Despite the strong negative influence of social origins, in Quebec as everywhere else, equality of opportunity can be promoted at two key points early in life. The first is early childhood and entry into school, while the second is adolescence and the early high school year when young people choose their future.
The springboard: Early childhood education
The statistics hit you over the head. While 39 per cent of children from well-off families--a high enough figure--begin Grade 1 with a weak command of language, and therefore limited ability to understand, for poor children the figure is 72 per cent. Elementary schools do what they can with the means at their disposal, but when students finish elementary school, three times as many poor children (11 per cent) as children from well-off families (3.5 per cent) have fallen behind in acquiring knowledge.
While the low-cost daycare program introduced in 1997 was undoubtedly aimed at offering daycare to the middle class, Premier Lucien Bouchard's political decision to get involved in this area--in the midst of the push for zero deficit and against the wishes of his finance minister--hinged primarily on his wish to provide a springboard for disadvantaged children. Affordable, convenient, high-quality daycare cannot make up for all the deficiencies in an impoverished child's human and economic environment. But eight hours a day, five days a week, of socialization, stimulation and preparation for reading and writing represent a massive investment in early childhood. With this instrument, society can partly correct through the educational environment what it has not been able to change in the economic environment.
Daycare does more than offer a foundation for learning. It can also screen for health problems, which appear more often in poor children. And by providing breakfast and lunch, it can make up for the nutritional deficiencies that affect 13 per cent of children and have an impact on their development. It can contribute to preventing obesity, which is more prevalent in this group of children. The list is long. If mothers want to concentrate on their own education and looking for a job, daycare allows them to do so, and contact with educators helps break parents' isolation.
In light of all this, it is shocking that ten years after the program was introduced in Montreal, there are on average fewer than 50 daycare spaces (childcare centres, home daycare and private daycare) for every 100 children aged four and under. A study published in January 2008 by the Montreal Public Health Department noted that the Sud-Ouest-Verdun district, where 40.5 per cent of children are at risk in terms of readiness for school, has the lowest number of available daycare spaces in proportion to population--42 per 100 children. By contrast, the Jeanne-Mance district, where the percentage of at-risk children is low (29.1 per cent), has the highest number of daycare spaces--nearly 75 per 100 children.
But that's not the worst. A study carried out in 2003 showed that the quality of daycare services was significantly lower in disadvantaged areas, where the level of support offered should have been higher. While the quality of service in CPEs (community childcare centres) is uniform across the socioeconomic spectrum, this is not true of home daycare providers.
The problem of supply is compounded by a problem of demand. The team of Universite du Quebec a Montreal researchers (including the future MNA Camil Bouchard) that--along with Centraide (the Montreal equivalent of the United Way)--developed the excellent 1,2,3 Go! program that helps poor children get a good start in life, came to this sad conclusion:
Families with the most social and economic risk factors are the ones that report greatest use of resources that provide material assistance (food banks, clothing exchanges, housing assistance, thrift stores, etc.) but least use of those that provide help with education or social integration (recreation services, toy libraries, learning centres, etc.). They are also the ones that resort most frequently to negative educational practices. This simple conclusion indicates the need for a major reorientation of our efforts and massive investment in daycare services in disadvantaged areas. This would mean a plan of action aiming to reach 25 per cent of poor children in five years, 50 per cent in ten years, and 75 per cent and more after that. No social program--that's right, no social program--would offer as great a human and economic return, in the short, medium and long term, as this direct, tangible support for the roughly 120,000 poor children in Quebec, this pathway toward higher quality of life.
And any program involving direct payments to parents (like the one instituted by the Harper government or the one proposed by the Action Democratique du Quebec) would only counteract this massive effort, as it would provide an incentive for disadvantaged families to save their pennies rather than take their child to daycare.
How can it be done? When Pauline Marois, then Minister of Education, wanted to make kindergarten universal for five-year-olds in Quebec, she encountered stiff resistance, even in her own Parti Quebecois caucus. Kindergarten still isn't compulsory, even if more than 97 per cent of Quebec children are registered for it. In France, the school system offers early childhood...