Small Classes, Big Learning: Class Size in Canada

On March 15, 2019, the Government of Ontario announced that the average class size funding benchmark for secondary schools will rise from 22:1 to 28:1. The Premier, the Minister of Education, and the President of the Treasury Board have repeatedly claimed that Ontario has among the lowest class sizes in the country and that increasing the average to 28:1 will bring Ontario into line with other provinces. At best, such claims are misleading. At worst, they represent a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality and a willingness to sacrifice Ontario’s world-class education system for the sake of budget cuts.

Education workers know that smaller classes improve learning. The research backs them up.

Smaller classes lead to increases in individualized student-teacher interactions, increased likelihood that students will be on-task during class time, and academic gains. Most significantly, in each of these areas, smaller classes provide the most benefit to students who struggle and need extra support.

An absolute ranking of class sizes across the country is impossible due to highly divergent monitoring and reporting practices across provinces. Caps and averages in local collective agreements make provincial class size averages even harder to estimate when, as in many provinces, averages are neither collected nor reported.

Nonetheless, OSSTF/FEESO’s analysis shows that the proposed change to the funding benchmark will move Ontario from among the smallest/best class sizes to the largest/worst. Further, the Minister is wrong to say that this policy aligns Ontario with other provinces; it only aligns Ontario with the provinces that have the largest class sizes.

  • The findings of our analysis in brief are:
    • Comparison to Atlantic Provinces: Ontario’s current 22:1 average class size is superior to what currently exists in the Atlantic Provinces. However, a move to 28:1 will likely put us at par with or higher than these provinces.
    • Comparison to Quebec: The proposed class size increase to 28:1 will bring Ontario closer to Quebec’s average for regular classes. However, Quebec’s technical and vocational exploration classes and classes for students on individualized paths for learning are much smaller. Without knowing the distribution of courses within each of these categories, it is difficult to determine what exact average class size for regular classes. However, one can conclude that the overall class size average in Quebec is lower than 30:1.
    • Comparison to Manitoba and Saskatchewan: Manitoba and Saskatchewan do not collect or report the data necessary to make a true class size comparison.
    • Comparison to Alberta and British Columbia: Alberta funds to target an average class size of 25 or 27 depending on grade level, both lower than Ontario’s new 28:1 funding benchmark. Both Alberta and British Columbia report actual class size averages that are closer to 22 students. If the Government of Ontario wants to align Ontario with other provinces, they should maintain the 22:1 funding formula, which creates averages closer to British Columbia and Alberta than to the Atlantic Provinces.
    • International Comparisons: Twenty states in the United States reported an average class size of 22 students or less. Forty-two states reported an average size of 28 students or less, and four states reported an average class size of over 28 students. According to 2016 data, Ontario’s current 22:1 average class size ranks 19 out of 35 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. Moving to a 28:1 average class size would drop Ontario to 28 out of 35, below the United States’ national average.