The Parti Québécois government is cancelling an intensive English-language program in French elementary schools, fuelling the debate over the importance English should have in Quebec society.
The Liberals introduced the intensive language program in 2011, recognizing that English was an essential requirement if Quebec was to carve a predominant place for itself in the business world and create more career opportunities for francophone students.
The change in curriculum comes on the heels of the PQ government's initiative to protect and promote French in all spheres of Quebec society. Next week the National Assembly will debate a government language bill proposing to extend French-language workplace requirements to smaller businesses. Recently, the government came under attack when language inspectors strictly enforced certain provisions of the language law on restaurant owners and other businesses.
Education Minister Marie Malavoy explained that schools don't have enough resources and qualified teachers to meet the deadline set by the former Liberal government when it introduced the language program two years ago.
The teaching of English as a second language has often raised heated debates among francophone parents. While some place the priority on learning French, fearing that English would undermine their children's ability to master their mother tongue, others demand that their children become fluent in English as soon as possible to adequately prepare them for the job market.
"This is a delicate, difficult and sensitive issue, which at times raises passions from one side or the other," Ms. Malavoy said. "In Quebec we have a responsibility for making sure that children learn French very well and so before introducing them to a second language we want to be absolutely sure that it's the proper time."
The English as a second language program introduced by the former Liberal regime required all French schools to offer an intensive course in Grade 6 by 2015. The program required francophone students to be taught English as a second language on a daily basis for half of the school year.
This was a major shift from the current program, which just offers an English as a second language class to francophone students starting at the early elementary level.
Only 12 per cent of Quebec French-language schools have implemented the new intensive programs school administrators, teachers and parents in many regions in the province complained they were unable to comply with the deadline and the new requirements.
Ms. Malavoy said she wasn't against the intensive language program and that schools will not be barred from introducing it. Schools that have already implemented the program or plan to do so will receive the necessary funding to proceed. But the minister insisted it will be done on a voluntary basis and the decision will be made by each school's governing board headed by parents.
But the minister expressed skepticism about the usefulness of teaching English as a second language to Grade 1 and Grade 2 pupils.
"In Grade 6 we have no problem with that. We have problems with introducing English in Grade 1 and 2 … It isn't easy to be a francophone in North America and I want to make sure they first learn French in class," Ms. Malavoy said.
The province's school of public administration or ÉNAP has been mandated to evaluate the English as a second language program and report back to the minister by next September. Ms. Malavoy explained that the government doesn't have all the data to properly determine at what age francophone children should be taught a second language and which methods should be used without impeding their ability to master French.
"We must act with caution and that is what I am doing. I don't want to prejudge what the findings [of the ÉNAP study will be] … When I receive the conclusions I will analyze them and I will let you know what steps will follow," Ms. Malavoy said.
Premier Pauline Marois reiterated this week the urgent need for Quebec to protect its language even though her proposals fall short of what the PQ had promised during last summer's election campaign.
Quebeckers: Do you think students need an intensive English program? Weigh in here.