21 September 2006

The Education Nexus

Canadians consistently recognize a number of issues as being most important for their governments to resolve, and while the newsworthiness of particular items shifts the list around from time to time, we can always expect people to be concerned about the economy, health care, the environment, immigration. I think the most important of these (even though it isn't often mentioned) is education. That's one of the reasons why I thank Gerard Kennedy - formerly Ontario's education minister and presently running for Liberal Leadership - would make a great PM. He's promoting a policy on a national direction in education, and I think he really gets that underlying all the other problems, there's education.

Now the link between education and employment may be obvious. But take health care. Firstly, it might surprise you to know that the presence of primary education is a better indicator of overall health care outcomes (like infant mortality and life expectancy) than is per capita health spending. Basic first aid training would reduce emergency room visits; teaching everyone to swim would save hundreds of drowning deaths and teaching everyone CPR could save a thousand heart attack victims each year in Toronto. Much of health is healthy eating, which can be both taught and reinforced at school; part of it is also regular exercise, and the Ontario Liberal government has recently announced mandatory daily physical education. I'm especially happy about this last one as it obviously stems from policy led by Gerard Kennedy before he left to run for the leadership.

Education and health care also interface at the medical school. Universities are creatures of statute and heavily dependent on government funding, so as long as politicians can produce the funds, why not invest in increased enrollment? Doctors are still normal people who will respond to economic pressures, and if there were simply more of them, it would be correspondingly easier to find one willing to work in rural towns and other places they are in short supply. Ultimately increased supply will also reduce pressure on prices, and so an increased investment in training doctors could ultimately prove a long run cost-saver. I've known lots of very capable people who have failed to get into med school and I have no doubt that we could double the enrollment without a noticeable decline in the quality of the students. We might even return to a state where the human element was once again valued alongside incredibly high undergrad scores.

Another place to find doctors is driving cabs, and there the education nexus shifts to immigration This could include systems for assessing and, where possible, accommodating foreign educational qualifications (not just in medicine). Of course, it also requires ESL training, which is presently done on a pretty ad hoc (and private) basis.

There's no reason that should be true. A huge portion of 'learning disabilities' among elementary students arises from the language difficulties of students who do not speak English at home. A strategy that recognizes that language training as an underlying barrier in a range of activities is required to build a multicutural Canada that can work and play together. The same goes for French, incidentally, and as someone who is paying too much now for the French sins of my past I can honestly say that I think education in both of Canada's language should be available to all as of right, period. If someone decides to undertake that struggle at any age they should get all the help we can give them. We should have as an ultimate goal a population that is almost universally bilingual (although I would expect many of these to speak only one official language).

At the youngest end of the education spectrum, universal child care should be preceded by universal nursery school. Now here again I'm biased because I went to a montessori nursery school, and I think it was awesome. Firstly, we (the kids) went for a half-day, which enabled my mom to go back to work part-time much earlier than she would have otherwise. The money was nice I'm sure but also my mom likes her job, and I think that ensuring nursery school is available would be a godsend for women like her. Second, kids are sponges when they're young, and some parents don't have the time or energy or skills to do as good a job of teaching their kids as they would be able to do if they had the help of a professional teacher and a fully outfitted educational play area 5 days a week.

Rising from the infantile to the global economic level, education will play a key role in enhancing our position globally. Establishing the expertise in clean technologies that is required for us to meet our environmental obligations will also establish our international competitiveness in those same fields. In technology and business much advantage often derives to the first-mover, and so setting national priorities and matching them with the research support required is actually quite urgent, in the sense that it is time sensitive and delay will cause us to lose most of the benefits. I also think that in most cases low-impact means low-input, and so these technologies will be just as valuable to our poorest neighbours as it will be to those with who we will compete as producers (although I think we might depart from a strict economic view and allow for the former to pay a rather more manageable price than the latter).

Education might even pervade our foreign policy at its most heavily armed level. Why would we not be trainers of the police and armed services in places like Afghanistan? I think we're uniquely qualified, in terms of being tolerable to most parties, and it seems like the sort of job that's a growth industry. It's also the sort of job that will allow us to contribute in a way that we can seriously believe (or at least seriously pretend) is immediately and exclusively directing it's efforts at impoving the security and well-being of the local people and thereby preparing for its own departure.

Those are a few examples that, to me, illustrate why education underlies many of our most serious policy concerns. I'm fond of saying that if there were one thing and only one thing a government could accomplish, it should be to reconceive our education system. At the very least we owe it to ourselves to teach the next generation enough to help them obtain a better government for themselves than the one we currently have!


Blogger fifi said...

Again, fantastic prose. Are these all your own thoughts or do they stem from other things you've recently read?

Fantastic points, very well put.


September 22, 2006  
Blogger Gavin Neil said...

Well I'm sure most of what I think comes from things I've read or heard, but basically these are just my thoughts - I had time to burn because I'm visiting my brother in Kelowna and he had to work! Anyway if you read this drop me a line, I'm thenameofthisblog at gee-male dotkom.

September 22, 2006  

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