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Quebec plans a head start for poor pupils

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.

Jacques Boissinot/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Quebec Ministry of Education is proposing to allow four-year-old children from underprivileged families to attend elementary school full-time as part of a campaign to curb the province's disturbingly high dropout rate.

More than one in three students in the province – 36 per cent – leave school without graduating. And studies showed that most of them come from poor families. For instance, a study conducted in 2008 by the Montreal Health and Social Services Agency concluded that 35 per cent of 5-year-old kindergarten students on the Island of Montreal were from needy families, showed signs of neglect and had learning disabilities that would likely impede their academic progress.

"More than a third of the small children on the Island of Montreal are vulnerable. That is a very disturbing figure. They are only five years of age, and already they begin school with difficulties and lag behind the others," Education Minister Marie Malavoy said.

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A study released last fall by the Conseil supérieur de l'éducation, the government's education advisory body, showed that 27 per cent of the province's children received no educational services, either in daycare or kindergarten, before elementary school. Given the numbers, Ms. Malavoy said she concluded that another educational service was needed to complement the $7-a-day universal daycare program.

"We want to offer a new [educational] entry point for the children of Quebec," she said. "If we intervene early, we can improve a child's cognitive, linguistic and social skills."

Ms. Malavoy tabled a bill that would allow the program to be offered next September on a voluntary basis to the parents of about 1,200 preschool children. The total cost for the 2013-14 school year was estimated to be $8.1-million. The eventual objective will be to reach about 8,000 children.

Under the program, school boards would be required to identify schools in poor neighbourhoods where help is needed. The minister explained that schools would be classified according to a "disadvantage community indicator" that takes into account family incomes and the mothers' level of education.

The minister said the program would extend kindergarten services.

She said it would have to be carefully monitored to make sure it responded to educational needs. It would be introduced gradually throughout the province and be modelled on what is offered in the province's daycare centres.

While the proposed service would be geared to low-income families, Ms. Malavoy said it is not an indication of what the government thinks of how the poor raise their children.

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"I am very cautious when it comes to moral judgment," Ms. Malavoy said. "I think children from underprivileged families who stay at home can receive a great deal of love. But in some cases, they need cognitive and social stimulation … and what I am announcing is really an educational service to be offered inside a school."

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