The Segregation of Quebec's Schools
Experts say an exodus of students from the public to the private system is making social inequalities worse instead of narrowing them.
A mother breaks down in Sheila’s office.
She doesn't bother covering her face or turning away because she doesn’t have the energy to pretend anymore. Her kid is in crisis, struggling to keep up with his classmates no matter how hard he tries. Sometimes the boy panics at the thought of going to school in the morning.
His parents have long suspected he has a learning disability. But they can’t say for sure because their son has been on a waiting list to get a diagnosis for three years. That’s three years of a child thinking they’re not good enough, three of the most critical years of his development wasted because Quebec’s public schools don’t have enough funding to assess kids in a timely manner.
When Sheila — a school psychologist — tells the mother that her son has dyslexia, tears stream down her face. In theory, the diagnosis should be good news. It allows the boy to get extra time on exams, to have the help of a special education technician and to follow a learning plan tailored to his needs.
The road ahead won’t be easy from here on out. Because, in reality, those resources aren’t there for most kids.
“He’ll be lucky if he gets to work with a special education technician once a week for a few minutes,” said Sheila, who did not want her real name published for fear of losing her job. “He needs individual attention every day, but instead, he’ll get a technician who is worked to the bone and maybe he won’t even get that.
“We know we can help this kid, we know that — with the right tools — they can graduate high school. But the tools aren’t there. Our public education system isn’t on the verge of collapse. That already happened. We’re in a death spiral now.”
If that sounds alarmist, consider this: in Quebec, only 67 per cent of students in public school graduate high school within seven years. That number is 20 points higher in Ontario. At Quebec’s private schools, meanwhile, 93 per cent of kids graduate.
That might explain why last year alone, 44 per cent of the province’s high school students left the public system to attend private schools, schools with varsity sports programs or schools with international language curriculum.
What’s behind this exodus? Well, for starters, only 15 per cent of kids who pass through Quebec’s public school system make it to university. At private school, the rate is four times higher.
What’s more, the Quebec government subsidizes 60 per cent of the cost of private school, putting it within reach of middle class families who don’t want their kids to struggle.
“Parents are effectively buying out of the public system,” said Anne Plourde, who recently authored a scathing report on Quebec’s educational system for the Institut de recherche d’informations socioéconomiques.
“They’re not paying for a better education. Private school teachers have the same training as public school teachers. They’re paying to keep their kids out of the public system. Our schools are being segregated. In one system — where you pay thousands out of pocket — the kids are high achievers from families of means; they have a good support system and almost none have special needs. In another, you have students from the poorest families, students in crisis, students with learning disabilities and the children of immigrants who may not be able to speak French.
“School is supposed to be the tool that we use to close the gap between rich and poor. Instead it’s widening that gap.”
When Bernard Drainville was sworn in as education minister last month, it’s hard to know whether this was a reward or a punishment. On the one hand, Drainville is as ambitious as they come and doesn’t lack self-confidence. He didn’t leave a $300,000-a-year radio job to bungle his shot at being the next premier.
On the other, he’s inherited a problem that’s been decades in the making and seems to have only gotten worse in the past four years.
To write this story, I Interviewed over a dozen teachers, special education instructors, researchers and therapists working in Quebec’s public schools. The scale of the crisis they’re describing will take months and quite possibly (God help me) years of reporting to unravel. But we plan on making education a priority at The Rover and I hope you’ll share any leads you might have with us.
The most pressing need, in our public schools right now, is transparency.
“Every day when I get to work, it’s like stepping on a banana peel and then slipping until the day is over. It is an act of pure adrenaline.”
After 20 years of teaching elementary school, Magda doesn’t know how much longer she can go on. She’s always loved the job. Magda’s voice gets animated when she speaks about a kid having that breakthrough moment on a math problem.
“It’s exciting to see them come alive like that. That spark in their eyes,” said Magda, who did not want her name published because teachers at her school are under a gag order. “To really build a relationship with a student, to earn their trust, to see them start to believe in themselves. There’s no greater feeling.”
But she doesn’t get to teach much lately.
That’s because of the 22 students in Magda’s fourth grade classroom, 17 have learning disabilities or behavioural problems. In theory, Magda should have a special education instructor helping out for 90 minutes a day. When we spoke one Wednesday, she hadn’t seen the instructor all week.
“It’s not the instructor's fault her workload is unmanageable,” Magda said. “We have just three special education instructors for 400 students here. They can’t clone themselves. So we have to spend our time putting out fires.
“I mean, a child with a learning disability and little professional help, they’re going to get frustrated. They’ll act out because they’re in crisis and we know exactly how to help them but we won’t because the government decided it’s too expensive.”
There is a critical shortage of special education instructors across the province. In the Outaouais region’s public schools, there were 117 job vacancies for special education instructors when schools opened two months ago. In the city of Sherbrooke, public schools were scrambling to fill 30 vacancies for special education instructors as kids returned from their summer break this year.
Two months in, things haven’t gotten much better. An investigation published by the Journal de Québec last week found there are still 200 vacancies for psychologists and speech therapists in public schools across Quebec.
One school psychologist, who we’ll call Mary, says schools in Montreal are having to hire nurses or social workers to do the job of a psychologist.
“They have some training for the job, they’re good at what they do, but they’re not psychologists,” said Mary, who did not want her real name published for fear of professional reprisals. “Last year, I was assigned to two schools. This year it’s two schools and part time at a third. As it stands, I have a waiting list of about 15 kids who need to be assessed for learning disabilities. And with my workload, I can evaluate maybe five to eight per school year.
“If these kids don’t get help early, they fall behind. There have been kids who got on the list in Grade 1 and were only assessed by Grade 6. You can’t afford to lose those years but that’s what’s happening.”
A representatives for Quebec’s education ministry declined an interview request. But in a written statement, they highlighted the government’s four-year, $140 million plan to hire more support staff at schools across the province. One pilot program would see 100 elementary schools hire more teaching assistants, aiming to help free up a teacher’s time to actually teach.
In fairness, Minister Drainville has been left holding the bag after years of Liberal reforms that amounted to little more than a pillaging of the public sector. Twenty years ago, under premier Jean Charest, the Liberals began shutting down dozens of special education programs across the province and integrated thousands of students with severe learning disabilities into the public school system.
“They said that if the ‘regular schools’ in the public sector accepted more special needs students, resources would follow,” said Catherine Beauvais-St-Pierre, president of the Alliance des Professeures et Professeurs de Montréal. “That never happened. … When I was a grade school teacher, I remember standing across from parents and having to break it to them that there wouldn’t be any services for their dyslexic child.
“It took them years to get a diagnosis and then, when they finally find out what’s wrong, they also find out our school doesn’t have any speech therapists. Those jobs had been vacant for years because the job conditions are awful and so is the pay. So I had to tell them they’d be better off going to a private clinic if they had the money.
“Of course, they were devastated. They felt betrayed. It’s a horrible thing to have to tell someone that our schools can’t meet their children’s needs. It’s getting to where, if you want a school with clean floors and windows that open and shut, you’ve gotta pay out of pocket.”
In Magda’s classroom, things have gotten so bad that her boss recently suggested she take an afternoon off to give herself a break.
“If only it were that simple,” Magda said. “I had to leave the class for 20 minutes to deal with an emergency. So I went out, left the kids with a resource teacher. I got back, it was chaos. That was in just 20 minutes.
“When you have 17 kids with learning disabilities, that’s 17 kids whose problems require an individualized approach. You can’t impose a one-size-fits-all solution. Each student — even two students with the same learning disability — learns differently. We tackle the hardest cases first but there’s rarely time to actually teach the other students. So if I take an afternoon off, I’ll be setting us all up to fail the next day.
“These kids have potential. They’re trying hard to fit into a system that’s not built for people who learn differently. It’s incredibly alienating for them and it can lead to so many additional issues down the road if they’re made to feel like a burden to the rest of the class.”
Lately, Magda’s been thinking she might not make it to retirement.
“The pressure is unreal. It’s constant,” she said. “You need to be on adrenaline all the time and I don’t know if I can do that — physically and emotionally — when I’m 60 years old.”
In addition to people like Magda, who might leave the profession mid-career, new teachers are quitting at alarming rates. Beauvais-St-Pierre says in Montreal, about 25 per cent of teachers quit after five years on the job. Add retirements into the mix, and Quebec is facing a major labour shortage in its public schools.
As of summer’s end, there were an estimated 1,400 full and part time teacher vacancies across Quebec. It’s more than twice what that number was at the beginning of the 2021 school year.
In hopes of drawing more people into the profession, the CAQ agreed to a 16 per cent pay raise for new teachers, whose starting salary is now just over $53,000 a year. Even so, the median teacher’s salary in Quebec remains below the national average.
Last spring, the government also put forward a plan to recruit retired teachers or people with a “background in education” to be part-time teachers. So far, 6,000 candidates have come forward, according to the Minister of Education’s office.
“The problem is, we’re hiring people with basically no background in education to teach in really difficult circumstances,” said Mario, a high school teacher in the Beauce region. “Last year, one of our schools hired a car salesman to teach English as a second language. They said, ‘Hey, he sells cars to anglophones and seems to know the language.’
“I mean, I don’t doubt he did his best. But it’s like going to the gym, finding someone in really good shape and asking, ‘Hey, you look strong, wanna come be a firefighter? We’ll teach you on the job.’ Of course, that would never happen because it’s ridiculous. So why is it okay to do that with the people teaching your kids?”
In his victory speech at the end of last month’s provincial election, Premier François Legault said it was education that made him, a ti-gars from modest beginnings, a self-made millionaire and the 32nd premier of Quebec.
To the teachers and support staff interviewed for this story, Legault is describing a public school system that no longer exists.
The segregation Plourde speaks of isn’t just about income and learning disabilities. It’s also exacerbating the urban-rural divide that Legault so often exploits. In Montreal, some 34 per cent of students are in the private or semi private system. In Quebec City that number floats around 25 per cent. But in faraway regions like Côte Nord and Saguenay Lac St-Jean, just 7 per cent of students are in the private system.
In other words, a much higher percentage of children in rural areas are receiving an inferior education to the ones in big cities. To Plourde, this pay-to-play system a recipe for disaster.
“You cannot have a system where people pay to segregate their kids from less fortunate children or children with special needs,” said Plourde. “Private schools get to pick their students and we know, from our research, they’re not doing nearly enough when it comes to welcoming children with learning disabilities. And then, because they skim the highest achieving students out of the public system, there’s an inordinate concentration of special needs students in public schools.
“Our education system is reproducing inequalities instead of eliminating them. There needs to be a concerted effort to bring back a mix of children from different backgrounds and different means under the same roof. Any good economist will tell you that’s how you create opportunity in a society.
“Anything short of systemic change will fail.”
Children who slip through the cracks of early education and are ever after considered dim or incorrigible are a misery to themselves and society forever. However futile it may seem sometimes please keep up the good work, Christopher. And, though you shouldn't need to be told at your age, don't play with firecrackers!
Yes, Christopher, publicly supported private schools is the topic the politicians and conventional media avoid like the plague. So important that you are tackling it. For politicians, it is a minefield. It used to be that private schools were getting 80 percent support from Quebec, but that was whittled down some time ago. First, a question: What is the "semi private system?" Also, class sizes are maybe smaller in rural Quebec public schools, is that so? Looking forward to your follow-up stories!