Chapter Ten: Prospects for Education

10.3 The Impact of Social Change on Schools

While immediate changes in education policy tend to get a great deal of attention, many of the most important influences on schooling come from larger and longer-term shifts in Canada and the world. As noted at the beginning of this book, educational changes in Canada are increasingly linked to changes in demographics, economics, social structure, and technology. Schools are strongly affected by these larger societal shifts, as can be seen by looking briefly at just a few of them.


Demographics can be defined as the composition of a population, including such factors as age, sex, marital status, ethnicity, and so on. Several demographic changes in Canadian society have had, and continue to have, important implications for schools. Particularly important among these are the number of people with school-age children, changes in the structure of families, and changes in, and recognition of the identity composition of Canadian society.

The population statistics of schools across Canada has been discussed in Chapters 2, 5, and 6. Demographic changes are important not simply because of increasing or declining numbers of students in classrooms. It is also the case that these numbers are linked to the proportion of adults who have direct contact with schools. In addition, over the last three decades, an aging population has resulted in greater pressures being placed on governments to provide other kinds of public services, such as personal-care homes, health care, and pensions. Schools rely on the political constituencies most likely to support spending on schools—parents. Their presence (or absence) can impact the importance that is placed on Pre-K-12 education.

Teachers are also very aware of the changing structure of families. There are now fewer children in most families, which may significantly change the ways in which parents interact with their children. Although the stereotypical, nuclear family of father, mother, and two children was never as typical as some textbooks suggested, it has become steadily less typical. The 2016 census reported, for example, that more than 24% of all families are single-parent families, and 80% of those single parent families are headed by women (Statistics Canada, 2016). These facts do not necessarily alter the basic purposes of public education, but they can have important implications for the provision of effective, high-quality schooling.

Another important feature of demographic change in Canada has to do with the increasing diversity of the school population and their families in Canada. Many classrooms are much more heterogeneous today, in terms of ethnicity, prior achievement, attitude toward school, and other factors. Consider two aspects of this increasing diversity. Rates of natural increase among Canada’s Indigenous populations are higher than the population as a whole and the Indigenous population is also considerably younger, on average, than the non-Aboriginal population. This means that an increasing proportion of students in Canadian schools, especially in western and northern Canada, will be Indigenous, which has important implications for curricula, teacher recruitment, preparation, and development, school governance, and a host of other aspects of schooling.

In addition, Canadian immigration patterns have changed. Teachers, especially in urban schools, may have substantial numbers of students whose first language is not English or French, whose parents are from diverse cultures, and some of whom will be from war-affected countries who may have experienced trauma and considerable disruption to their schooling. Schools must ensure that teachers create inclusive classroom spaces for all learners. Cultural diversity also creates new expectations for schools in their dealings with parents and communities whose values may be quite different from those traditionally espoused by the school. For example, some Muslim or African-Canadian or Indigenous parents may be interested in programming, religious or traditional spiritual practices, or even separate schools for their children in order to support their cultural and religious identity. A number of these sorts of programs are already in place in various Canadian cities. The charged debate about funding of private schools is also partly related to issues of diversity as ethnic or religious groups look for schooling opportunities for their children.

Another example of demographic diversity around which schools have increasingly developed policy, practices and programming has to do with sexual identity. Over the last twenty years there has been increasing recognition, in practice and in law, of the equality rights of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, queer, inter-sex and two-spirit (LGBTQI2S+) individuals. Current evidence is that LGBTQI2S+ students continue to face harassment, bullying and discrimination in schools, with much higher rates of depression and attempted suicide. Schools are making efforts to serve gender non-conforming students more effectively, but much remains to be done. The achievement of equity amid the growing diversity of students is an important goal, but it certainly has not yet been achieved in the Canadian experience.


Economic and Labour Force Changes

The last few decades in Canada have generally not been a period of economic optimism. There is much talk about global competitiveness, about the dangers to our standard of living, about the finite nature of our natural resources, and about climate change and loss of eco-diversity. Thousands of jobs are lost, entire industries disappear, and people go through wrenching changes as part of what is called “global economic restructuring”. Much of the criticism of schools, not only in Canada but also in many other countries, is related to fear that each country will suffer economically unless it can create and maintain very high education levels. Whether these fears are accurate is, however, debatable.

One assumption often made about schools is that increasing the education level of the population will result in economic growth. Education is an important element in a country’s economic development, but it is only one element. The economy must also be able to provide jobs for educated people. At various times in recent years, unemployment in Canada has been high, especially among young people, including those with a good education. In addition, many Canadian workers report that they are underemployed—that is, they have more skills than are required in their job (McCrate et al., 2020). This is especially the case in Canada for racialized people, immigrants, and people with disabilities (Ng & Gagnon, 2020; Tompa et al., 2020). In some areas, demand has exceeded the supply of people with appropriate training, but in other areas—including law, advanced science, and, at times, engineering, nursing, and teaching—the supply has exceeded the demand, leaving highly educated people unemployed or underemployed, and prompting some of them to emigrate. These shifts can take place fairly rapidly, so that the surplus of nurses and teachers that Canada was experiencing in the 1990s turned into a shortage in the year 2005, and again in 2016. The rate reduced by 2020, though underemployment of first year teachers in Ontario, for example, soared to 35% due to COVID-19. Young people may have left their home province or country because there was no work, yet now there are jobs going unfilled in these same occupations.

Direct job skills are not the entire picture. Schools are also frequently told by employers that students need to learn to be punctual, polite, independent, and reliable as well as creative and entrepreneurial – things that are often called “21st century skills” or “soft skills.” Indeed, schools justify some of their discipline practices by referring to labour force demands. Currently, there is much discussion on skills development and micro-credentialling, which is a means to further delineate credentials beyond what has typically been considered as the norm (diplomas, certificates, and degrees). The Conference Board of Canada developed an “employability skills profile” that focuses on three sets of skills: fundamental skills such as communicating, managing information, and problem-solving; personal management skills such as responsibility and ongoing learning; and teamwork skills (Conference Board, 2000, This list is quite different from the standard high-school curriculum.

Although preparation for work is by no means the only task of schools, it is certainly a major expectation, and one that is held strongly by students. Schools have long been criticized for failing to pay enough attention to the large proportion of students who do not proceed to postsecondary education. Current knowledge does not clarify how schools can best discharge this responsibility. Should schools put more emphasis on preparing for work through vocational programs or co-op education? Or is this the responsibility of employers? Is the best strategy to provide an overall grounding in many areas, without much specialization in any, in the belief that this will give students the most flexibility? The answers are not obvious. Does education have the most impact on helping people get a job, or on helping them do the job once obtained? Or does formal education help people learn on the job, suggesting an emphasis on “learning to learn” rather than on particular skills? Given the complexities at play, we should be wary of glib answers to these questions.



One of the most powerful, yet often neglected, influences on schooling is poverty. Family income is currently a very strong predictor of how well children will do in school. A great deal of research shows that poverty across Canada is related to lower achievement in school, to a greater risk of dropping out, and to lower eventual occupational status and income (Glaze et al., 2012). Completing high school and going on to postsecondary education in Canada are highly related to the education and income of parents; the higher one’s parents’ income, the more likely one is to finish high school and attend university. These relationships are at least as strong as the relationship between measured ability and achievement.

Poverty has always been an issue in Canada, as the data on family incomes provided in Chapters Five and Eight illustrate. Over the past decade, the proportion of Canadian children under 16 who live in low-income families has fluctuated between 15 percent and 22 percent, with up to 1.35 million children, or 1 in 5, living in poverty. Rates are much higher for children of Indigenous heritage, up to 53% on-reserve (Campaign, 2000, 2020). The report notes that only 12 per cent of non-Indigenous, non-immigrant, non-racialized children live in poverty.

Child poverty is also related to lone parent families. As noted earlier, female lone parents carry more of the financial responsibility for children while still facing major inequities in pay and work benefits, frequent difficulty in accessing child support, and a shortage of quality, affordable day care. Increasing child poverty is also related to higher levels of unemployment, and the decline in the availability and value of social supports such as employment insurance and social assistance.

Poverty creates many problems for schools as they are currently structured. As discussed in Chapter Eight, students may come to school with fewer of the skills that the school expects. Students may be preoccupied with physical and emotional needs, making it more difficult for them to concentrate on academic tasks. It may, as well, be harder for students to see the relevance of schooling in their lives when they live with so much hardship and success seems a distant possibility.

Educators and policymakers must ensure that their assumptions about the effects of poverty do not become self-fulfilling prophecies that perpetuate inequity. Because poverty tends to be concentrated geographically, some schools have large numbers of students from low-income families while others have few or none; this increases the danger that schools may be stratified along socioeconomic status lines (Silver, 2014). There is evidence that education programs and instructional practices can result in increased success rates for students (Glaze et al., 2012; Hirn et al., 2018). In particular, success has come from efforts such as programs that help parents provide educational support to their children, school programs that stress high expectations while providing high levels of support, and when schools recognize and build on the strengths and resources that exist in all communities.


Technology and Schools

Changes in technology are among the most apparent changes in Canadian society. When public schools first began, print was the only information technology available. Teachers either spoke to students or the students read. Today, students have access to a huge range of learning resources on the internet, and more and more of these resources are in video or audio rather than in text.   Video differs greatly from text: it is regarded as more emotional, more wide-ranging, less subtle, and more immediate in its impact. Many students are intimately acquainted with these new technologies.

Digital technologies have not only provided vastly increased access to information, but they also change the way in which people handle and store information. The development of learning management system software has provided opportunities to create online classroom spaces that can be delivered in a group or individual fashion, synchronously or asynchronously from almost anywhere in the world. These technologies have also increased dramatically the social nature of learning, as they allow users to work together and communicate with each other, though as we have seen during the pandemic, this cannot replace the kind of social connection evident in face-to-face learning environments. The rise of social media has changed the way people interact as well as with whom they interact. While results include worries about student cyber bullying and student ‘cheating’, a much more important implication is that intellectual work is more social and less individual.

However, the impact of information technology on schools is still very much in doubt. There have been fifty years of predictions that technology would revolutionize schooling, yet there was little evidence that any such revolution, or even dramatic change, would take place prior to the pandemic. The pandemic forced schools to engage in technology-enhanced learning, and to all accounts, it has had mixed success. Many teachers were forced to learn how to engage with learning management systems and design online learning materials almost overnight. Very little professional development was put in place to support them as they were called on to enact these tools. The engagement was also quite haphazard as schools would open and close (and therefore move online or not) as outbreaks occurred in schools. Families often did not have enough computers to serve the needs of all children in their families, and there was little to no support for them to learn how to engage, participate, or help manage their children’s learning from home.  As the “experiment” rolled on, it became clear that teachers, students, and families had needs outside of learning that needed to be addressed (child-care, mental health, and wellness, etc.). Although the effort was made, what is clear is that there are great concerns about the quality of learning that was achieved in completely online learning environments, and that there are academic, social, emotional, physical costs associated with a lack of face-to-face instruction. There were also many positive outcomes of the increased use of technology-enhanced learning environments. The fears associated with online or blended learning were reduced, skills in use of online pedagogies and learning platforms improved significantly, access to educational services was greatly increased for some students who otherwise had limited access to diverse learning opportunities, and the understanding of the potentials for technology-enhanced learning to support more flexible learning arrangements will no doubt continue to (re)shape the delivery of educational services.



A major concern with which schools are engaged more than they have ever been in our history is related to issues of sustainability. Often this is related to environmental sustainability whereby curricular documents, school programs, clubs and even school facilities have become more conscious of our carbon imprint on the world and the effects of climate change on the human and non-human world. In 2015, the United Nations published Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that outlined 17 sustainable development goals that are intended to stimulate action for “people, planet and prosperity” (p. 5) through peaceful and inclusive partnerships. As part of this agenda, UNESCO has created a plethora of resources to support Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in the areas of climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, poverty, and inequality. Its guiding document, Education for Sustainable Development: A Roadmap (2020) offers priority action areas to address sustainability concerns that includes advancing policy, transforming learning environments, building educator capacities, empowering, and mobilizing youth, and accelerating local level actions.  In its introduction, the document makes clear the critical need for ESD:

For our very own survival, we must learn to live together sustainably on this planet. We must change the way we think and act as individuals and societies. So, in turn, education must change to create a peaceful and sustainable world for the survival and prosperity of current and future generations. (p. iii)

In order to achieve these aims, the roadmap offers strategies for implementation of ESD that include focusing on country-level implementation, harnessing partnerships, communicating for action, tracking issues and trends, mobilizing resources, monitoring progress, and long-term planning.

To conclude this discussion of some of the many changes affecting schooling, it is important to point out that the changes are themselves interrelated. For analytic purposes, it is helpful to separate economic change from demographic change or technological change. In reality, change in one sphere reverberates through all other spheres. Changing employment patterns affect incomes and family living arrangements, which in turn affect children’s school experience, which affects the economy, which in turn may affect sustainability concerns, and so on. It is increasingly clear that children’s early experiences, especially from conception to age three or so, have powerful effects on their later school careers, but early childhood is itself shaped by parents’ occupation, income, health, and environmental impact. The relationships are intricate and immensely complicated. As well, the major institutions of society are linked in many ways. Schools are affected by a whole array of political decisions made by governments.


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