Two years ago the NB2026 Roundtable identified literacy, education and training – under the rubric of learning – as one of the principal roadblocks to New Brunswick’s development and prosperity and set out to do something about it.
A two year citizen’s engagement was started that ended up reaching out to nearly 5,000 New Brunswickers through a series of public sessions across the province and direct discussions with learning and education related stakeholders.
This engagement culminated with a provincial forum held in November where 70 different learning-related stakeholders got together and crafted a vision for the province. They want to make New Brunswick “the learning province of Canada”.
This is an ambitious vision. According to the International Adult Literacy Skills Survey, more than half of New Brunswick’s adult population can’t read, write or do math well enough to meet the challenges of everyday life and work. Further, a significant percentage of young people are exiting the education system (either prematurely or with a diploma) without sufficient literacy and numeracy skills.
Some people may be rolling their eyes right now. What makes this initiative any different? New Brunswick’s literacy problem has been well known for decades and successive governments have at least nominally made it a priority.
This initiative is different. The normal way for New Brunswick to tackle collective problems is by citizens complaining and governments promising to do something. This initiative has taught us that literacy is not a ‘government’ problem. Addressing it will be a ‘projet de société’.
At the provincial forum over 60 initiatives were identified involving a range of public sector, private sector and non-governmental organizations across the province.
By Grades 2-3 we can identify with almost 100 percent accuracy which kids will go on to do well in school and which will fall through the cracks. Imagine enlisting an army of retired teachers, nurses and other public servants in every community around the province as tutors and mentors for these ‘at risk’ young people.
Imagine thousands of small businesses around the province committing to a learning agenda in the workplace and putting programs and incentives in place for staff to upgrade their skills.
Imagine thousands of young people engaging with senior citizens to help them learn how to use the Internet and build their 21st century literacy skills.
Imagine provincial and federal governments making a serious commitment to the tens of thousands of New Brunswickers who collect Employment Insurance each year that are stuck at the lowest skills and literacy levels. We spend a huge amount of taxpayer dollars on ‘training’ every year. Imagine if we tied that spending to the learning agenda.
Imagine mayors and municipal councils all across the province vying to win the ‘Learning Community of the Year’ award by taking deliberate steps to promote literacy.
In short, imagine a learning agenda that engages the broadest possible coalition of New Brunswickers from all corners of society. Then, as my father says “you are cooking with gas”.
The learning agenda is being led by Andy Scott, Marie-Paule Thériault and the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, Jody Carr. It has also been wholeheartedly endorsed by Premier David Alward.
I’m a big fan of Andy Scott. He has tackled some of the most complex public policy issues over the years. Having him at the helm gives the initiative much greater chance of success. Minister Carr has a lot on his plate these days. He looks a little frazzled but he has made this a key priority for him and his department. It will be crucial to align the enormous resources of government with the initiatives developed through the learning agenda.
The learning agenda is one of those initiatives that could transform the province. Or it could go down in flames. For the sake of our future, I hope it takes off.