Editorial: Compulsory education till 18 won’t solve drop-out problem

Quebec has made enormous strides since the early 1960s when it comes to extending accessible, free and varied high school and post-secondary education – academic and vocational – to every corner of the province.

But the high dropout rate in Quebec’s French-language schools is a continuing blight on our society and begs for corrective action. The numbers are well known, and getting worse, not better. Put simply, one out of five girls and one out of three boys quits school in Quebec before they graduate. We all know that under-education and lack of literacy and numeracy skills can be devastating for any young person seeking to make headway in the working world. The statistics are better in today’s Quebec’s English language schools, where the graduation rate is ten per cent higher, but still worrisome, since one in four do not finish high school within seven years.

What is to be done? The Coalition avenir Quebec, the party led by former Parti Québécois education minister François Legault, wants to compel students to stay in school until they reach 18, compared to 16 now. They also want to make pre-kindergarten accessible at age four throughout Quebec, but attendance would be voluntary. The party hopes to make this the focus of their 2018 election campaign. It would require $400 million in new spending over 5 years, including hiring more guidance counselors.

As for reasons why the dropout rate in French schools is among the highest in the country, we’ve heard several: Quebec only created a department of education in the early 1960s, after depending on the Church to do much of the job for high school and college, and it takes three generations to catch up to the rest of North America. There is a wave of anti-intellectualism sweeping Quebec, spurred by trash radio in Quebec City and rebroadcast in the regions. There also is this persistent notion in Quebec that the state will take care of all who fall through the cracks.

Some argue that the French system, as a result of Law 101, now enrolls almost all newcomers to Quebec and are charged with their adaptation to a new culture and language. This argument fails to acknowledge that, as a result of the point system, a good half of all immigrants can speak French, and their level of education surpasses that of most Quebecers.

Some education critics raise the issue of Quebec’s continuing and relatively generous support for private schools, sapping the public school-network of some of its most motivated families and children. This is the result of the compromise reached with the Roman Catholic Church in the early 1960s when the reform Liberals under Jean Lesage created Quebec’s first education department, and agreed to allow the church-run classical colleges to continue with government funding. The Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Muslims asked for and received the same deal. Many private schools now get 60 per cent of the cost of educating a student in a public school, which covers only the core curriculum, the rest financed through tuition fees. This makes it affordable on the French side. Many of the most motivated families send their children to private schools, especially at the high school level, depriving public schools of their energies and boosting the success rates in these schools. These schools are so entrenched that no government dares to drastically cut back on public support. Supporters argue that the 40 per cent per student saved in public funding can be used to hire more specialists and upgrade the quality of education in public schools.

What about compulsory education until age 18, is it a good idea? Obviously, creating truancy police to keep reluctant 16 and 17 year-olds in school until they turn 18 when they don’t want to be there is doomed to failure. This plan could make sense only if it’s combined with tailoring the education offered to meet their perceived needs. New and imaginative approaches are needed to make those additional years in school useful, meaningful, and tempting.

“Our schools have to become totally different. We don’t need another educational reform, we need an educational revolution,” says Richard David Precht, the German philosopher and best selling author. As he notes, 70 per cent of the trades that children who enter our schools today will practice do not yet exist. What is needed is a very different style of education, much more open to the imagination and relational intelligence. That includes encouraging self-awareness, empathy, understanding the other’s perspective, emotional and cognitive accuracy, capacity to resonate with another person, and managing emotions. Developing broad-based curiosity must replace industrial-style specialization, Precht preaches. Easier said than done.

Schools have lost their monopoly as a learning source. The digital native sees no need to closet himself in a place that is synonymous with deadly boredom, he warns.

Dealing with these challenges when it comes to mass education requires bold and imaginative pathways, new initiatives and experimentation, not compulsory measures that penalize rather than excite.

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