Translated from French by Julian Olson

Once upon a time, in a land that is not far away, parents had access to an affordable, high-quality educational program for their young children, and it made them very happy. One day, the group of people who had set up this program lost power to another group of people who didn’t like it and did everything they could to put obstacles in its way.

Any resemblance to real people or political parties is definitely not coincidental. When the Parti Québécois government set up the Centres de la Petite Enfance (CPEs) in 1997, the Quebec Liberal Party, then in opposition, denounced these daycare centres. Liberal Leader Daniel Johnson attacked them as a “single model” that did not respect parents’ free choice.

It was soon apparent, however, that Quebecers liked the $5-a-day, not-for-profit, parent-run agencies. As a result, although the number of daycare spaces grew rapidly, there were still not enough to meet the demand. By the late spring of 2003, when the Liberals took office, Quebec had added 90,000 regulated daycare spaces to the 78,864 it had in 1997. In 2004, the number of regulated daycare spaces in Quebec represented nearly 37 per cent of the total number of such spaces in Canada.1 In a study published by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Christa Japel, Richard E. Tremblay and Sylvana Côté noted, Quebec is therefore unique in Canada, not only in the number of available regulated, fixed-fee, reduced-contribution child care places, but also in its method of funding them. While in the other provinces and territories the emphasis is on providing child care grants to families, in Quebec a significant proportion of the provincial budget goes to service providers.2

Notable among these service providers are the Centres de la Petite Enfance. Parents appreciate the CPEs both for the good educational environment they provide for their children and for their affordability, and their existence has made it easier for a large number of mothers of young children return to work. The rate of employment among mothers with children aged three to five has risen dramatically since 1997, from 63 to 75 per cent for mothers in two-parent families and from 46 to 69 per cent for single mothers (figure 1).

This increased rate of employment has had a positive effect in reducing the gap in disposable income between rich and poor families. While in Canada the gap between rich and poor (the Gini coefficient) has been widening for more than 20 years (figure 2), it stabilized in Quebec after 1997, so that the level of poverty among Quebec families is now well below that of other provinces.3

With such positive results, it was not surprising to see comments such as this one from Michel David in Le Devoir: “For the first time in a long time, Quebecers felt that they were seeing a major reform of which they could be proud. In the National Assembly, Premier Lucien Bouchard took pleasure in brandishing the many articles in the foreign press that lauded this new marvel.”4

Faced with the undeniable popular success of the CPEs, the Quebec Liberals did a dramatic about-face and stopped calling for dismantling the CPE system. During the 2008 election campaign, Premier Jean Charest even went so far as to hold a press conference in a Centre de la Petite Enfance. He announced that he would create 20,000 new spaces and promised not to raise fees above the $7 rate his government had set during his previous mandate. He sought to reassure families that waiting lists would go and that access would be better adapted to their needs (part-time care, flexible and atypical hours, etc.), and promised high-quality services that would set children on a path toward educational success.

Up to now, the Charest government has kept its promise not to raise fees. As for providing new spaces, the Liberals decided to allocate more spaces to commercial daycare than to the CPEs, as a means of enhancing parental choice. The numbers are clear. In 2003, after six years of growth, the not-for-profit CPEs offered 84 per cent of educational daycare spaces in Quebec. This figure included two forms of daycare services: centre-based daycare and CPE-supervised daycare in a family environment.

In December 2005, however, the Charest government used closure to pass Bill 124, which took responsibility for daycare in a family environment away from the CPEs. Since then, the position of the CPEs has dramatically eroded. This is the picture today:

  • The CPEs offer 34 per cent of the spaces in educational daycare;
  • Daycare in a family environment accounts for 39 per cent of spaces;
  • The remaining 26-plus per cent are in the commercial for-profit sector.

According to Violaine Ouellette of the Association Québécoise des Centres de la Petite Enfance,

This development is especially disturbing in that the number of families needing daycare services is increasing significantly, mostly because of the substantial rise in births over the last few years. More and more, families need to turn to the commercial sector or even to unregulated daycare to find a space. As a result, there is a risk that the efforts undertaken over a number of years to provide high-quality educational services to all young children in Quebec will be diluted.5

The Liberal government has strongly encouraged the development of commercial for-profit daycare centres and substantially increased their subsidies. As we can see in table 1, financing per child has increased almost twice as fast in commercial as in public daycare. One consequence has been that while initially the government saved a significant amount of money by favouring commercial daycare centres, these savings (out of a Quebec government investment in educational services for young children that in 2009 amounted to more than $2 billion) have now become marginal.

The average annual profit margin of a commercial daycare centre is 12 per cent, while the CPEs show an estimated average annual profit of 2 per cent, which is subsequently reinvested. The source of commercial daycare centres’ profit is the lower salaries they pay their employees. Thus, the average annual salary of a qualified educator in a commercial daycare centre is 15 per cent below that paid by the CPEs, while for nonqualified educators, salaries are 16 per cent lower in the commercial sector (table 2).

Nicolas Girard, Parti Québécois critic on matters concerning young children, has fought tenaciously against the commercialization of daycare over the last year, pressing Family Minister Tony Tomassi and his successor, Yolande James, who assumed the portfolio after Tomassi was forced to resign over use of a credit card furnished by a Liberal donor. Under Tomassi, the family ministry encouraged expansion of commercial daycare centres whose primary goal is profit rather than high-quality service. “Instead of giving priority to the experts – the CPEs – the Liberals have encouraged the growth of chains of daycare centres that are sometimes owned by people without experience, such as real estate agents or even someone whose background was in the slaughterhouse business,” notes Girard.

Before resigning, Tony Tomassi promised to give responsibility for allocating spaces back to regional committees, which are made up of a variety of representatives. However, this bill has not yet been passed, and as of today this responsibility still lies with the ministry, which has been accused of favouritism.

Tomassi’s resignation was preceded by numerous allegations that Liberal Party donors were favoured in the allocation of daycare spaces. This past February 12, La Presse reporter Tommy Chouinard, using research from the Parti Québécois, wrote that 1,600 places were allotted to 32 private daycare centres whose directors had given $112,000 to the Quebec Liberal Party since 2003. Some contributed to the Liberals for the first time in 2008, just when they acquired new spaces.6 Moreover, 400 of these 1,600 spaces were allocated to donors, organizers and associates of the minister who lived in Tomassi’s LaFontaine riding, and whose projects received low marks when they were evaluated by civil servants in the ministry.

The disturbing trend revealed in the last Liberal budget is not to develop new spaces for small children, leaving many parents no other choice than to enrol their children in unsubsidized commercial daycare centres, which are currently growing spectacularly. Since 2007, the number of spaces offered in these daycare centres has risen from 4,751 to 11,173. In 2009–10, more unsubsidized spaces (4,219) than subsidized ones (4,196) were created.

“This trend is undoubtedly due to the increase in the daycare tax credit,” notes Nicolas Girard. “It’s not likely to be reversed – quite the opposite since the government plans to pay out reimbursements on a monthly basis.”

These tax credits are increasingly costly to the Quebec government. In 2009, the government refunded about $100 million in daycare tax credits. At present, the full price of a space in a commercial daycare centre is between $25 and $60 per day. On average, the government refunds 60 per cent of the price to parents through tax credits. For example, for a $35-a-day space, the government refunds $21, costing taxpayers $5,460 a year. Yet these refunds are given whether the space is in a regulated daycare centre or an unregulated environment.

This ideological shift by the Liberals in favour of commercial daycare, subsidized or not, could have very serious consequences for the quality of services offered to children, says education professor Nathalie Bigras of the Université du Québec à Montréal:

Working conditions in private daycare centres are deplorable, and that affects the quality of care for children … The battle for quality of services is central … We have a lot of solid data for the past 30 years, particularly research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which shows that investment in early childhood is a factor in a country’s development. All these research data argue in favour of a high-quality system.

Quebec has a lot at stake. We have a high-quality system, the parent-run Centres de la Petite Enfance, whose sole objective is to meet the needs of young children and their families, complemented by daycare in a family environment. In their IRPP study, Japel, Tremblay and Côté analyzed the quality of services provided in the various daycare environments. They found that the CPEs and services in a regulated family environment are generally of higher quality than other types of service.

In fact, when they looked more closely at the overall quality of institutional environments – CPEs and for-profit daycare centres – twice as many CPEs got a score of 5 to 5.9, corresponding to good quality (28 per cent versus 14 per cent). Likewise, the percentage of CPEs rated as very good to excellent (a score of 6 or more) was more than one in 20 (6 per cent) compared to only 0.3 per cent of for-profit daycare centres. Moreover, 7 per cent of for-profit daycare centres were judged inadequate, compared to only 0.6 per cent of CPEs (figure 3).7

The authors’ recommendation for further development of the CPE system, especially in disadvantaged neighbourhoods where CPEs have been slow to take root, makes good sense.

Continue reading “Are Quebec’s $7-A-Day Public Daycare Centres in Danger?”

The Finnish school model is attracting international attention

An earlier version of this article appeared in the winter 2009 edition of the magazine, Nouvelles CSQ. It was translated from the French by Frances Boylston.

“There is no doubt: the Finnish school model is the best in the world,” said Claude Anttila, education consultant and professor at the Finnish National Board of Education, at a symposium sponsored by the Centrale des Syndicats du Québec (Quebec’s major teachers union) earlier this year. She pointed out that Finnish students consistently rank at the top of international tests. Moreover, there are effectively no school dropouts: 99.7 per cent of 17-year-olds have completed their secondary education. Even dropping out of pre-university, professional or technical courses at the junior college level is very rare. And Finland is actually reducing the achievement gap between girls and boys.

How has Finnish education managed to do this? Professor Anttila, who for many years was a teacher and a director of a Finnish junior college (gymnasium), identified a number of principles that guide the Finnish school model: equal opportunity, regional and school autonomy, funding equity, professional responsibility, abandonment of high-stakes testing, highly qualified and motivated teachers and sustained political support. In her talk she traced the developments that set the foundations for the Finnish school model.

The reform of the Finnish educational system in the 1970s was based on a conception of equity and democracy, explained Professor Anttila, “and supported by all succeeding governments and ministries.” Schooling was made free, including all school materials, school meals, transportation and extracurricular activities. Today, no matter where a student lives, whether in Helsinki (the capital) or, say, in Utsjoki 1,300 kilometres north of Helsinki, the same program and the same teaching materials and resources are used. The status of the school is also the same: a public school under the authority of the local government. Across Finland, students follow the same common core of subjects until the age of 16.

While there is no magic bullet, a key to the miracle of Finland’s school success is that great efforts are made to ensure that no student repeats a grade during the compulsory nine years. Rather than issuing a report card that reflects problems and points to failure, the Finnish teacher makes “assessments based on skills and developments in the course work and behaviour, while identifying strengths and areas where students need to make greater efforts.” The purpose of evaluation is to judge what has been acquired and what still needs further to be acquired, not to focus on a particular weakness.

Furthermore, the students themselves are involved in this process. Students evaluate their own work, behaviour, social skills and ability to “learn to learn.” Parents receive the results of the self-evaluation in order to track student progress.

“If a student has difficulty,” said Professor Anttila, “it is first the student’s own teacher who, during time after the regular class, will try to resolve the problem. If the problem is more difficult, we may use a specialist teacher or educational professional who has other methods that can address the matter in a more innovative manner.”

It should not be assumed that Finns naively reject all forms of ranking or grading. During the last four years of the core curriculum, students receive course marks between 4 and 10. Access to junior college, which provides three years of preparation for higher education, is based on the student’s marks. Furthermore, acceptance into professional and vocational streams is based on the student’s chosen optional courses and the results in those courses.

Professor Anttila cautions against thinking that Finns have been uniformly enthusiastic about the educational reform. On the contrary, for some time many Finns were quite pessimistic about their educational system. This negative judgement was fuelled by a very dark portrait presented in the media.

Claude Anttila finds this amusing, commenting that “in 2000, when the initial results of the Program for International Student Assessment tests conducted by the OECD came out, Finnish journalists did not believe them and did not publicize the figures. Instead it was the German press that broke the news.” It was not until the 2003 PISA tests confirmed the high ranking of Finnish students that the public began to believe it: “When Finns evaluated the system against their own standards, the portrait was negative, but then they compared their system to others and saw that they were not as bad as that.”

In the first two PISA surveys, 2000 and 2003, which assessed 15-year-old students from nearly 60 participating countries in the areas of mathematics, science and literacy, Finland scored highest overall. Both assessments showed that Finnish students are better at reading than students in other high-literacy OECD countries such as South Korea, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Finland also performed better in sciences than the other two top OECD countries, Japan and South Korea. According to the official PISA 2003 report, Finland is now at same level with east Asian countries, whose performance in mathematics and science had been previously unmatched. This success has also led many Finns to be uneasy. Some worry about what will happen in the next PISA assessment since, as one educator said, “We can only go down from the top, and then what will happen? What will that tell us about the Finnish education system?”

While Finnish educators may have some reason for concern, the rest of the world has begun to view the Finnish education system as a model, or at least a worthwhile point of comparison. For example, the PISA results significantly revealed that it was not just those who had previously ranked in the upper achievement levels who had made progress. Students who in the Finnish system were ranked in the lower levels had also improved significantly; in some cases their scores exceeded students who in other countries were categorized in higher achievement levels.

In addition, there are fewer differences between boys and girls. In most countries boys are doing extremely poorly, in terms of both dropout rates and academic achievement. “In the old system, we had to encourage boys to increase their average just to be able to graduate,” said Claude Anttila, but she noted that this is no longer the case today, thanks to the use of information and communication technologies: “Recently the girls, who have always been better in language learning, have been overtaken by boys in English. Imagine.”

The results appear to indicate that the Finnish school model has a recipe for success. But would the recipe work in our more heterogeneous province or country? And could we bring about the necessary reforms and get the financial support needed to succeed?


While our attention is focused on the girls, are the boys falling through the cracks of our educational system? Recent data strongly suggest this. Indeed, if boys did as well as girls in school, there would have been no need for the Quebec Ministry of Education’s highly touted plan of action to deal with dropouts: “Succeeding in School” …

Boys are dropping out before finishing high school in droves, and far more than the girls. The Ministry’s figures reveal that of the potential graduating class of 1991–92, barely 60.6 per cent of boys obtained their high-school diploma, compared to 74.5 per cent of their female counterparts. Furthermore, the situation gets worse after that … Of the total population of 19-year-olds in 1989–90, 83.5 per cent of the girls possessed a high-school diploma, compared to 65.8 per cent of boys

The higher proportion of girls does not end at high-school graduation. Female students outnumber their male counterparts in college (CEGEP) … Well over half of 17-year-old girls (54.2 per cent) go on to college, compared to only 38.9 per cent of the boys. In sum, less than two thirds of the boys finish high school; less than 40 per cent go on to college …

And the differences don’t stop there. Girls’ grades, on average, are better, than those of boys at the college level, and grades determine access to university programs. One indicator of the girls’ success is their scores on the French proficiency test required for admission to French-language universities. Sixty-one per cent of girls pass the tests, compared to only 47 per cent of boys. According to Ronald Terril, coordinator of research at SRAM, the regional body that coordinates admissions to colleges, “Girls apply to college in higher numbers than boys, they are better prepared and they are more likely to be accepted. Once in college, they do better than their male counterparts and more of them obtain diplomas.”

The university numbers bear this out. In 1960, only 20 per cent of Quebec university students were women. However, by 1992, women made up 57 per cent of the student population. Only at the doctoral level were men still in the majority …

Is Quebec the exception? Not really. According to Statistics Canada, in 1992–93, 266,000 women attended university in Canada, compared to 231,000 men – the sixth year in a row that there were more women than men, with the gap widening each year. Women’s gains in education is a phenomenon observed in all Western countries …

Toward an explanation

Denise Alarie, a high-school teacher in Boucherville, a suburb on Montreal’s South Shore, says, “I’ve noticed that the vast majority of girls want to pursue their studies because their goal is to become, one day, financially independent. They don’t want to be dependent on men, and they’ve understood that education is important if they hope to obtain a good job.” Boys seem more interested in immediate rewards and less preoccupied with their future. This may explain why more boys than girls have part-time jobs. For Jean Larochelle, also a teacher in Boucherville, “Boys are still influenced by the myth of owning a car. A guy must have his second-hand car and some pocket money. Consequently, he’s ready to work even if it puts his studies in jeopardy.”

Many teachers agree with the fact that boys are still hung up on sexual stereotypes whereas girls are breaking them. Girls are succeeding in the educational system because they are capable of overcoming stereotypic attitudes, for example, reluctance to compete in traditionally male fields of activity or the belief that as women they could only achieve proper status through the men in their lives. In the same way, these teachers say, if boys are to succeed in school, they will have to break their male sexual stereotypes. For many boys, going to class and getting good marks have become feminine values which they reject for fear of becoming effeminate. To be popular with their peers, boys are expected to confront their teachers, disobey the rules, get kicked out of class, skip classes … If not, they risk being perceived as “nerds” and the like.

Pressure to conform to this stereotype brings on certain behaviour which sets the boys at odds with expectations from the schools and, in turn, exacerbates existing pedagogical weaknesses. Hence the large number of male dropouts; and among those who stay, the boys tend to do more poorly than the girls. Simon Lucier, who works with potential dropouts at Mortagne School near Montreal, finds that “female students set high standards for success while boys aim at barely passing”…

The problem isn’t confined to the classroom. In the words of another teacher, Jean Larochelle, “Young people imitate what they see. Today, women know where they’re going in society. Forty-year-old men are having trouble. Young boys nowadays have few responsible masculine role models. So they end up hanging on to out-of-date male stereotypes.”

Moreover, there is a link between fathers dropping out of their family and boys dropping out of school. In a society with more and more single-parent families headed by women, this problem is accentuated. American studies have demonstrated that divorce and separation affect boys more than girls, and that boys from these families tend to drop out of school at a higher rate than girls. As one elementary school teacher remarked, “Boys who achieve well in my class are children who take on their responsibilities and who come from families where the father is present.” Another teacher added that “boys who have problems don’t live in traditional families. They only see their father occasionally.”

Schools: The problem or the solution?

A recent study by the Superior Council of Education suggested that the fact that women outnumbered men in university could be retraced right back to the elementary level where boys already lag behind girls. Furthermore, the report stated, the advantage girls have over boys at the elementary level is decisive for the rest of their schooling. This led the authors of the study to ask the crucial question: Why do boys have such difficulties in elementary school? One answer many teachers gave was straightforward: the absence of male role models. Female teachers make up 85 per cent of all elementary-school teachers. From the very start, elementary school seems to be assimilated to a feminine universe. Early on, boys start to identify ideal school behaviour and teachers’ expectations as feminine models.

Not all teachers accept this explanation. As one teacher commented, “… I’ve been teaching for 26 years and schools have changed quite a lot over that period, but one thing hasn’t changed: in elementary school, girls do better than boys. It is simply that girls at that age are different from boys: girls tend to work harder and show more interest. They are not more intelligent, but more mature. The boys are more restless, more aggressive, often in conflict with their peers and authority figures.” Another teacher put it bluntly: “girls respond more positively to what school expects of them, such as obedience, attention and cleanliness”

The next generation

Whereas few men are training for the traditionally feminine fields of kindergarten and elementary-school teaching, the opposite trend is occurring among women training for the traditionally male university-based fields … Of the traditionally masculine fields of study at the Université de Montréal, the majority of students in only one, engineering, remains masculine. In every other field – law, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, business administration, etc. – the majority of students are women. Consider the example of the university’s school of veterinary medicine. In 1975, 28 per cent of students were women; in 1992, the rate was 73.5 per cent. The first-year class today consists of 60 women (81 per cent) and 14 men.

If the absence of men in their thirties and forties in the home as responsible role models for the adolescent boys of today helps account for those boys’ problems at school, what will happen to their male offspring? What kind of role models will they be able to provide for their adolescent sons 20 years from now? It’s time we addressed this question.

Continue reading “FLASH! The Girls lead in Quebec Schools”