The Toronto Globe and Mail’s six part series, The Daycare Project, has put Early Years Education back where it belongs on the public policy agenda. From October 19 to 26, Erin Anderssen and her team did a masterful job presenting the challenge facing the Canadian and provincial governments attempting to provide safe, secure, high quality daycare and early years education.
Since the federal child education initiative, developed by the Hon. Ken Dryden (costed at $5 billion over 4 years), was abandoned in 2006 by the incoming Stephen Harper government, provinces have been scrambling to come up with plans of their own. Access to high quality, affordable child care presents serious problems for ordinary working families. Even today, the shortage of government-regulated space remains among Canada’s most pressing child-care problems. Across the country, families are forced to rely on the “grey market” – and, Anderssen discovered, “leaving their children with caregivers who may not even have first-aid training, paying whatever is asked, and hoping for the best.”
Proponents of universal state funded early learning, championed by Margaret McCain and the Canadian Council for Early Child Development, are doggedly determined in making their case. While The Globe and Mail series had a universal publicly-funded early learning tilt, it also demonstrated quite conclusively that the Quebec model of $7.00 per day early learning costing $2.3 billion annually is cost prohibitive in other provinces. Indeed, Quebec’s current plan accounts for two-thirds of the $3.7 billion now being spent by all governments.
The Daycare Project series went beyond simply analyzing, once again, the public policy conundrum, and attempted to look for successful models that might be applicable in other countries or provinces. A survey of daycare regimes in seven different countries seemed to give the nod to that of Sweden, a universal, affordable, education-based system developed over a 20 year period from 1970 until the early 1990s. The Swedish model is highlighted, but no mention whatsoever is made of Finland where early education begins at age 7. Most educational comparisons of Sweden and Finland tend to highlight the superior performance results achieved by Finnish students.
When it came to Canada, The Globe and Mail, for once, looked to a province other than Ontario for its exemplar. “For a top-notch child care system close to home,” Anderssen stated, “Canadians should look to the nation’s smallest province.” In choosing PEI as the best Canadian model, the series ruled out Quebec as being too expensive and instead endorsed a model combining public and private services, but largely architected by Kathleen Flanagan, an OISE student of Dr. Charles Pascal. In short, the PEI model is Ontario, modified and improved.
The Ten Lessons presented by Anderssen to guide the national policy discussion pay lip-service to the $7 a day Quebec model, and are drawn overwhelmingly from the PEI experience over the past two or three years. “Good education and a modern family policy can start long before kids arrive at kindergarten,” she concludes, before presenting this laundry list of lessons:
1. Make the economic case clear
2. Call it education
3. Create enough regulated care spaces
4. Make fees affordable, consistent – and capped
5. Train the teachers – and pay them for it
6. Location, location, location
7. Infant care is complicated
8. After-school care shouldn’t be an afterthought
9. Parents are part of the system
10. Set a target, track your progress
Most of the identified “lessons” are sound, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that the PEI model is scalable. It’s a tiny province with a population of 140,000, one-tenth the size of Montreal, with fewer than 6,000 children under five years of age. The total cost of its early childhood education initiative is only $7 million, compared to the more than $2.3 billion Quebec child care system. Declining school enrollments also mean that PEI schools have plenty of surplus space, unlike most of Canada’s fast growing suburban school districts.
Omitting Ontario from the cross-national comparison was quite instructive. While the Ontario Liberal Government has been quick to proclaim the success of its $1.5 billion full-day kindergarten program, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. By imposing full-day kindergarten, that province has incited much opposition, mainly centred on its full steam ahead bulldozing strategy.
Why did Ontario become such an early learning battleground? Private and coop day care operators facing dislocation have found common cause with the Institute of Marriage and Family in Canada. The universalists, spearheaded by Dr. Pascal, hit a brick wall in the form of Don Drummond whose 2012 Austerity Report dismissed full-day kindergarten as an unaffordable social program. In addition, family values advocates have found the weak spot in the Ontario plan – the by-passing of the family in the continuum of early child care. In many ways, there is much more to be learned from Ontario than from Quebec and PEI on the matter of achieving better early childhood education.
Where might Canadian education policy makers look for models of how to improve early childhood education in Canada? Why are the Quebec and Ontario models no longer seen as viable, affordable policy options? Do provinces like Nova Scotia have more to learn from Ontario and Finland than from PEI? Where do parents and families fit in the proposed childcare models? In simplest terms, who is framing the national early learning debate, and for what real purpose?