A school bus in Yellowknife. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The NWT’s education system is falling short in every area inspected, the Office of the Auditor General concluded in a report published on Thursday.
The audit, covering the period from 2015 to 2019, found the territory’s education leaders had made progress in some areas but failed to deliver on a range of key commitments.
There were failings related to Indigenous-language and cultural education, help for students and teachers in smaller communities, and how the education system as a whole was monitored.
The audit declared not enough data was collected and studied – and, even when it was, sometimes the information was faulty.
For example, the territory’s method of calculating high school graduation rates was found to be fundamentally flawed. In 2017, the NWT said it had a 72-percent graduation rate. The auditors, using a different method common to most of Canada, said the rate was actually 44 percent.
Glenn Wheeler, who led the audit, said the results were not as bad as a damning report of the NWT’s Child and Family Services in 2018 – but remained “deeply concerning.”
“We found shortfalls in the department’s actions in every area of the education system that we audited,” Wheeler said.
The Department of Education, Culture, and Employment said it agreed with all of the audit’s nine major recommendations to fix the system.
Education minister RJ Simpson said in a prepared statement: “The findings of the Auditor General are a launching pad for our continuous improvement over the next four years. We have agreed with all of their recommendations.
“I am very aware of the gaps in student achievement across the territory. While we are making some headway … small communities remain in need of greater support. My focus over the life of this government will be to ensure equitable education delivery in all communities in the North.”
Asked if the department’s plans appeared sufficient, Wheeler said: “The proof will be in the pudding.” He added the department had struggled to carry out overly ambitious plans in the past, and needed to better prioritize the work it carried out.
In the rest of this report, we break down in more detail what the Office of the Auditor General had to say.
The Office of the Auditor General regularly audits the work of different NWT departments to assess how government commitments are being met.
This latest audit, completed in November but only published on Thursday, looked at whether the NWT suitably planned, supported, and monitored its education programs and services – particularly how fair the system is to all students, how it includes Indigenous languages and cultures, and whether students’ outcomes improved.
The NWT has around 800 educators and 8,500 students in 49 schools, though almost two-thirds of schools have fewer than 150 students and eight communities have no high school education.
The NWT’s education department doesn’t directly run schools but does fund the education councils that do. The department gave $155 million to those councils in the last financial year.
Maria Pooley and Glenn Wheeler, right, led the audit of the NWT’s education system. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
Auditors acknowledged the NWT is a “challenging” place to deliver education given the remoteness of communities and small school sizes. More than a third of the territory’s students are on an individualized learning plan to give them extra support.
The territory’s education system had last been audited in 2010. Some problems identified in that audit remained key concerns a decade later, particularly a lack of adequate monitoring that would help the department understand whether initiatives were working or failing.
The Office of the Auditor General chooses select lines of inquiry in producing its audits. For example, auditors did not assess how money is allocated to education in the NWT or the human resources provided to get the job done. Auditors did not have a mandate to extend their audit to the regional education councils themselves, instead focusing on the department’s actions.
Indigenous languages and culture
Support for Indigenous languages and culture in the education system had been slow to improve, Wheeler said.
The audit found the department had been “slow to introduce changes in Indigenous language and culture-based education, even though it had been responsible for this area of the education system for decades and had made commitments related to it.”
The department had in 2010 acknowledged the need for a better policy related to Indigenous languages and culture, but only produced one in 2018.
The audit said the department “did work to support education bodies [but] despite these efforts, we are concerned that the department took too long to improve Indigenous-language education.”
The auditors recommended the department fully implement its new Indigenous languages curriculum while recruiting and training more language instructors. In response, the department said a curriculum was on the verge of becoming mandatory and two pilot programs to increase instructor numbers would be evaluated and adjusted “as necessary.”
Wheeler said: “The need for swift action in this area is increasingly critical because knowledge of Indigenous languages is declining.”
The audit concluded the department had “improved its support … for delivering inclusive schooling but more work was required.”
Inclusive schooling is the means by which all students, regardless of their need or ability, are able to access education at their local school with the necessary supports.
There were some positives listed in this section of the audit. The report found the department had updated its guidance on inclusive schooling, provided new training, and taken some actions to increase support for specialized services – like extra counselling.
However, auditors said the department did not provide “adequate guidance and training for support assistants,” adding “the needs of all students were not being met.”
The department, in response, said it would work with education councils in each region to update support assistants’ job descriptions by end of March and make a new training approach available across the NWT by next year.
Equitable access to education
The audit found “more work was required” to ensure students across the NWT had a fair shot at a good education, regardless of their background or community size.
Initiatives like Junior Kindergarten and Northern Distance Learning (which allows students in remote communities to join classes by video link where they would otherwise have to study online, alone) were praised for ensuring some progress.
However, auditors found that school calendars often did not align, meaning even the most dedicated students miss up to 30 percent of classes offered this way.
Though the department provided more funding to offset higher costs in smaller schools, and built an online platform so teachers in remote schools could collaborate, the audit said commitments had not been met to provide more support for principals of small schools and teachers in multi-grade classrooms.
The department, responding, said more money had now been introduced to let education councils employ at least two teachers in even their smallest schools.
The NWT government added its next overarching plan for the education system would “prioritize supports to small schools and teachers of multi-grade classrooms,” with 42 counsellors and seven clinical supervisors being introduced by 2022.
The audit did not study provision of internet access – long a major source of concern for the NWT’s education councils. Lack of sufficient bandwidth often hampers students attempting to learn or create in smaller communities.
Data and monitoring
The audit concluded the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment “did not have a clear picture of the performance of the education system, including the department’s progress in renewing the system.”
The department did not even know which measures it would use to monitor the system’s performance, the report stated. As a result, the department “could not fully assess whether the education system was meeting students’ needs.”
No better monitoring system had been introduced despite a 2013 commitment to do so.
Importantly, Wheeler said the department’s action plans were sometimes too “ambitious.” The audit stated: “Department officials told us that accomplishing the work required under these plans was unrealistic given the resources available.”
“Going forward, they have to prioritize where they focus their efforts,” Wheeler told Cabin Radio. “It’s difficult to do everything.”
Graduation rate inflated
One glaring issue with data came when auditors studied the NWT’s published high school graduation rates.
Until now, the NWT government has worked out its graduation rate by dividing the number of graduates by the number of 18-year-olds in the territory in any given year.
“Department officials recognized that there were problems with this method, and they were working on an alternate one,” the audit noted.
Using the NWT’s method, 2017’s graduation rate in the NWT was 72 percent. Auditors then recalculated the graduation rate using a different method.
“We analyzed 10 years of departmental data using a method similar to that used by the majority of jurisdictions across Canada,” the audit stated.
“Our analysis followed cohorts of students from grades 10 to 12 and included students who left school prior to Grade 12. We found that graduation rates were significantly lower than those reported by the department.”
Under the auditors’ method, the graduation rate fell from almost three-quarters of students to fewer than half, at 44 percent.
“Overall, we found that from 2009 to 2018, about 50% of students graduated,” the audit concluded. Wheeler stressed he believed the department had not sought to intentionally mislead, and had recognized the deficiencies in its calculations.
Responding to these concerns, the department said it had in 2019 introduced a new system for setting and reporting on targets tied to specific performance measures.
Wheeler said that system was only being introduced as the audit’s field work concluded, and he could not analyze whether the NWT’s new system would address the audit’s concerns.
Noting the NWT’s system of social passing – where students are advanced along with their peers instead of repeating grades – the auditors said this system would only work if students were “sufficiently supported [and] adequately prepared for high school.”
With social passing, the audit found, “the percentage of students either repeating grades or not returning to school increased dramatically for students as of Grade 10, the year in which social passing is no longer an option.”
Lastly, the report dealt with the department’s provisions for the 115 daycares it licenses in the NWT.
The department didn’t provide additional programming supports for daycares as it had planned, the audit found, alongside concerns about how staff were assessed and compliance ensured.
The department, in response, said it was working on an “educator certification and learning management platform” to track and support staff.
Asked how he would compare this audit to 2018’s scathing indictment of the NWT’s Child and Family Services, Wheeler – who led both audits – said: “It’s not at that level but we are deeply concerned by what we found.
“Every area we looked at, we found there were problems. This was not of the magnitude of Child and Family Services, but it should not be seen as a positive report.”