HALIFAX -- It is the unspoken heart of the province's bitter contract dispute with Nova Scotia's public school teachers: Classroom composition, and inclusion of students with special needs.

The public conversation in the dispute has mainly centred around wages and "classroom conditions" -- a phrase often used to describe everything from class size to the amount of reporting and data entry work a teacher has to do.

But scratch the surface and the issue of classrooms composed of students with a range of mental, physical, behavioural and learning challenges is a major concern, according to a Cape Breton teacher with 30 years of experience.

"It is the issue that nobody will talk about," said Sally Capstick, who admits her own frustration has prompted her to speak out.

"You can talk to anybody off the record and they will say, yeah, inclusion is not working," she said. "But it's one of those motherhood issues that makes it sound that you don't want special needs kids."

But Capstick, who makes it clear she is speaking for herself and not the union, believes a conversation is needed around improving inclusion. She said teachers like her aren't talking about a return to segregating students.

Capstick said because of the range of learning abilities that can end up in any one class, exceptional students and those with severe learning disabilities often don't get the attention they need.

"This is about a system that doesn't service anybody including special needs kids," she said.

Nova Scotia's 9,300 teachers are currently into their second week of a work-to-rule campaign in their dispute with the provincial government.

Education consultant Paul Bennett says class composition is also a major concern for the teachers union in neighbouring New Brunswick, and was at the heart of a lengthy contract dispute in British Columbia. Last month the B.C. Teachers' Federation won a landmark decision on negotiating class size and composition in the Supreme Court of Canada.

Bennett said the landscape is no different in Nova Scotia, where the composition of classrooms has changed "dramatically" over the last 15 to 20 years.

"Diversity is desirable, but it's become so complicated in the classroom that average regular classroom teachers are struggling to cope," he said.

Bennett said special-needs education should be reorganized, and the place to start is classroom caps on the number of students with learning disabilities. He proposes a cap of five students on individual program plans (IPP) per class as a benchmark.

But following last week's cabinet meeting, Education Minister Karen Casey didn't appear receptive to the idea.

"I don't think we want to talk about caps for special needs students," said Casey. "What we need to make sure is that we have the appropriate programming in the right environment for all students."

The Education Department said about 20 per cent of Nova Scotia's 118,000 students need some form of curriculum support provided by teachers, while about five per cent require an IPP.

The department said the percentage of students on IPPs is in line with other Canadian provinces and territories.

"As minister and as an educator myself, I understand that changes are needed and I invite teachers to engage with the department to be part of this process," Casey said.

Liette Doucet, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said there still hasn't been significant movement in the union's demand for more resources and funding around classroom supports. The union has called for more psychologists, guidance counsellors, and resource teachers.

Doucet said those supports are crucial in classrooms where some teachers deal with students with IPPs and behavioural plans, as well as some needing assistance with English as a second language.

"Class composition is really when you think about it more important than class size," said Doucet. "We really do need to see significant changes when it comes to inclusion."

Allison Garber, an Autism Nova Scotia board member, thinks a conversation is possible around what she describes as a "complex and contentious issue," but says any idea of segregating kids has to be "off the table."

Garber, who has a child with autism spectrum disorder, said there is a lack of supports in the system, with children who don't get adequate teaching assistant time and learning centres that lack staff to handle caseloads.

It's a particular problem, she says, because the number of kids diagnosed with autism has increased by 30 per cent since 2008.

"The current inclusion model is very much one size fits all and you really can't look and say whether it's working or not when it's completely inadequately funded," Garber said.

Robert Berard, an education professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, said many teachers feel overburdened when there are also increased record-keeping demands, along with health and social responsibilities that include discipline.

"If it weren't for the working conditions issue and the classroom demands issue ... you would never have gotten the level of anger about the contract or the level of support for a strike," he said.