Breaking the Spell of French Immersion

Sachin Mahara, The Star (Toronto), November 9, 2017

The Halton Catholic District School Board may be on the verge of deflating one of the biggest bubbles in Canadian public education. Later this month, the school board will consider ending its French immersion program.

Many middle-class parents will find this heretical, as they have flocked to the program in droves over the last decade. But just as the GTA’s frenzied housing market experienced a much-needed return to sanity, it is high time for our schools to be released from the spell of French immersion.

French immersion programs started in the 1970s as a nation building effort in what had then become an officially bilingual country. For years, it remained a small boutique program within most school boards. However, within the last decade, enrolments across the country have exploded.

For example, between 2005 and 2015, while total school enrolment in Ontario was plummeting, French immersion enrolment in the province increased by 73 per cent. Why has French immersion enrolment boomed? Because it has increasingly become seen by upwardly mobile Canadian parents as “a private education without tuition,” as one OISE researcher concluded.

French immersion classrooms tend to have drastically lower proportions of students with special needs and behavioural issues. The program also tends to segregate students based on race and income.

Indeed, data from the Toronto District School Board has shown that French immersion classrooms have much higher proportions of students from high income families and two times as many white students compared to regular classrooms.

This is why a study of French immersion in Vancouver, which was published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, found that “French immersion programmes operate as a ‘cream-skimming’ phenomenon …[that] allows white, middle class parents to access markers of higher social status and prestige.”

If our school system is serious about equity, why on Earth are we supporting this?

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