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Only 15% of regular public high school students in Quebec go on to university. What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s March: the time of year when Secondary 5 students across Quebec are getting their CEGEP acceptance letters and making more concrete plans about their future.

“I want to go into law,” says 16-year-old Spyro Markopoulos, who just found out he’s been admitted into commerce at Vanier College.

Markopoulos is poised to graduate from the English Montreal School Board’s Royal West Academy — an alternative public high school with enriched programs in math, science and languages. Royal West has a limited enrollment, cherry-picking the most promising Grade 6 students after an arduous process of entrance exams and interviews.

Students like Markopoulos have a better chance of getting into university than Quebec students who attend regular public high schools, a recent study shows.

Only 15 per cent of regular public high school students in the province go on to university, according to a study by Université de Montréal researcher Pierre Canisius Kamanzi, recently published in the journal Social Inclusion.

Kamanzi found that by comparison, 51 per cent of students who attend public high schools with enriched programs, such as Royal West Academy, and a full 60 per cent of those who are enrolled in private high schools go on to undergraduate studies.

Kamanzi concludes that enriched public schools and private schools nurture a culture of success and self-esteem, which in turn motivates students to aim high, scholastically.

“Perseverance can only happen when there is a culture of favoring success inside institutions,” he said.

The gap widens

Unlike other provinces, the Quebec government has heavily subsidized private schools, most of them with Catholic roots, since it wrested control of education from the Catholic Church during the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.

That means a much higher percentage of students in Quebec attend private schools than anywhere else in the country.

Because of those subsidies, Quebec private schools also have much lower tuition fees than private schools elsewhere in Canada — capped at $4,593 a year. Public schools also charge fees for enriched programs such as the International Baccalaureate, although at $200 or $250, they’re a tiny fraction of private school tuition fees.

Partly because of the cost, students in private schools tend to come from better socioeconomic situations, Kamanzi says — a situation that lends itself to increasing social inequality.

In 2016, Quebec’s Conseil supérieur de l’éducation published a report that raked Quebec’s school system over the coals for the gap between the haves and the have-nots — a gap it says is widening year after year.

It blamed the selective nature of private schools, with their admissions tests, and the lack of adequate resources in the public system for the students who stay in regular programs.

Spyro Markopoulos is a 16-year-old student who attends Royal West Academy, a public school with enriched programs in math, science and languages. He’s already planning a career in law. (CBC)

The Conseil concluded that Quebec has the most unequal school system in Canada.

That’s especially the case in Montreal, home to the vast majority of new immigrants — people who often have the least means to opt for a private education.

The Conseil warned Quebec could face dire social consequences for that growing inequality between private schools and the public system.

Skimming off the best and brightest

Stéphane Vigneault, the founder of an organization that aims to protect the future of Quebec’s public schools, didn’t find surprising results of Kamanzi’s study.

“There’s this separation of kids in different schools … according to their parents’ income or their school grades,” he said.

The system affects the province’s grades, graduation rates and access to higher education further down the line.

“It’s truly problematic.”

The solution is two-fold, said Vigneault: stop subsidizing private schools, and end selection-based programs.

He says more and more enriched programs have been introduced into public high schools — a trend that began in the 1990s — in order to compete with subsidized private schools that skim off the best and brightest each year.

Education Ministry officials “didn’t envision at the time that they were actually aggravating the problem,” by encouraging the development of enriched programs, he said.

“They were accentuating school segregation.”

Students who perform well academically will succeed whether they are bunched together or placed in programs with other types of students, he insists.

On the other hand, he says, placing different types of students together creates a model for success for those who perform less well.

Université de Montreal researcher Pierre Canisius Kamanzi says only 15 per cent of regular public high school students go on to university in Quebec. His findings are published in the latest issue of the journal Social Inclusion. (CBC)

Think of social cohesion, researcher says

For Kamanzi, nourishing academic ambition is the most important prerequisite to scholastic success. Right now, that’s only occurring in private and enriched public schools, he says.

Ensuring public high schools have a diverse student population would not only lead to improved rates of academic success, but would create a more egalitarian society, he said.

“For social cohesion, to live together, a given sector has to have people from all parts of society — so not only sons of doctors become doctors, or sons of lawyers become lawyers,” Kamanzi said.

He says not everyone needs a university degree for society to be cohesive.

“What is problematic is when they’re the same families, the same people [in the same institutions],” Kamanzi said.

Markopoulos treasures his experience at Royal West, and he says he wouldn’t trade it for a private-school education.

“[In] public schools, you’re exposed to more diversity,” Markopoulos says. “It really helps you build your character.”

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