Yarmouth MLA Zach Churchill was sworn in as the minister on June 15 as Premier Stephen McNeil introduced a cabinet that sees many changes.
Churchill takes over the portfolio from Karen Casey, who is now Nova Scotia’s Minister of Finance and Deputy Premier.
The past year has been a challenging one on the education front with a third NSTU-recommended contract rejected by teachers, months of work-to-rule in schools and the province’s controversial decision to impose a contact on teachers.
Asked about priorities moving forward, Churchill said he’ll be awaiting a report on inclusive education and its recommendations. When the commission was announced it was stated an interim report would be issued by June 30. Churchill said implementing recommendations from the work done by the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions is another high priority.
“And we obviously have to go out and rebuild the relationship that we have with a lot of the teachers in our province,” he said. “I’m absolutely committed to doing that.”
Asked how he’ll achieve this Churchill said, “We need to demonstrate through action that we’ve heard what the concerns are in the classroom and by executing changes, so that’s where my focus will be – demonstration through action.”
He said the goal is to improve working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students.
“I think we’re going to be in a really good position to see some positive changes,” he said. “Things are not going to happen overnight, it’s a very big system, but I’m very committed to doing my part to improve it.”
Another area where attention will be focused is the Liberal’s campaign commitment for a universal preschool program for four-year-olds. During the election campaign the Liberals said a pre-primary program for four-year-olds would begin this fall in 30 new classes. Classes would have about 25 students with two Early Childhood Educators. The initial phase will provide access for approximately 750 children. The full roll-out of the plan, it was stated, will be completed within four years, at which time, every four-year-old will have access to the pre-primary program.
Churchill said there is still work to be done to finalize how the program will unfold and operate.
“We’re going to work with our current early learner providers to make sure we have a system in place that makes sense for kids, families and the professionals that are going to be doing this work for us,” he said. “I’m going to take time as the minister to consult with the public and the professionals that have been doing this work in our communities and make sure that we have a system in place that makes sense for everybody.”
Churchill, the father of an infant daughter, was never a teacher, although he comes from a large family of teachers. Asked what experience he brings to the table, Churchill – who in the late 2000s served as national director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations – said education has always been a major policy interest of his. He hopes to apply his knowledge of the sector and his skill set to contribute to the education of students.
“It’s an absolutely honour to hold this office and it’s a great responsibility and I look forward to working with our teaching population, with parents and the department and school boards to achieve some great things in our classrooms,” he said.
NSTU president Liette Doucet sent along her congratulations to Churchill on his appointment and said she looks forward to meeting with him in the near future.
“There are many challenges facing our education system today,” said Doucet. “We are hopeful Minister Churchill will bring to the role a sense fairness and a willingness to work with the NSTU and its members to implement needed reforms to improve classrooms.”
Churchill previously served as the minister of Municipal Affairs, Natural Resources and Communications Nova Scotia. He won the May 30 election in the riding of Yarmouth with 5,364 votes – which was 3,357 votes ahead of second-place PC candidate Mitch Bonnar. Churchill first won the Yarmouth seat in a 2010 by-election and won the general election in 2013 when he captured 82 per cent of the vote.