Quebec Ombudsman finds 'disconnect' between education services and students with learning difficulties

Quebec's ombudsman, Marc-André Dowd, makes 11 recommendations to the Education Ministry to ensure educational services are based on student needs.

Ombudsman makes 11 recommendations to Education Ministry

A female teacher stands at the front of a classroom as several students seated at their desks raise their hand.
Based on the report, funding allocation, staff shortages and responsibilities that aren't clearly defined, contribute to insufficient support for students with learning difficulties. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Quebec's public education system is failing to meet the needs of elementary school students with adjustment and learning difficulties, according to a report from the province's ombudsman released Monday.

In a 58-page report, Quebec's ombudsman, Marc-André Dowd, makes 11 recommendations to the Education Ministry, namely reviewing the funding model for complementary educational services to ensure it is based on student needs and establishing a minimum threshold for services offered.

The report comes after the ombudsman noted recurrent complaints in the spring of 2018 from school staff and parents signalling long delays and interruptions to educational services for young students with adaptation and learning difficulties and the costs associated with turning to the private sector for support.

"At a crucial stage in their development, elementary school students don't have all the attention needed from the education system to allow them to reach their full potential," Dowd said at a news conference Monday.

"We're far from the definition of adapted services for students."

The Education Act stipulates that every Quebec resident is entitled to free elementary education, including special educational services, until they turn 18 — or 21, for those with disabilities outlined by the act.

Conducted between 2019 and 2020, the investigation collected testimonies through an online questionnaire from 827 school workers offering complementary educational services and 830 parents of children experiencing adjustment and learning difficulties.

Dowd noted that because of the system's limited funding model, in some cases, adapted services for students would end once a child obtained a passing grade.

"Receiving a passing grade is not a scale for concluding that a child does not have or no longer has adjustment or learning difficulties," the ombudsman said.

Undefined staff roles

Quebec's deputy ombudsman, Hélène Vallières, who also attended the news conference, told CBC News the Education Ministry doesn't have a clear picture of the scope of complementary services missing in elementary schools.

"There is a disconnect between the real needs of students and the resources for meeting them," she said.

The gap in knowledge is in part due to school staff's "poorly defined" roles and consequently a lack of understanding of their responsibilities, the report reads.

Staff shortages, Vallières said, are an additional issue exacerbated because support for students with special needs is funded on a short-term basis, leading to the creation of precarious jobs.

"There is really a need to better plan the resources … from a long-term perspective in order to really ensure that the staff you have, you are able to retain, and you will also be able to give them proper conditions to do their work," she said.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge agrees that the current model for funding special education services is flawed.

He added that a new funding model will come into effect in 2023, which "could free up 375,000 hours of bureaucracy for direct student services."

The Quebec Ombudsman is calling on the Education Ministry to provide a plan and timetable for implementing its recommendations, no later than Sept. 1, 2022, and to follow up on progress made by Jan. 30, 2023.

with files from Lauren McCallum, la Presse Canadienne and Radio-Canada