CHAPTER 5: Rethinking Early Childhood Education
Good Education Cares and Good Care Educates
Families raising young children need all the support they can get. Canada does a fair job in areas of public education, maternal and child health care, and the Canada Child Benefit. However, compared to other OECD countries, we’re in the middle to low range for family support. A breakdown in support happens between the end of parental leave and the beginning of elementary school, a period during which public policy is confused about what to do. Is preschool primarily a child-minding service designed for working parents? Or, is it important for child development? In fact, it is both.
Linking Early Childhood Learning to Public Education Makes Sense
When public policy views working parents as the primary beneficiary of child care, it is at risk of becoming a for-profit service plagued with quality and cost concerns. The solution? An early childhood system that is linked to public education. Public education in Canada is underutilized. Building child and family centres into existing school facilities would be less costly and more efficient than creating an entirely new early years system from the ground up. A natural starting point would be the implementation across Canada of full-day kindergarten for four year olds. Including younger children in public education, along with a comprehensive 18-month parental leave policy, would bridge the gap between parental leave and formal schooling.
This idea of linking early childhood education with the public education system was first introduced in Early Years Study 2 (2007). The report called for a break down of legislative, administrative, and funding silos to create a consolidated program that works better for families. Recommendations led to the introduction of full-day kindergarten (FDK) in Ontario starting at age 4 in 2010. FDK from age 4 is also offered in the Northwest Territories and is being rolled out in Nova Scotia. Kindergarten is currently the only universal early education program offered in Canada.
How Canada’s Current Child Care System is Failing Parents
There is no doubt that quality child care is game changer for all Canadian families. But, when it comes to the care of young children, parents get what they can, not what they want. While two-thirds of parents across Canada regularly use some form of child care, access is unable to meet demand. Except in Quebec*, licensed care is expensive, and the cost has increased at two to three times the rate of inflation. In Toronto, parents pay a whopping $1150 per month for preschool making it impossible to afford for most low and middle-income families. The quality of early learning services is directly related to parents’ ability to pay. Lower- and middle-income earners often make do with home care that offers poorer quality learning experiences than centre-based programs.
*Parents pay under $200/month for subsidized child care fees in Quebec
Child Care Subsidies Benefit Parents and Children
Public investment matters. Jurisdictions, provinces, and territories that offer expanded access to low cost child care have been a boon for families. Quebec now boasts the highest female labour participation rate among rich countries. In Alberta, additional funding has been received by 122 out of 831 child care centres for kids 5 and under. This has helped reduce the daily fee for parents, enhanced services to include infants and children with special needs, and improved educator training and compensation. By removing barriers to low-income families qualifying for child care subsidies in Prince Edward Island, the government has opened up opportunities for temporary or contract workers.
When it Comes to ECE, Quality and Hours Count
Availability and cost are important drivers for parents, but for kids it’s what happens inside the program that counts most. Studies have shown that good quality early childhood education has a significant impact on a child’s development, especially starting around age 2. Researchers at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) discovered that 4 and 5 year olds who attended full-day programs scored higher on self-regulation, reading, writing, and numeracy knowledge than those who attended for just a half-day. They were also more likely to meet provincial academic expectations in Grade 3. So, how long do kids need to spend in child care to reap the benefits? International evidence shows that positive outcomes are most pronounced when children attend preschool for at least 20 hours/week, for two years or more.
Attracting and Retaining Good Educators is a Public Policy Challenge
More parents need child care due to increasing demands in the workforce, but licensed child care centres can’t keep up. There is a critical shortage of qualified early childhood educators and turnover is high. This impacts children’s learning. Part of the challenge around staffing is due to wages and working conditions. There are disparities between educators working in public schools (such as full-day kindergarten) and those who work in centre-based settings. Another problem? The lack of respect for a role that shapes children’s foundational skills for the rest of their lives.
Higher levels of education for educators who interact with children would lead to higher pay, help to professionalize the workforce, and ultimately lead to better quality applicants.
The Case for Universal Early Childhood Education
When it comes to early education, quality and access are equally important. Current piecemeal solutions such as part-day programs and wage and operating subsidies are simply not working. When it comes to GDP spending on early learning, Canada ranks in the bottom third among its OECD counterparts. Central to any innovation is rethinking child care as a ‘babysitting’ service for working parents to a child-centred system that is formally connected to public education and available to all.