Liz Sandals’ career an education in progress

Ontario’s education minister tells writer Derek Abma that as a parent and grandparent, she has a thorough understanding of the province’s education system and its needs

By Derek Abma

Minister Sandals with Hilson Principal Lisa Clayton.

Minister Sandals with Hilson Principal Lisa Clayton.

Liz Sandals has been Ontario’s education minister for less than a year, but it was education that got her involved with politics in the first place a quarter-century ago.

In 1988, Sandals was elected to the local school board in Guelph, Ont. Concerns about her growing community and how schools would accommodate that was what prompted her to step up.

“The school was overflowing,” she said. “Who was going to stay at the old school and who was going to the new school and was anybody ever going to build a new school?”

Sandals spent several more years on the school board, serving some of that time as chairwoman, then was elected president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and became a director for the Canadian School Boards Association.

Before becoming education minister last February, Sandals was MPP for almost a decade. She was a parliamentary assistant to many cabinet ministers during that time, including former education minister Kathleen Wynne. Once Wynne became premier, she appointed Sandals to her old job.

Despite a background heavy on education, Sandals says becoming minister is not something she actively sought out.

“You don’t really work towards a cabinet position because all cabinet positions are at the pleasure of the premier,” Sandals said during a stop in Ottawa as part of a series of consultations across the province to assess the state of Ontario’s education system.

I would say the things I‘ve done in the past have been really good preparation for being the minister of education.”

Her two children, Richard and Allison, were in the public school system when she first got involved with the school board in the late 1980s.

Now Sandals is a grandmother of three, two of whom are in the education system she heads.Sandals says much has changed between the time her children were in school and now.

“I think the education system continues to get more diverse just by the nature of the population getting more diverse,” she says. “So we need to think carefully about how we have an inclusive system that welcomes everyone, regardless of background.”

She adds that Ontario’s curriculums have become more geared toward preparing students for the challenges they face as adults.

“I think we’re understanding more and more that when you look at future expectations that it’s absolutely essential to have high school graduation. So we’re certainly putting in place more programs that reach out to students that are struggling.”

Sandals first became an MPP in 2003 as part of Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal team that came to power and was re-elected twice. She gives that government credit for bringing the graduation rate up to 83 per cent from 68 per cent.

She notes the introduction of programs that targeted students most at risk of not graduating and provided curriculums geared more toward practical work skills for students less inclined toward academics.

On the other hand, Sandals acknowledges there is room for improvement, particularly with students’ math and literacy skills.

Sandals says her experiences as a parent and grandparent give her a better understanding of the education system and its needs.

“I think because I’ve been a parent, I have some sense of the daily ebb and flow that goes on in schools and what real kids do in real schools and how real parents interact with real schools,” she says. “Having grandchildren in school … it does provide a sense of connection in terms of what’s really going on in the classroom, what’s going on in an actual school.”

Sandals adds that there are things she learned from Wynne’s work as education minister that help her today.

“The willingness to talk to everybody about all the issues and to look for consensus, which has always been very much the premier’s style, and certainly was her style when she was at Education,” Sandals says.

When her children were young, Sandals was a parent like many others, trying to balance her responsibilities as a mother with her professional life, which included work as a computer programmer and instructor of computer science at the University of Guelph. Her advice to other parents who struggle to squeeze everything in is to “stay calm.”

“When people are talking about mom having to struggle between career and parenting or mom having to figure out how to arrange child care, all these are things that I can relate to because I’ve done that.”