10/11/2011 12:06 EDT | Updated 12/10/2011 05:12 EST

Canadian Council On Learning Report: Students Falling Behind International Peers, National Body Needed


TORONTO - Canada has an "enormous vacuum" at the centre of its national education leadership and should fill it with an intergovernmental council, says a prominent educator.

The recommendation is parting advice from Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning, which will wrap up its operations March 31 when federal funding dries up.

A final report entitled What is the Future of Learning in Canada? is being released Tuesday.

"One of our problems in Canada, of course, is that we have very little information nationally about how we're doing," said Cappon, who is both a medical doctor and has a PhD in sociology.

"For example, we don't even know how many graduates we have in any particular year in any particular area, whether it's fisheries or forestry or carpentry, so we can't match labour market demand to labour market supply.

"Those kinds of national reporting systems of data are very important for a country to be able to decide where to put its resources and to be able to move forward."

Cappon said the current Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, of which he was CEO for eight years, is ineffective as a co-ordinating body because everything is done on a consensus basis and it refuses to co-operate with the federal government on education matters.

The final report of CCL recommends that there be something else as well, namely a national Council of Ministers on Learning. The federal-provincial body could provide national leadership in learning, similar to what is done by a ministerial council in Australia, or the Directorate-General for Education and Culture of the European Union.

Cappon said a Canadian version would see the provinces, territories and federal government work together to set and meet goals, and report transparently to the Canadian public.

In the European model, he said member states have an open method of co-ordination to try to converge their policies and priorities in education, even though they're all sovereign in education, like Canadian provinces.

But he acknowledged it would take tremendous public pressure to move in this direction because of "territoriality" in Canada, although there is some will for such a model among small provinces and French language minorities.

"What I'm hoping, of course, is that when people realize that Canada is Canadian Council on Learning we're not going to be able to compete in the future unless we get our act together," he said in an interview from Ottawa.

The report makes reference to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment. Scores reveal that Canadian 15-year-olds have relatively strong sets of skills in reading, math and science, but they've been slipping relative to other countries and in some cases in absolute terms.

A number of other troubling trends are highlighted in the council's report, which noted that about one-quarter of kids enter school without being ready, either because of behavioural or learning problems.

In addition, Cappon said boys are slipping markedly compared with girls from kindergarten to Grade 12.

"There's kind of a crisis in male human capital in Canada that we need to address," he said.

Cappon is also concerned about adult illiteracy, as well as high levels of public spending on research at the post-secondary level because the private sector isn't doing its share.

On the bright side, he said Canadians understand the importance of letting preschoolers enjoy free play, and reading to them, and he said the K-12 system is among the most inclusive and democratic in the world.

At the post-secondary level, there is high participation, a high rate of graduation and a high proportion of immigrants are university educated, he added.

By Anne-Marie Tobin, The Canadian Press