#onpoli newsletter: Teaching mental health in schools should be a no-brainer

“We teach academics in school. We are now going to…start teaching financial literacy. Why can’t we teach coping skills?"
By Eric Bombicino - Published on June 13, 2019
(Left to right) Steve Paikin, John Michael McGrath and Eric Bombicino at work on an episode of the #onpoli podcast (Matthew O'Mara)



Hi, #onpoli people!

There are few certainties in life in Ontario.

There’s death, taxes, arguments about those taxes — and the inevitable controversy over something in Ontario’s school curriculum. It’s come to feel like an almost-permanent feature of the province.

I’m pretty sure when the glaciers retreated in Ontario in the last ice age, leaving behind beautiful lakes, moraines, and the occasional drumlin, it also revealed an ongoing protest over Ontario’s school curriculum.

Pictured: Ontario, 10,000 years ago. (Actually pictured: Argentina, Patagonia Glacier)

Kidding aside, we care a lot about our school curriculum in Ontario. We have for a long time.

There’s been the recent debate over so-called “discovery math” and protests over the sex-ed curriculum, which may have become a mainstay in Ontario politics over the last decade but actually have a history that stretches back by more than a century.

But how is the curriculum made in the first place? And why is it debated at Queen’s Park?

In this week’s episode of #onpoli, John Michael McGrath took a step away from the controversy to take a deep nerdy dive into policy to help us understand Ontario’s school curriculum.

The secret about Queen’s Park

As John Michael points out, it was high-minded principle and calculated politics that saw Queen’s Park take control of Ontario’s school curriculum.

On the principle side of things, starting in the 1970s, the government wanted to make sure Ontario students were all prepared to be workers in the new economy. This meant taking control of the curriculum out of the hands of the hundreds of school boards, consolidating them into fewer boards, and centralizing authority within Queen’s Park.

The goal: to produce a “high-quality school system no matter where you live in the province.” Whether you’re graduating from high school in Kenora or Chatham or Timmins, you should have as many opportunities as a kid going to school in Toronto or Ottawa.

Students, as such, needed to be taught the same curriculum across the province. This hadn’t always happened in the past. By 1979, for example, only 39 school boards (a sixth of the province’s boards) taught about birth control in any grade.

And, of course, there were politics involved in the decision to centralize power at Queen’s Park — specifically, labour politics. After a series of teacher strikes in the ’80s and ’90s, the provincial government decided to take a more active role in managing relations with teachers’ unions.

Three people at a table with microphones.
Producer Eric Bombicino listens intently to Steve Paikin. (Also pictured, the back of John Michael’s head)

But as John Michael says, “One of the secrets about decisions made at Queen’s Park is that they’re not really made at Queen’s Park at all.”

In this episode, we follow the conveyor belt of how curriculum is made. It can start at the Minister of Education’s office, but then it goes through rounds of consultations with various experts, then it goes to school boards, and finally to teachers who turn it into lesson plans.

Simply put, many of the decisions about what goes into the curriculum are made outside Queen’s Park. And, at the end of the day, teachers have a lot of latitude to decide what goes on in their classrooms.

The Progressive Conservative government would agree with this. When they were defending the changes to the sex-ed curriculum in court, one of their defences was that teachers still had the freedom to adapt the curriculum to fit their classrooms.

Teaching mental health in schools is a no-brainer

Celebrated education expert Sir Ken Robinson says one of the big questions we need to ask in the new millennium is how to educate our children to take their place in the economies of the 21st century.

This is, of course, an important goal. Schools should prepare students to make the leap into the workforce, college, or university so they can function and contribute to the economy.

But is that where the mission statement for our school system should begin and end? What about mental health and emotional wellbeing?

Last March, I produced an episode of The Agenda featuring Maddie Di Muccio, a former Newmarket councillor and CEO of Society for Quality Education. As she said on the show: “We teach academics in school. We are now going to…start teaching financial literacy. Why can’t we teach coping skills?”

“We should have a mandatory class that actually teaches kids how to cope with life,” Di Muccio said. “This is such a no-brainer.”

Ontario students would agree. In the lead-up to the last provincial election, the Ontario Student Trustees Association surveyed over 8,000 secondary students from over 60 school boards. The results, then-association president and Grade 12 student Dasha Metropolitansky said on The Agenda in 2018, were “shocking.”

“Two out of three of our peers felt that the mental health resources at their school were inaccessible,” she said. “Almost 75 per cent thought they were ineffective.”

The OSTA made a series of recommendations that amounted to Ontario’s students asking Queen’s Park to be taught how to be emotionally well.

Teaching kids how to be psychologically well and academically successful are not separate streams of education. They feed back on each other. If you teach kids how to be kind to themselves, how to be aware of the emotions they’re feeling, they’re likely to flourish both personally and professionally — meaning economically.

Those are my thoughts on the matter, anyway. What do you think? We teach kids about math and history — should we also teach them about themselves?

Say what?

Reflecting on the changes to Ontario’s education system back in the 1950s, Barry Wansbrough from Bracebridge writes:

All of this was done to place Ontario education in the right era with the right skills for the right population. What it’s missing now is the vision of our cultural leaders to recognize the principles of this new digital age and then set up a new system to accomplish that goal — an educational engine to power the new prosperity.

And naturally, since we brought up the education system, we received an email about the separate school system in Ontario. This is from Sean Mitchell, a student at the University of Guelph:

While the separate school systems in Canada were originally designed to save everyone grief, they are an anachronism of the 19th century that have largely gone extinct in Canada, with Ontario being the obvious exception. 

Instead of having one nearly full secondary school, as was the norm in rural Ontario 30 years ago, it is now common to have two (one Catholic, one public) secondary schools in a rural community which are both around half full. 

What do you think?

Write to us at onpolitics@tvo.org.

That’s all for this week!


#onpoli producer

P.S. As always, thanks for your messages. Every week we are seeing more subscribers to this newsletter, and we appreciate that our #onpoli newsletter community is growing! And for those of you who donate to TVO, thank you for supporting our work. As a registered non-profit charity, we are largely funded by donors. If you haven’t already, please consider making a donation. Thanks for reading. See you next week.

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