Education is a passion of new minister

Shelley Svidal

Dave Hancock was surprised, excited and delighted March 12 when he learned that he had been appointed Alberta’s new minister of education.

“I was surprised because I only had a year in Health, and there’s a lot of work that we had set the table for that I expected to be able to do,” he says, “but I’m absolutely excited and delighted to be in Education because it’s been my passion.”

Minister of Education Dave HancockBorn in Fort Resolution, Northwest Territories, Hancock was raised in northern British Columbia and northern Alberta, where he graduated from La Crete Public School. After completing a BA in political science and economics and an LLB at the University of Alberta, he practised law in south Edmonton for 18 years. In 1997, he was elected to represent the constituency of Edmonton-Whitemud and was appointed to cabinet, serving consecutively as minister of intergovernmental and Aboriginal affairs, minister of justice and attorney general, and minister of advanced education for the next nine years. In 2006, Hancock stepped down from cabinet to run for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta. After coming in fifth on the first ballot, he threw his support to Ed Stelmach, who was elected leader on the second ballot. In 2007, Hancock was named minister of health and wellness, a portfolio he held until his appointment last month as minister of education.

Hancock is proud to come from what he calls an education family. “My wife’s a principal, my son’s a teacher [and] my sister was a teacher, so education has always been extremely important to me,” he says. “I’m the youngest of seven kids, all of whom have some form of postsecondary education, and that wasn’t easy for my parents.”

He also comes from a well-educated constituency in southwest Edmonton and has met regularly with principals and school councils since his election in 1997. “Education is one of the fundamental issues in that constituency all the time I’ve been there, so I’ve made a point in the past … of keeping in touch with the education agenda because it’s fundamentally important not only to the people of my constituency but also to the future of the province.”

People, according to Hancock, are the number one strength of Alberta’s public education system. “We’ve got exceptional people who are focused on the success of children, and that’s where it really has to start. Teachers have to be first and foremost caring and child focused,” he says. While resources are important, “it comes down to the people … who are going to be caring, who are going to be able to take the resources and utilize them in the best interests of the child. I think we fundamentally have those people, and we need to value them.”

Hancock credits his own teachers with fostering his interest in public policy issues. “In those times, I guess I would say it was social studies, the development of the world and those sorts of things,” he says. “The teachers who sort of encouraged broadening my horizons are the ones I remember.”

He still has that interest in public policy issues, and one of his long-term goals as minister of education is to analyze thoroughly the policy framework under which the education system operates. He says, “I think we really need to step out and say, ‘What are the outcomes that we want to have in a 21st-century education system? What are the knowledge, skills and abilities that students need to have as we move into a knowledge economy where 80 per cent of the jobs are going to require some form of postsecondary education? How do we inspire children to be successful in maximizing their own personal potential? How do we measure that success?’”

Hancock describes accountability as important from a governance perspective, but he is not interested in assessment for assessment’s sake. While the government must be accountable to the public for its use and allocation of resources, assessment should focus on helping students improve and ensuring that the education system is achieving its intended outcomes.

Aside from the mandate he received from Premier Ed Stelmach (see “Education minister’s mandate”), Hancock shared with the ATA News some of his personal priorities for his portfolio. One of those priorities is early childhood education. Every year, Hancock sponsors a golf tournament for Success by 6, which seeks to ensure that children from birth to age six are healthy and well prepared to achieve their full potential as they grow. It’s about how you help children be successful, and in being successful, they have to be able to overcome their barriers to success, whether they’re medical or disability or ability related or whether they’re societal related. Education is fundamental to that, he says.

Junior and full-day kindergarten may be part of that process. “I think we really do need to look at [full-day] kindergarten and junior kindergarten, not mandated for everybody necessarily but making sure that at-risk children (and by that, I’m not just referring to inner-city students …) have access to it,” he says.

Hancock is well aware of the memorandum of agreement between the Alberta Teachers’ Association and the government regarding the unfunded liability of the teachers’ pension plan. Resolution of the unfunded liability was a major plank in his platform as a leadership candidate, and while he had no formal role in the process that led to the signing of the memorandum, he advocated for a resolution in every appropriate venue. Fulfilling the terms of the memorandum provides a huge opportunity, he says.

“We have an opportunity to really look at the system and say, ‘What are the things we need to do now to make it a centre of learning for Alberta students?’ … I think we can have a very collaborative discussion with teachers and through their Association … about professional development, about how we provide the kind of learning opportunities that are going to make it possible for every child to be successful.”

That collaborative approach is one Hancock supports. “It’s not really about what I believe. It’s really about how we’re in this together,” he says. “We can come to a common definition of what success means and how we need to go about achieving that success.”

To that end, he is looking forward to working with his new parliamentary assistant, Edmonton-Decore MLA Janice Sarich. Although he describes her role as a developing one, he notes that one of the responsibilities of parliamentary assistants is to assist ministers with the work of their ministry. “The relationships in this business are so important, being able to hear what people have to say about what they’re facing as they try to do their jobs and about what their views are as we go forward,” he says. “Having another set of ears that are specifically tasked with that job, I think, will be very important.”

Hancock suggests that everything in his political career until now has prepared him for his new portfolio. From intergovernmental and Aboriginal affairs to justice and attorney general, from advanced education to health and wellness, education played a role at each step along the way. “The solution to most societal issues is education,” he observes, “so I guess I’ve taken a long journey to get home.”

Education minister’s mandate

In a letter dated March 27, 2008, from Premier Ed Stelmach to David Hancock, the premier outlined the role that the new education minister would undertake.

We will work collaboratively as a team to achieve all of our government priorities, but you will have a specific role to play.

You will work with the Minister of Advanced Education and Technology to:

• Enhance value-added activity, increase innovation, and build a skilled workforce to improve the long-run sustainability of Alberta’s economy, and

Lead the following initiative:

• Increase student participation and completion rates in health, math, science and Career and Technology Studies courses to grow the technology and science sectors.

You will also work with the Minister of Justice and Attorney General to:

• Promote strong and vibrant communities and reduce crime so Albertans feel safe, and

Lead the following initiative:

• Increase broad-based supports and early intervention initiatives for at-risk children to improve their learning outcomes.

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