Academic researchers question the PAR process and suggest smaller schools work better.

backgrounder 100By Pepper Parr

October 28, 2016



Burlington parents with students in Central high and Lester B. Pearson high school are scrambling. The Halton District School Board (HDSB) put a series of recommendations before the trustees earlier this month that could result in the closing of the two high schools.

The Board of education is driven by provincial funding rules that require them to do a Program Accommodation Review (PAR) if the percentage of the seats available in a school that are being used falls below 65%
Central high and Pearson are at that level.

Hayden High school, Burlington's newest built as part of a complex that includes a Recreational Centre and a public library with a skate park across the street.

Hayden High school, Burlington’s newest built as part of a complex that includes a Recreational Centre and a public library with a skate park across the street is at 115% capacity and already has portables in the parking lot.

The Board situation is complicated in that the three year old Hayden high school is at 115% capacity.

Director of Education Stuart Miller explained to the trustees that the city has one and a half too many high schools – and that they are south of the QEW where the student population is falling.

The process of closing a school requires that a Program Accommodation Review Committee (PARC) be formed and that the trustees listen to what that committee recommends before making a decision.

The PARC process is to be completed by May of 2017. That is a tight timeline.

There are people in the academic world who think the province is forcing the school boards to do this the wrong way – and that opting for larger school rather than smaller school is bad pedagogy.

Schools play a central role in their communities. They are essential to economic development and they make communities more attractive to new- comers. Businesses are more likely to move to communities with schools, and families will not move to communities without schools. When a community loses its school, it loses its viability.

Extensive research over the last decade shows that small schools make excellent learning environments for students, and that, despite economies of scale, they are often cost effective because of their higher graduation rates.

Creative and proactive strategies must be developed now to recognise the value of small schools and to ensure their viability and that of their communities.

Bill Irwin of Huron University College and Mark Seasons at the University of Waterloo school of Planning argue that the push to close school doors seems to be an economic exercise, overlooking educational and community needs. Irwin is a professor of Economics and Management and Organizational Studies at Huron.
Together they have launched a website: offering a research-based platform to guide discussion about school closures.

“We believe,” the website states, “that the theory and best practices of both urban planning and public participation are good foundations from which to ameliorate the school closure process, and ultimately lead to a more effective and equitable outcome for those involved.”

The website is one of the outcomes of a 2013-14 Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant.

“We’re looking at the whole issue surrounding school closures, in terms of several touchstones – as a public policy issue, and how policy is developed and delivered; as a public participation issue and the relationship between institutions and communities; and the implications of closures in terms of impacts on financial, social and human capital,” Irwin explained.

There are a number of factors driving this school closing trend.

• The last of the baby-boom generation’s children (who have created an enrollment swell since the 1970s) are now completing their secondary education.
• Ontario’s secondary school curriculum was reduced from five years to four years resulting in the loss of a whole grade of students.
• With the growing industrialization of agriculture, the loss of Ontario’s family farms has added to the exodus from rural areas.


Terry Ruff, a former Central his school principal explained to parents how a possible closure was avoided when he was principal in 2000.

“The research into the subject of school closures is grounded in developing and implementing a better decision making process with regards to accommodation review. To complement this, the researchers are concentrating on three areas of focus; public participation, urban planning, and the accommodation review process itself. We believe that the theory and best practices of both urban planning and public participation are good foundations from which to ameliorate the school closure process, and ultimately lead to a more effective and equitable outcome for those involved.


The Simms building, directly across the street from city hall is a number of city departments – Legal and Human Resources. Might they take up some of the spare space at Central ?

“One of the key components to realizing this objective is the ability to achieve an increased awareness of this issue, and to encourage an informed discussion between government officials, policy makers, school board administrators, and civic leaders alike. To support this, the researchers have provided material that they believe will enable a wide range of stakeholders to become better informed about the various guiding aspects of accommodation review and school closures.”

A major problem the closing of a school stumbles upon is that planning is a municipal function – and in Burlington the Board of Education and city hall tend not to work very closely together; the two don’t have an organizational structure they can meet on as equals.

The last time there was an educational issue that involved the city was when the Charles Beaudoin School wanted to add more portables – but in order to do so they had to get permits from the city.

The parents at the school didn’t want more in the way of portables so they pressured the city not to give the Board of Education what they said they needed.

The school board eventually got permission to install additional portables – just not as many as they needed.

“There is documentation that will enable others to become better informed about some of the more subtle elements and underlying causations that have led school closures to become such a highly contentious and polarizing experience.


The parents at Central high are well organized – Pearson is trying to catch up.

“School closure decision making process have been framed by policy makers in Ontario, through the accommodation review process (ARCs) (2006), as exercised in public participation. Critics of ARCs have decried the process being more of a subterfuge than a genuine attempt of joint institutional-community review. At its core, the research is a quest to better understand the relationship between institutions of education, in Ontario represented by the provincial Ministry of Education and local school boards, and the community.

“Furthering this understanding will require addressing the question: How do people view the concrete and practical application of school closure policy in their community? Critics of the current ARC process in Ontario have stated that the provincial government appears to ne be making use of school boards to regulate the citizenry to their own end, applying the version of the Foucauldain (a form of discourse analysis, focusing on power relationships in society as expressed through language and practices) notion of governmentality.

“The questions are: How does the community view the consequences of school closings, especially as the closing occur in local settings? How does (or do) the end results of school closings reflect what community members’ desire? or the process of review?

“The research starts with the premise that ‘true public participation’ in any policy decision rests not only with the institution listening to the community; the institution needs also to consciously include the community insights into the final outcome. Therefore institutional context and motive plays a pivotal role in determining a group or individual’s capacity to make informed choices, and then transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes. Capturing that institutional context and motivation as it relates to public participation, actual and perceived, is a major focus of the research.”

Bill Irwin explains: “When I started my research – my thesis (in 2012) was on school closures – no one else had looked at this issue since the policy had come forward in 2005,” he continued, adding if the province was closing smaller community schools as a fiscal savings measure, there was no tracking of those savings. More importantly, there was no review of community costs.

“How does a closure impact students as learners? We don’t know if this is impacting students’ ability to learn or their marks. This happens in young people’s lives at the same time they’re going through emotional, physical changes. There are so many unanswered questions in this,” Irwin continued.

“The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is spending resources on rebuilding houses, while the Ministry of Education is supporting closures of community schools. We want to rebuild our inner cities, yet we want to shut down schools in their communities,” Irwin said.

“We’re taking schools from poor neighbourhoods and putting them in affluent neighbourhoods. It’s a reverse Robin Hood situation.”

“What’s more, current policies surrounding school closures ignore previous research that shows smaller schools have a great impact within their communities.

“In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, robust research literature was done on the benefits of small schools as learning environments, as having long term benefits to students. That literature has been totally ignored in this whole process,” Irwin said.

“All of us realize there will be a provincial election this year. This should be part of the discussion. How we treat our schools has a tremendous impact long-term on the social fabric of our communities,” Irwin said.

• The number of small elementary schools with full-time principals has dropped by 15%, twice the rate of the drop in all elementary schools in the province.
• The number of small elementary schools with a teacher-librarian (full- or part-time) has declined by 53% compared to a 30% decline in all elementary schools.
• Just 20% of small elementary schools have access to a physical educa- tion teacher, compared to 51% of larger elementary schools.*
• Only 25% of small elementary schools have access to specialist music teachers, compared to 61% of larger elementary schools.
• All larger secondary schools have libraries that are open full-time, but 21% of small secondary schools had libraries open only part-time.

Alton Village public school

The Alton public school is scheduled to have a second floor added – the school hasn’t been open three years.

Three quarters of Ontario’s small elementary schools and 83% of small high schools report that their schools are used by the community after school hours for everything from sporting events to ratepayers’ meetings.

Ontario’s drive to build larger schools is solely a response to an education funding formula geared to larger schools – it is an economic decision rather than a pedagogical one.

The HDSB recently approved taking on commercial enterprises that could use some of the space; meetings were held but nothing has come of this kind of opportunity so far.

The city of Burlington has been renting space in the Sims Building directly across from city hall for years. There is a consultant’s report in a filing cabinet gathering dust that sets out what the city is going to need in terms of office space and what is currently has – that report has not been released to the public yet.

After years of stopgap solutions, it is time to reverse the trend and recognize that closing a school is not simply an educational issue, it has major social and demographic repercussions as well.

The researchers declare that “we must recognize the reality of declining enrollment in Ontario, and come up with new and proactive solutions to maintain the viability of small schools and communities. It is time to develop creative ways to keep the school buildings vital and expand their role as the hub of their communities. We can take cues from other places: English small schools are inviting postal sub-stations to occupy a part of their buildings; Newfoundland has community schools that have on-site social service agencies, community radio stations, and seniors’ programs. It is possible to modify school buildings slightly so that they can function as community centres as well, and, if provided with adequate funding, day care centres enhance schools and act as a draw for young parents.”


Expect to see a lot more evening with rooms packed with parents as the |Board of Education begins a series of meeting to explain the PAR process. There will not be a Q&A session at any of these meetings.

Somewhere in the research there is mention of adjusting transportation guidelines and funding to ensure that no student spends more than 1½ hours per day on the school bus. That amount of time suggests students in Burlington are being prepped for commutes on the QEW,

The battle in front of the parents right now is the very real threat to two of the city’s high schools – there might be a higher level discussion these parents can put in front of the trustees and that is – what size of schools do we want and can we slow things down a bit and take the time needed to get this right the first time.

This article draws heavily on the work of Bill Irwin at Huron University College and Mark Seasons at the University of Waterloo.   getting new - yellow

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2 comments to Academic researchers question the PAR process and suggest smaller schools work better.

  • Hans

    One high school is at 115% of capacity while another, nearby, has significant slack capacity…. is this really such a challenging issue? Or is there more to it?

    A feasible solution to accommodation: transfer the responsibility for land, buildings, and maintenance to the Region while the school board retains responsibility for education staff.

  • Allison

    Great piece, but a correction – Central is actually not one of the Burlington schools at under 65 percent usage. It is actually near 70 percent, and that ignores the Grade 7-8 component which is likely to increase based on observation of the number of students increasing at feeder schools like Tom Thomson. The schools in Burlington at less than 65 percent are Pearson, Bateman, and MM Robinson. Central was nominated for closure by the Director and staff based on being part of a group of schools (all of Burlington public secondary schools) deemed collectively underutilized. Just on its own, Central High would not have qualified for consideration under the Board’s PAR policy. I think that’s important to understand as the community asks why this option has been championed.