By Bobby O’Keefe

One would think that the highest priority of a Department of Education would be education. Not so in Nova Scotia.

In loudly trumpeting the release of a new Emergency Management Guide for Nova Scotia schools, the Minister of Education says, “The safety of our students and staff is our highest priority.”

To be fair, the Department of Education takes a different line in its mission statement, which is “…to provide excellence in education and training for personal fulfillment and for a productive, prosperous society.” However, excellence in education means different things to different people. And claiming safety as the top priority with this as your mission statement surely is contradictory.

Now maybe, just maybe, I’m picking on a poor choice of words. Surely the Minister simply meant that safety was one of the top priorities, right?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with the Minister’s quote. Take for example, the mission statement of the middle school in my neighbourhood, which states that the school “is committed to providing students with a safe, positive, and welcoming environment that fosters personal and academic growth.” A little less focus on safety and at least a mention of academic growth, but given that a school is supposed to educate, I’d expect at least the word education or learning to be in there somewhere.

Contrast that with Edmonton Public Schools, long considered one of the highest achieving school districts in the country. As stated on the Edmonton Public website:

“The mission of Edmonton Public Schools, as an advocate of choice, is to ensure that all students achieve success in their individual programs of study.

It is the belief of Edmonton Public Schools that parents, students and community members are committed as partners and accept their respective responsibilities in education.

The mission is being accomplished through exemplary staff performance, program diversity, measured student achievement of outcomes and decentralized decision making.”

Ensuring all students achieve success; parents, students, and community members are committed partners, and accomplishing this through staff performance, diversity, measured achievement, and local decision making. Those sound more like educational priorities than having safety at the top of the list.

Is it any wonder then that when assessment results are released comparing our province to others in Canada that it appears Nova Scotia is falling behind? As a reminder, consider the recent results from the Programme of International Student Assessment: Nova Scotia’s 15 year olds were 7th in Science, 8th in Reading, and 9th in Math of the 10 provinces taking part; and its Grade 4 students were 4th out of the 5 provinces taking part in the 2006 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, and well behind the top 3 provinces.

In Making Schools Work, the book that first told the story of the success of the Edmonton Public School’s model, UCLA professor William Ouchi identified seven keys to success for schools. Not one of them included the word safety. What did make the list though, was what Ouchi called “a burning focus on student achievement”. In other words, if you want students to achieve, your top priority has to be student achievement.

Should schools be safe? Of course they should. But announcing to the world that your top priority is safety is not going to improve educational performance. Best case scenario, it is only going to make your schools safe. But if what we really want from Nova Scotia’s schools is achievement, student achievement has to be the top priority.

Bobby O’Keefe is a senior policy analyst with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent public policy think tank in Halifax, and co-author of its Annual Report Card on Atlantic Canadian High Schools.