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Public opinion on schools: OISE survey reveals attitudes toward education in Ontario

Survey measures public perception on hot-button issues affecting schools across the province 

June 27, 2018



OISE’s 20th survey about educational issues in Ontario presents public views about key issues including: How satisfied are people with Ontario schools? Do they want more or less government spending on education (and are they willing to pay higher taxes?)? How do parents view attempts to improve math outcomes? How do people feel about accommodating religious differences? Is there popular support to challenge discrimination within schools? Survey results also bear on current, controversial issues. Examples this year include the fate of EQAO province-wide testing, and the perennial issue of what schools should receive public funding.

Key Findings

  • Shifting views on publicly funding religious and private schools
  • Continued support for province-wide testing in elementary schools 
  • Concerns about computer literacy and online safety 
  • Access to college and university: some more advantaged than others
  • Accommodating religious differences in school: tolerance widespread

OISE’s 20th survey about educational issues was released on June 27 providing valuable insights into how the public feels about education across the province – with attitudes about the public funding of Catholic schools, other religious and private schools one of this year’s most significant findings.

Study co-authors Professor Arlo Kempf and researcher Doug Hart also say province-wide (EQAO) testing, equity in access to education for marginalized students and computer literacy training, including online safety, are other notable results.


Read the survey: Public Attitudes Toward Education in Ontario: The 20th OISE Survey of Educational Issues (2018)

This year the release of OISE survey coincides with the recently released publication of People for Education’s (PFE) annual audit of school resources in Ontario, based on a survey of principals. The PFE survey is not an opinion poll but gathers information on actual resources and resource needs at participating schools. This year, some findings of the two surveys are complementary – particularly in areas of special education and the disadvantages faced by students from low-income families, and the schools serving them.

Prof. Kempf and Hart say the opinions gleaned from the OISE survey are important to consider when evaluating education policy changes.

“Given the very real possibility of changes to Ontario’s education system in terms of testing, mathematics, funding and other areas, the findings may offer important insights about public perceptions and preferences on a host of relevant issues in education,” says Kempf.

OISE has conducted the survey every two or three years since 1978, measuring attitudes toward everything from school satisfaction and government spending to tutoring and alternate schools. Researchers say survey results provide a snapshot of public opinion on emerging policy issues and how public attitudes have changed over time. With this survey, Ontario is the only province in Canada that regularly tracks and widely publishes public attitudes toward education.

Public divide over funding religious and other private schools

One of this year’s most significant findings relates to religious school funding. The public remains divided over whether there should be a single, publicly-funded school system, public and Catholic systems as it exists now, or whether public funding should be extended to non-Catholic religious and other private schools.

“In the more than three decades since full funding was extended to Catholic schools, no consensus has emerged on this question,” said Prof. Kempf.

However, researchers say where there has been a noteworthy change is when asked –  hypothetically – what should happen if the status quo was no longer an option – that is, what should happen if the government could only fund all religious schools or none?

When asked this question in 2000, there was a roughly 50/50 split in responses – half favoured funding all religious schools, half favoured funding none.

The response to this question in the latest survey, however, marks a shift in opinion: If only presented with the option of funding all religious schools or none, 60 per cent of survey respondents to the most recent survey said they would prefer to fund none at all.

“This suggests that the most likely outcome of a successful campaign to delegitimize funding Catholic schools might be a single public school system,” says Hart. “But as long as the status quo of funding public and Catholic systems is in the mix, there is no public consensus for change.”

Public supports province-wide testing

Another important finding, say researchers, is continued support for province-wide (EQAO) testing at the elementary level (currently at grades 3 and 6). Just over half of survey respondents favour testing every student, with 16 per cent preferring to test samples of students instead.

The survey also revealed that just over half of Ontarians think parents can rely on province-wide test scores as a good indicator of school quality. A quarter of respondents disagree.

Opinions about online learning, safety measured for the first time

Another important survey result concerns online safety – included in this year’s survey for the first time. With regard to teaching students how to interact safely on web and social media platforms, just over half of parents believe schools are teaching students to be safe and behave ethically. Nearly 60 per cent feel parents and schools are jointly responsible for teaching students to be safe and ethical online.

 “We are excited to introduce this line of questioning,” said Prof. Kempf. “Given the current issues of cyberbullying and other challenges involving technology, it’s important to get a sense of public opinion around online learning and socialization, especially since more and more formal and informal learning is taking place in online environments.”

Equity in access to postsecondary education

When it comes to pursuing higher education, the survey also found that Ontarians are much more likely to see low income and Indigenous students as disadvantaged rather than black students. Less than a third of respondents believe black students have less chance of getting a postsecondary education than white students. But more than half of respondents feel lndigenous students have less chance of pursuing post-secondary education. A larger majority believe students from low-income families are disadvantaged compared to students from high-income families.

Survey respondents also showed increasing tolerance for accommodating cultural diversity within schools. Only a third are opposed to students wearing religious symbols. Less than half oppose allowing students to attend prayer sessions during school hours. However, almost two-thirds oppose separate classes for boys and girls.

More than half of respondents would like schools to make greater effort to combat discrimination with regard to race, religion, gender, LGBTQ status, disability and social class.

What’s next…

In the coming months, Kempf and Hart will lead a team of researchers to explore these findings further.

“This additional research will create opportunities to deepen our understanding of the issues raised in the report,” Prof. Kempf said. “All of this will be important as we look to get a greater sense of where we stand in this province on many of these important educational issues.”

About the survey

OISE’s survey on public attitudes toward education was first established in 1978. Since then, it has been administered to a representative sample of Ontarians every two or three years. The 2018 survey is the first to be administered online. The results are based on 1,529 responses to a random sample of 7,428 members of the online Leger Research Web panel between August 21 and September 13, 2017.

The unique value of the survey, say researchers, is that it situates current opinion within historical patterns.

“Each survey provides a snapshot of public opinion at a particular moment in time,” said Hart. “But, because the core of the survey is made up of questions repeated from year to year, taken together the surveys are akin to time lapse photography– revealing how public opinion in key areas has responded to changing circumstances.”

Public Attitudes Toward Education in Ontario: The 20th OISE Survey of Educational Issues (2018) was released on June 27.