03/13/2013 06:16 EDT | Updated 05/13/2013 05:12 EDT

Saskatchewan education minister closes book on class size cap

REGINA - Saskatchewan schools are to have provincially regulated instruction time, standard testing and a scheduled start date — but no cap on class sizes.

Education Minister Russ Marchuk said Wednesday that he would not mandate how many kids could be in a class.

"You know the responsibility for distributing resources in school divisions rests with school divisions," Marchuk said repeatedly.

"Of course there's going to be situations where numbers of students in classrooms is greater than what you'd like to see, but for the most part I really believe that school divisions do a very good job of distributing resources."

Marchuk's comment came after the Opposition NDP raised the issue in the legislature.

New Democrat education critic David Forbes said many schools "are bursting at the seams," especially in Saskatoon and Regina. Forbes said, for example, one school in Saskatoon will have 95 kindergarten students in the fall.

"Parents and teachers know with crowded classrooms there's less time to focus on the individual needs of the students," said Forbes.

"That one-on-one learning with teachers and students is just simply spread too thin," he added.

Forbes, a former teacher, said classes should be smaller, especially if teachers have to deal with language or cultural issues. It would help to have standards for class sizes, he said.

The government has already moved to set minimum class time for all students.

Marchuk said in January that students across the province must have at least 950 hours of class time. The new rule came after the provincial auditor raised concerns that Saskatchewan school divisions don't offer a minimum amount of instructional time. There was a difference of about 30 hours between schools divisions.

The province has also passed legislation that says the school year can't begin until after Labour Day and can't run past the end of June.

Marchuk, a former teacher, suggested class sizes are different.

"It's very difficult to determine an actual number and in fact, I think research would support the notion that minimums and maximums are very difficult to determine," he said.

Some provinces, including Quebec, New Brunswick, Ontario and Alberta have guidelines for class sizes.

Alberta's Commission on Learning has said "class size guidelines are critical for the early grades." It said reducing class size in the early grades, kindergarten to Grade 3, has been found to have academic benefits, especially for poor and minority children.