French Immersion in Peel Region - Plus ça change
The Peel District School board in Ontario has made headlines this week for an all-too-familiar Canadian problem: burgeoning enrollment in French immersion, and limited capacity to accommodate the student demand. Sadly, the board has resulted to a tried-and-failed approach to dealing with this problem - using a lottery system to determine which students will be admitted to the program. Today, the Globe and Mail has dedicated one of its editorials to criticizing this short-sighted policy.
It is an all-too-familiar problem in this country, and one which you'd think we might have solved by now. French immersion has been around longer than I have, and yet the current situation faced by the Peel board has been repeated in province after province, board after board, over the past 40 years. Lotteries, line-ups and other limited access solutions have caused outrage and problems in community after community. Indeed, I've published an article on how a similar situation in Sackville, New Brunswick in the early 1980s was the impetus for a new province-wide policy of immersion on demand where numbers warranted it. Of course, New Brunswick has recently been in the midst of major turmoil as it overhauls its French immersion offerings.
Alas, the problem of French immersion is not a simple nut to crack. While many boards will use program costs as an excuse for not creating programs - an issue well debunked by the Globe editorial, which refers to the federal Official Languages in Education program funding - there are some real, structural problems which require long-term thinking and serious structural adjustments. I would argue that these require province-wide policy directions, rather than ad hoc solutions at the board level.
Take for example, the issue of teachers. Although the Globe editorialist notes that there is currently a surplus of French teachers in the province of Ontario, that is not the same thing as having a surplus of teachers who would be competent to teach French immersion - which requires a much higher level of oral fluency and mastery - as opposed to teaching core French as a school subject. Teacher shortages have been a problem for decades with the French immersion programs. Most parents ideally want a fluent francophone teacher, and in many jurisdictions, the available teachers who meet that criterion are currently teaching in the French-language schools targeted at the francophone minority. Importing teachers as a strategy used in many provinces, but many Quebec francophone teachers have no desire to teach French immersion in Oakville or Calgary or Nanaimo.
Then there is the question of teacher redundancy. A jump in immersion enrolments from 10 to 25% of the grade 1 population over a decade cannot simply be accommodated by hiring more teachers. There is a question of what to do with the English-language grade 1 teachers in the board who are no longer needed to teach in the English stream. That is a major staffing challenge that requires long term thinking - and a compassionate approach to the existing teachers.
That is just the tip of the iceberg with this long-standing challenge of implementing French language instruction in Canada. Solving it requires long-term strategy, a deliberate and well-thought-out set of provincial policies, and effective communication of educational policy objectives to the public. I agree with the main thrusts of the Globe's editorial - access to quality language education should not be a matter of luck of the draw - but solving this problem requires long-term vision, teacher training and recruitment, and creative thinking about how to deal with the displacements created by new educational priorities and parental preferences.Recommend this Post