The ones that count the most
by Jean-François Lisée
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.