A couple of weeks ago, the Conseillière de la formation scolaire came to our class to give us a talk about the education system in Québec. I don't know what that fancy title translates into, but she is the person who advises students on their education and training: which schools to apply for, what materials and prerequisites are needed, things like that. She's quite knowledgeable and helpful. I had already met with her and she helped me with my C.V. and cover letter as well as giving me a long list of community centres where I might be able to apply for work.
A lot of immigrants come to Canada with certain levels of education and training. They usually need to augment their training with some official Canadian education. In many cases, this is just a case of snobbery, fear and greed. Many of the immigrants come from rigorous education and backgrounds in their fields. Our professional organizations just refuse to recognize them. That's why you have a lot of Indian architects driving cabs and venezuelan engineers working in restaurants. Fortunately, in Québec at least, a great deal of their education is subsidized. It still costs them in time to "update" their training (and lost wages during that time), but they at least have access and won't go into debt. I tell you this to explain why the Conseillière came to talk to our class.
Here's how the school system works, according to the Conseillière:
Primary school is the first 6 years of school. I don't know if they have kindgarten.
Secondary is the next 5 years. Students in Québec stay in high school a year less than students in the States or Western Canada. When you graduate, you receive a DES (Diplome des études secondaire)
After Secondary school, is where it gets interesting. If you are inclined to go to work right away, you can go to un école de formation professionelle. This is a trades school, as we know it. There is an extensive network of these schools here, with studies from computer repair to baking to woodworking and everything in between. The programs usually last from 6 months to a year with a period of apprenticeship afterwards. Employment is quite controlled here and you usually need a diploma from a trade school in order to get a job in one of those fields. The courses are quite cheap, ranging from $100 to $400 for the entire thing and judging by the competence and skill of at least the construction workers I've seen here I'd say fairly well taught.
If you want to continue your education, you go on to a CEGEP. These are sort of like junior colleges, except that they are required if you want to go to university and they offer a range of different degrees, depending on what you want to do. The most common degrees are the DEC's. There is a two year DEC which is what you take if you want to go on to university. You take a lot of general humanities and science courses, leaning towards whatever you may major in in university. The three-year DEC is more of a professiona degree, usually leading to a job upon graduation. Police officers, computer programmers, lab technicians, nurses all take the 3-year degree.
Finally, there is a shorter AEC which lasts from 6 months to 1 year and is used to specialize in something particular from another field or is often the accelerated courses for immigrants who already have a degreee in a given field. A lot of professionals get AEC's in a particular aspect of their job as continuing education.
At the higher levels, the university system is the same as we know it in the west and the states, with bachelor's, master's, phd's and all the elitism and atavistic hierarchies that go along with those things.
What I found exciting about this system is the number of options that are open to young people. They are quite uptight about certification and training here, so it's tough to get a job in a field without getting the proper training. On the other hand, the training is readily available and encouraged. There are numerous government organizations and NGO's that work just to guide students and help them find what they want. There are many schools as well. There also doesn't seem to be the same snobbery around education or the same divide. Part of it is that people are better educated generally, so you find well-read, politically astute people at every profession. But it also seems that the culture and the government associates a level of pride with any kind of work. The government employees who do all the manual labor, garbage workers, parks employees, street cleaners, etc. are literally called blue collars (les cols bleus) and they wear shirts exclaiming their pride in what they do. There is also a rich tradition of artisanship and crafts here. Many artists come from a trades background and use those skills in their work. There is a sculptor who lives down the block from me who used to be a carpenter and now works with a lot of concrete and wood. Craftsmen are treated with a lot of respect.
It's not heaven here, however, and there are certainly unhappy and unemployed people. But again, you get a sense that the government and the society as a whole, is basically in agreement that educational opportunity is crucial to life and they really push it. I find it incredibly inspiring. I was very fortunate in my own education. I went to a very rigorous private high school and I was taught well. But when I got out, my only options seemed to me at the time to be continuing on in college or just get a job. Among my friends, it seemed that those of the middle class and above went to college and those below didn't. And of those who didn't, few of them got any other kind of education. They either went into the service industry or some kind of resource work, like tree-planting, logging or construction. It basically reinforced and continued existing class divisions. What would they have done if they had many options of 1-3 year programs where the training was really practical and they had a good chance of finding work when they were done? I myself may have not gone on to my history degree had I been presented with those kinds of options.