A plan to tackle school segregation in Quebec

By Stéphane Vigneault, Coordinator, École ensemble

Quebec’s school system is based on a market-oriented rationale. Schools compete for the most profitable students in terms of income and academic results. By allowing subsidized private schools and selective public schools to choose their clientele, the system creates few winners and many losers.

We must take an honest look at some of the realities of the Quebec education model:

  1. Private schools are subsidized by the state. A student in a private school receives 75% of the public funds that an equivalent student in the public system receives.
  2. The subsidized private school system is gaining a greater market share. It has gone from 5% in 1970 to 21% now at the secondary level — with higher levels of 39% in Montréal and 42% in Québec City.
  3. The authorities have responded to the private schools’ skimming of students from the public system by creating a selective public network that also has the right to select its students (via exams, auditions, interviews and fees – sometimes hefty ones). The number of students enrolled in the selective public schools is estimated to be at least 20% at the secondary level.
  4. At the same time, regular public schools are faced with a heavier workload due to an overrepresentation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students with learning disabilities.
  5. This approach creates a vicious circle of school segregation.

The result is an inefficient and inequitable education system, the most unequal in Canada according to the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation, a public, arm’s length advisory body for the Minister of Education.

Accordingly, it was for good reason that the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights formally asked the Quebec government in 2020 to specify “Measures taken to ensure that students have equal access to education under the three-tier school system in Quebec, regardless of the economic status of their parents”. The Quebec government has until November 2022 to respond to the UN body.

Remedying a school system that has been unequitable for more than half a century is a major political challenge. We, at École ensemble, have responded to this challenge with the launch, last May, of our Plan for a Common School Network, for which we revisited the question of equity in education on new grounds.

International standards

For actors working towards a fair education system, UNESCO’s 2021/2 GEM Report on private actors in education offers sound advice. In our view, the main takeaway of the report is that “governments need to see all education institutions, students and teachers as part of a single system.” This means that governments cannot turn a blind eye on pockets of privilege or exploitation if the right to education of all is to be respected.

The Report’s key recommendations help us understand how this standard should be implemented:

  • Fulfil the commitment to make one year of pre-primary and 12 years of primary and secondary education free – but publicly financed need not mean publicly provided if equity can be ensured.
  • Schools should not select students.
  • Governments should make education of good quality free at the point of access.
  • Three common design flaws need to be avoided in any mechanism that provides financial support to non-state actors: explicit or implicit student selection; explicit or implicit fee charges; and the operation of profit-seeking schools.

Our plan upholds these recommendations.

The Plan for a Common Network

We propose the creation of a common network that will protect public schools and contracted private schools from education markets.

All schools in the common network will have their own catchment area and will no longer be allowed to select students. By eliminating student selection, we are also removing the right to charge tuition fees: students will attend their local school, regardless of their parents’ ability to pay. Contracted private schools (which must be non-profit) will therefore be entirely financed by the state, exactly like public schools.

Contracted private schools will retain their current legal status and their management autonomy. Some private schools in Quebec already operate with management autonomy and 100 percent public funding: indeed, a dozen private schools for students with special needs have been operating this way for decades.

Alternatively, existing private schools that choose not to be part of the common network will have a non-contracted private school status. These schools will not receive any public funding, either directly or indirectly. They will retain their right to select their clientele and so will not have a school catchment area. Like existing non-subsidised private schools in other provinces, the government will regulate them.

Including existing private schools into the common network will represent an additional cost for the public purse, whereas not doing so will represent a saving. According to a commissioned study conducted by François Delorme, an economist at the University of Sherbrooke, the implementation of the common network will eventually result in net annual savings of about $100 million in public funds. As the study details, the transition to the new common network will be gradual, taking six years.

The new plan will include creating an equitable school map for each regional school authority, based on the innovative concept of optimized school catchment areas. This will prevent neighbourhood residential segregation from extending to school settings. This tool will allow mapping according to clear criteria and guarantee students access to a local school and true socio-economic balance. A proof of concept was developed for the City of Laval (pop. 400,000) in collaboration with the University of Zurich and Swiss startup Ville juste.

Distribution of families with school-age children in Laval, Quebec, with at least one parent with a university degree by dissemination area and by optimized school catchment area

The colour scale shows that disparities between dissemination areas (a small area composed of one or more neighbouring dissemination blocks; it is the smallest standard geographic area for which all census data are disseminated) are considerably reduced by optimized school catchment areas. To optimize the catchment areas, mapping software first assigns a catchment area to each school based on proximity and school capacity. The boundaries are then modified, through successive rounds, based on major public roads in order to achieve the most socio-economically similar catchment areas. Catchment areas thus succeed in optimizing home-to-school distance, school capacity and the selected socio-economic index. We are often asked to compare the social composition of those optimised catchment areas to the actual ones. It is unfortunately not feasible as only regular public schools currently have catchment areas; selective public schools and subsidised private schools can choose their clients no matter where they live.

The core changes the new network is proposing are outlined in the below table.

Key characteristics of the common network

The plan is pragmatic, ambitious and innovative. It is a politically attractive plan, as underscored by former Prime Minister Pauline Marois’ support. With provincial elections to be held in October 2022, the time is ripe for a meaningful debate between parties.

If we believe that diversity is a strength of our society; if we believe that exposure to different points of view makes for better citizens; and if we believe that all students deserve to have high expectations, then we need a common network.


– The Plan for a Common School Network in English and in French.

– The Plan’s website (in French).

– École ensemble tweets @ecoleensemble



1 comment

  1. Sounds exactly like Australia’s education system. Now has been ranked in the top three nations I. Terms of inequity at all levels of education. Inequity in funding, staffing and outcomes. The evidence indicates that as in Quebec the major reason lies in the application of market policies- pushing privatisation, competition and heavy govt funding of private schools while cutting funding for public education. See
    Colin Power (2022) Educational Access and the Power of Education. InW.O, Lee et all. (Ed’s.). International Handbook on Education Development in Asia-Pacific. Singapore: Springer. PPS 1-17.

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