Shifting Demographics in Urban Centres – Challenges for Education and Society

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: March 15th 2012

The recent Census data is out for Vancouver. In my first analysis, I was struck by how differently the urban landscape changes. In one area of the city, we have seen an overall population decline of 6% in the past 10 years. Meanwhile, in another area of the city, we have seen growth of 95% in the same time frame. How do you plan and adjust for student growth and demographic shifts in a rapidly changing urban environment and what implications does this have for educational programs and society?

As I grappled with the stats, I was trying to imagine how we are going to manage our capital and educational programs in areas that are changing so quickly. The data clearly shows we are simultaneously in need of managing seriously under capacity and over capacity buildings. Our District Reception and Placement Centre which registers immigrant families and those for whom English is not their home language has registered over 3000 students annually for the past 5 years. Something clearly is changing in our city.

While I considered the educational implications, I know that the Vancouver School Board works closely with the City of Vancouver and I was struck by the municipal implications as well. The local authorities will be under the same pressures, trying to determine where to place community services and facilities in a landscape that changes quickly and valued public lands are in short supply. While a city or school board may be a large land owner/manager, these lands and facilities are valued public assets and their stewardship is a topic of great public interest.

I wondered if the challenges were similar in other urban centres and felt sure they would be. One section on a report on Calgary’s changing demographics and resulting implications reads:

Regardless of family structure, dual-wage families are increasing, resulting in “time crunches” which can limit parents’ abilities to be involved in their children’s education and in the need for increased out-of school care. The trend toward two parents working outside the home is almost certain to continue over time, placing additional pressures on schools to provide supervision and guidance to students. The ability of schools to accommodate these demands will influence students’ educational outcomes and long-term social and economic success.

One of the most serious crunches we hear from families in Vancouver is the need for quality before and after school care. So I did indeed find the same story, different urban centre, no surprises there. A quick look online turned up a great report by The Learning Partnership.  The executive summary reads:

Major demographic changes in the number, characteristics and location of school-aged children present enormous challenges and opportunities for education systems across the country. The trends vary in Canada’s various regions and jurisdictions. Rapid population shifts, particularly in the areas of immigration, aboriginal population growth, and rural/urban migration, are causing schools to experience dramatic change in the ethnic, cultural, linguistic and socio-economic characteristics of their students. Given the extent of these demographic changes, their implications for Canadian public policy in general, and for education systems specifically, warrant broad national discussion.

I read the Learning Partnership document and it is fascinating. Their recommendations are well researched and certainly ring true for the Vancouver experience:

    • The initial recommendations they make are to pay close attention to the immigrant population. New immigrants need support and transition time so that they can successfully make a significant life move. With the correct supports, the immigrant families and students can achieve at the same level of success as existing resident families. They also suggest that successful transition for immigrant families is a multi-stage process involving different government jurisdictions and agencies.
    • The second set of recommendations is dedicated to the growing Aboriginal population. The report focused on the importance of adequate representation of the Aboriginal community in shared decision making where the Aboriginal voice is honoured. The actualization of the Enhancement Agreement as a key document is central to success as is the creation of actual measures of success that can be used to track progress over time.

The paper also comments at length on the importance of the changing demographics and public challenges being an ongoing conversation across government and societal jurisdictions. They also recognize that the issues raised have no single solution. There is no silver-bullet as the sweeping closing statements reveal:

The issues addressed in this paper have implications that reach beyond the purview of the public education system and raise a host of questions that merit further study:

    • What are the local, provincial/territorial, national and global implications of the demographic shifts that we are witnessing in Canada today?
    • What is the best way of providing appropriate and adequate support in all spheres including education, social services, employment and housing for immigrants, Aboriginal Peoples and individuals in rural communities?
    • How can we lift the barriers to the successful transition from school to work as experienced by vulnerable individuals and groups identified in this paper?
    • How can our increased understanding of the changing face of classrooms in every region of this country help us improve our education system and enhance Canada’s prosperity?

So when I started this blog entry I didn’t think that I’d end up commenting on national policy implications. However, the more I read and the more I see, the face of Canada is changing. Quality public education is at the heart of a successful society. We have to be able to navigate our way through rapidly changing times while maintaining our focus on student success. Clearly from what I’ve read, it isn’t a task we can do in isolation. Educational institutions and jurisdictions need to reach out, engage others in the dialogue and troubleshoot together.  Our future may depend upon it.

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