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Quebec schools get failing grade: former premier

English schools faring better than French schools for graduation rates

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Margaret Blair knows what’s wrong with the education system in Quebec because she’s in the thick of it. She’s the director of the Interact Alternative Learning Centre in Notre-Dame-de-Grace, teaching students who don’t succeed in the mainstream system. And when the former premier of Quebec delivered a scathing review of the state of the province’s public schools last week, she wasn’t surprised.

“It just made a lot of sense to me,” she said. “It’s always been obvious that there are structural problems that need to be addressed.”

Jacques Parizeau, the separatist premier of Quebec in the mid-1990s, wrote an open letter to one of Montreal’s French dailies, calling the education system in this province “scandalous” and an “incredible waste that is threatening our future.”

His criticism focused on what he considers to be the unacceptable gap in graduation rates between students in public and private schools, the English and French school boards, and boys and girls.

Statistics released by Quebec’s Department of Education at the beginning of the summer show that fewer than 60 per cent of all Quebec students who started high school in 2002 graduated on time.

Parizeau said the statistics showed 83 per cent of students in the private system who started high school in 2002 graduated on time compared with 53 per cent of students in the public system.

Of students who started high school in 2002, 58 per cent in the French system graduated on time compared with 69 in the English one.

And in Montreal’s French school board, only 36 per cent of boys who started classes in 2002 graduated on time, compared with 46 per cent of girls. In the English system, 67 per cent of boys graduated on time, compared with 71 per cent of girls.

However, because the statistics do not account for socio-economic differences between students in different groups, the correlation in completion rates does not necessarily mean there is a caustic relationship. For example, children who go to private schools mainly come from more affluent families who can afford such schools, and can also spend more money to help their children through school, by hiring private tutors, for example.

Blair said the problem starts before high school. According to her, there isn’t enough money and staff directed at elementary schools, and students aren’t learning the basics because it’s easier to get by when the same teacher takes on multiple courses.

But when a child who has been pampered and passed along ends up in high school, their lack of knowledge stands out. And since high school is centered on more independent study, these kids who have a lack of basic knowledge become frustrated and drop out.

Another problem Blair noted is the large number of bureaucrats at the Department of Education.

“They seem [to] disconnect themselves from the day-to-day teaching. They forget the classroom. It becomes so entrenched in policy they lose track of the child’s education,” she said.

David Birnbaum, executive director for Quebec English School Boards Association, said the entire public school system needs more money and teachers to handle diverse classrooms.

According to Birnbaum, teachers need more teaching aids and more resources to help kids outside the classroom.

“We would also like to see more corporate support,” he said.

Corporations in the community should adopt a school, invite students into research labs, and have their professionals offer workshops, he suggested, to supplement provincial dollars.

Parizeau wrote in his letter that the problem with low graduation rates in the public school system is too serious to start blaming specific people. He said the province needs to first ask itself how it got to this point, and why.

Blair said she doesn’t know the answers to those questions, but stresses that more schools like hers should exist.

Her school has ten children ages six to 14. They all have varying learning disabilities, and the mainstream school system has not been able to meet their needs.

The problem is that as far as she knows, Interact is the only school of its kind in Montreal – and there are more than ten children who need special help beyond the classroom.

“There should be one [Interact Centre] in every community,” she said.

But Blair has been turned down every time she’s asked the government for money since her school started eight years ago. It’s also difficult to get teachers to come in and work for $22,000 a year, she said.

“I know I’m making a difference,” she said. “I just can’t stop now.”