“Private schools in Quebec are subsidised to the tune of 79% by the government. We’re here to change that.”
by Lewis Radstone-Stubbs
“In Quebec, disadvantaged children enter education and are on a starting line that is behind all of the others and on the finishing line, they are again behind all of the others.
“I want a fair school system where children who start behind the others can finish at the same point. Our current education system is stopping this from being possible.”
Stéphane Vigneault is the founder and co-ordinator for Quebec education campaign group, Mouvement L’école ensemble (the “school together movement”). The group aims to tackle the education segregation that is at the heart of education in the Canadian province of Quebec. Education is devolved in Canada, so each province has different, independent education systems.
Vigneault started Mouvement three years ago when his daughter, aged just seven years old, was asked to take an academic test that would take her out of the state school system and into a selective one in which Vigneault would have to pay fees starting at $500 (in Canadian dollars) a year if he wanted her to attend.
“I had not really thought about the education system in Quebec before this, but suddenly I was hit by the inequality of a system that encourages that children are taken out of their local neighbourhood schools and placed in unequal, exclusive schools.
“Quebec is thought of as progressive and socially conscious, but our education system is holding us back.”
There are three types of schools in Quebec: public, public selective and private. Public schools are non-selective, non-fee paying and have a poor reputation amongst parents. Public selective schools are fee-paying and selective – unlike UK grammar schools which are selective but funded exclusively by the taxpayer. Meanwhile, the private schools are selective and fee-paying, as in the UK.
At both types of schools, the fees can rise to $10,000 if students take up a range of extracurricular activities. However, the average fees are lower at public selective schools, starting at $500 a year. A year at a private school costs on average $4,000.
This causes huge issues for social mixing and mobility in Quebec. There are six times more disadvantaged children in public schools than in private ones. Meanwhile, families in the subsidised private schools sector have a median income 184 per cent higher than that of families in the public school system.
The most astonishing aspect of Quebec education is that private schools are subsidised to the tune of 79 per cent by the government.
“These subsidies mean that less is spent on public schools and increase the segregation of our school system”, explains Vigneault.
Meanwhile, education outcomes in Quebec are worrying:
A quarter of secondary school students in Quebec drop out (the highest rate in Canada)
20 per cent of teachers leave the profession after five years in the job
53 per cent of 16-65 year olds in Quebec have low or insufficient literacy skills
Around 42 per cent of Quebec’s school children are segregated off from the rest in selective public or private schools. About 20 per cent of children attend public selective schools and 22 per cent attend the subsidised private sector schools.
Parents elect for their children to be tested and testing can happen at any age; however, it is most common for children to be tested at aged 11, when entering secondary school.
The 42 per cent that can afford to pay for their schooling ultimately go on to dominate traditionally high-powered jobs and higher education, while those that cannot have their life chances limited, says Vigneault.
It is this disparity that led to the formulation of Mouvement. When Stéphane’s daughter was encouraged in her local public school to take an exam that would enable her to enter a selective school, Stéphane saw how parents would do all that is possible to get their children out of the public, non-selective system.
“At this point, I said to other parents that this is wrong, we should want our children to stay together and learn together at their local school. I also wrote an article that was printed in a national paper and this led to parents all around the province contacting me to say that they agreed and that something should be done. At this moment, Mouvement was born.”
In the three years since this, the group has grown to a point at which they now have over 4,000 active supporters and have been granted funding that will allow Stéphane to leave his former job and work full-time with Mouvement, campaigning for fairer education in Quebec. For the first three years, the group received roughly £3,000 a year from individual donors. That was before Fondation Chagnon committed £58,000 for this coming year.
Quebec has a unique history in Canada and has historically been a left-behind province. The marginalisation of French-speaking Quebecers created a poor society in which religion controlled public life. Up until the “Quiet Revolution” which saw the secularisation of the state in the 60s, the Catholic Church controlled all education.
In 1964, the first Education Department was established and in 1968 a deal was struck with the church that allowed the government to use the Church’s education facilities in exchange for funding church schemes. This included funding private schools.
Students attending these schools tended to get higher grades and in the 1990s, the government decided to compete and started offering selective, fee-paying schools of their own.
Similarly to the UK, the matter of education inequality and segregation is something that many Quebecers care about – and, as in the UK, there’s a lack of consensus and understanding about how to change it.
Vigneault comes out with an astonishing statistic. Mouvement wanted to get an understanding of public opinion towards the issue and commissioned a survey that gave clear answers.
It showed that 64 per cent disapprove of the subsidies and that 73 per cent would prefer that subsidy money be spent on funding public schools.
Despite this clear appetite for change, the biggest challenge that Mouvement has faced is getting a public dialogue going on the matter of education segregation.
“For a long time, there has been a taboo against speaking about education in Quebec. The people in power have been consumers of that product so they have no desire to speak about it.
“Those who write for newspapers, speak on television, write our laws and sit in government are almost all the product of selective education, so public discourse on the need to change it has not been heard.”
On top of that, every Quebec education minister, bar one, has sent their children to a selective, fee-paying school.
One way in which Mouvement has raised the profile of the issue is by requesting that the Quebec government has to justify its education system to the UN.
In February 2020, Mouvement submitted a report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in which it called on the UN body to make the Quebec government accountable for its (unofficial) school segregation policy in relation to its human rights obligations.
“This means that for the first time, Quebec policymakers will have to stand up and defend an education system that is defenceless”.
The hope is that by forcing politicians to confront the issue will in turn force change. Such change has already been endorsed by one of the four major parties, Québec Solidaire, and has growing support amongst the others.
Increased public awareness and breaking the taboo of speaking about the segregation has allowed Mouvement to paint a picture of what education in Quebec should look like.
Mouvement L’école ensemble are lobbying policymakers and campaigning publicly for two possible solutions:
Stop subsidising private schools and remove all academic selection in public schools. With subsidies removed, fees would go up to such an extent that the business model would collapse as most parents wouldn’t pay the increased fee. The private schools could continue to charge fees but the majority would cease to exist and join the public system, explains Vigneault.
Alongside this, selection must also cease in public schools, as otherwise formerly privately schooled children would flock to them instead.
Fund every school publicly, including former private schools. Catchment areas to be drawn up that dictate which local school a child goes to.
Vigneault sums up how crucial these solutions are for the future of Quebec’s children.
“The sharing of ideas and networks amongst each school equally would raise the standard at every school in Quebec. We can change the culture of the system completely. Schools will no longer be in competition. It is all about collaboration.”
Interviewer Lewis Radstone-Stubbs has a background in political consultancy and communications and writes about political and social affairs for a number of newspapers and websites. He tweets @lewiscrs.