Children should be able to reach higher than their parents. Today, the most powerful predictor of a child's future prospects is "What education does your father or mother have?"
Encouragingly, a school board in southern Ontario has become focused on trying to interrupt this pattern. The District School Board of Niagara created a public school, opening last week, for children whose parents don't have university degrees. School starts early and finishes late. The entire program is bent on reinforcing the push toward postsecondary school.
Much more attention to this challenge is needed across Canada. By 2036, one in four Canadians will be over 65. We can't afford to keep wasting the talents and energies of our young people.
The prosperity gap in Canada remains depressingly wide between the children of the university-educated and those whose parents did not go to university. As of 2009, 56 per cent of the grown children of the university-educated had university degrees themselves, compared with just 23 per cent of the children of the less educated. The corresponding figures in 1986 were 45 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively.
Why is there such a large gap? Some argue it's a matter of money, others a matter of culture. More likely it's both, wound up together so they seem almost indistinguishable.
Scholarships, bursaries and federal programs such as Registered Education Savings Plans, which give an extra boost to low-income families, are helpful. But they go only so far in changing the culture of expectations. Pathways to Education, begun in Toronto and spreading across the country, is trying to do just that. The components include tutoring, mentoring, bus or lunch money (if necessary), plus $1,000 for each year of high school, to be held for postsecondary school.
But leaving it to high school may be too late. Ross Finnie, of the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, suggests field trips for elementary or middle school students to university and college campuses and classes. "It's not Mars, but for a lot of kids it is." He suggests schools teach about the roles of universities and colleges in their curriculum.
By world standards, Canadians have reason to be proud of their upward mobility. But more attention and more innovative answers are needed to ensure that a parent's education is not necessarily a child's destiny.