Early French immersion beginning in Grade 1 has created a segregated school system in New Brunswick, Education Minister Kelly Lamrock told angry parents Thursday night — and that's why he's axing it.

Lamrock defended his plan in front of about 300 concerned parents and educators Thursday evening at a CBC townhall in Moncton, saying he had to think about the majority of children in elementary school who are not in French immersion and are doing poorly academically.

The minister blamed their lack of progress, in part, on the unusually high number of special needs children in the regular stream.

"Every kid who struggles winds up in core French. Too many kids with difficulties wind up in one class, none of them get the attention they deserve and, as a result, they fall through the cracks and we remain last in literacy," Lamrock said.

He said the 20 per cent of children who are enrolled French immersion beginning in Grade 1 are doing well academically, while the other 80 per cent in the regular system are lagging behind.

In fact, Lamrock said, students in the regular stream, with core French instruction, score the worst grades in Canada on national tests.

'Falls right through the cracks'

"When I go to my son's school, I see his French immersion class with 17 or 18 kids, of whom none were on special education plans. And then I visit the core French class. In a class of 22 kids, 10 might be on special education plans, and if a kid struggles a little bit, he falls right through the cracks."

This fall, Lamrock wants schools to concentrate on English and math in the early years, and French immersion will only be offered in the later years.

The government plans to replace early immersion next fall with an intensive French-language course that begins in Grade 5.

Parents at the townhall booed Lamrock every time he mentioned cutting early French immersion.

Lamrock told those parents to start worrying about the other 80 per cent of children who are struggling in the classroom.

"I know it's tough for the 20 per cent who have something that's working well to accept change. But I believe that we can change and let the other 80 per cent in," he said.

'Economic issue'

Parent Dwayne Hayse, whose youngest child will be affected by the new plan, wondered why students in French immersion have to suffer because the province can't provide enough resources for the regular stream.

"I understand what you want to accomplish for the other 80 per cent, but not at the expense of the 20 per cent that are wanting to take early immersion at this point in time," Hayse said at the townhall.

Joe Dicks, a professor who specializes in second language instruction, said the minister's plan will make it harder for Anglophones to learn French.

"I think what we've done here essentially is we've lowered the bar," Dicks said.

He accused the minister of just wanting to save money.

"It's an economic issue and a lack of resources in the school system," Dicks said.

Lamrock denied that charge, saying that by making everybody take intensive French in Grade 5, more students will eventually continue on with French immersion.

Tough choice

The minister said it was a tough choice, but he's tired of seeing New Brunswick students coming in last in national test scores.

Joan Netton, a professor who helped create the intensive French program, told Lamrock she can't support his decision.

"I support intensive French, yes, because that's going to make a big difference to the core program. Unfortunately, I can't support the withdrawal of early immersion," she said.

Earlier in the day, Lamrock was booed and jeered at the New Brunswick legislature in Fredericton when a crowd of angry parents confronted him to protest the cut.