calendar from the Ministry of Education if it wasn't appropriate, would we?'"
Raising concerns was Lambert who said she received a copy of the legislation Thursday afternoon.
"Do we have a policy? No we don't," she said of the federation.
Lambert said she worries the bill will allow different schools in the same district to have different academic calendars
"I worry about the fracturing of society through the fracturing of families," said Lambert.
"Can you imagine having one child in one school with one school calendar and another child in another school with another school calendar, how that would impact you as a family and your planning and your time together?"
Lambert criticized the government for its lack of consultation but said the federation will continue to study the bill and continue to advocate for students.
"We're the ones who know what the needs of students are because we are there in that experience every day," she said.
The chair of Surrey's school board, Laurae McNally, said her community doesn't have immediate plans for year-round schooling, but she welcomed the opportunity to have more control over how her schools operate.
"For us, the bigger issue is we have some local autonomy back," McNally said in an interview.
"Every district in this province is really quite different, and those of us that are elected know our districts best."
Beyond the school calendar changes, the legislation will allow students in kindergarten to Grade 9 to take a mix of online learning and traditional school courses, something that only students in Grades 10 to 12 are able to do under current legislation.
It will also clarify that school boards can charge fees for international baccalaureate programs if they cost more than standard education programs.