Readiness to learn upon entering school is now recognized as critical to the success of students. Since 1998-99, an Early Development Instrument (EDI) has been used to measure child development across five domains: physical health and well-being, social knowledge and competence, emotional health/maturity, language and cognitive development, and general knowledge and communications skills. Yet recent Canadian national and provincial surveys, conducted by McMaster University’s Offord Centre for Child Studies, continue to show that one in four children (26%) are ‘vulnerable’ in one or more areas of development before entering Grade 1.
The latest province to embrace the Early Child Development movement is Nova Scotia. In late November 2014, its recently renamed Department of Education and Early Child Development became the nineth (second last) province to conduct and release its EDI survey results. To virtually no one’s surprise, some 26.8% of pupils entering primary school face learning challenges. Physical health and well-being posed the biggest hurdle for kids and in three of the province’s eight school boards, Tri-County RSB , South Shore RSB, and the Strait RSB, one in three primary schoolers (33.6 to 40.8%) showed vulnerability in at least one area of development.
The Nova Scotia statistics, based upon teacher surveys in 2012-13, only confirmed what many previous reports have shown — that Canadian provinces lag behind other developed countries when it comes to the state of early childhood development and care. It also begged the critical question –what’s standing in the way of tackling this fundamental educational policy matter?
Early childhood education across Canada is still mostly provided in piecemeal fashion. In most provinces, except for Quebec, their is a gap between the end of parental leave and the start of formal schooling, during which parents are left on their own. Where private day care is available, it is often prohibitively expensive and alternative cooperative day care is usually in short supply. The quality of “child care” is highly irregular, judging from provincial regulatory reports and periodic shutdowns.
While the federal and provincial governments in 2011 provided over $11 billion of funding, spending on the ECE sector still lagged behind that of other advanced nations. In November 2012, TD Economics estimated that it would take another $3 to $4 billion in investment to bring Canada up to the average of other industrialized countries. Across Canada, of the $7.5 billion spent by provinces and territories, the allocations averaged only 1.53% of their total budgets, ranging from 0.59% in Nunavut to 4.67% in Quebec.
Passionate advocates for universal ECE are fond of claiming that it works miracles and has substantial long-term dollar benefits. Most studies, largely funded by Child Development or Child Welfare organizations, estimate that the benefits of early learning far outweigh the costs. For every dollar invested, the claimed benefits range from roughly 1.5 to almost 3 dollars, with the ratio rising to double digits for disadvantaged children. Such investments do save us later in terms of the longer-term expenses for juvenile justice, jails, welfare and income supports. Even so, quantifying these benefits is not an exact science, in spite of the claims of advocates.
Early childhood education initiatives tend to be expensive and run into cost over-runs. Ontario’s full day Kindergarten program, beset by escalating costs and overcrowded sites, is a case in point. A more modest venture in Prince Edward Island is proving to be more successful. The soaring costs of Quebec’s universal program are, however, enough to deter late adopters like Nova Scotia.
Quebec’s current $7-a-day early childhood program is so costly that it may not be sustainable in its current form. Since its inception in 1997, the $2.7 billion program has become what Konrad Yakabusky recently termed “a sacred cow.” Proposing to raise the daily rates to $20 for those earning over $50,000 has recently sparked a political firestorm. Pointing out that Quebec’s subsidized daycare sites have much higher child to staff ratios ( 5:1 vs. 3:1 to 20:1 vs. 12:1) compared to other provinces gets you nowhere with young working parents. It’s also hard to prove that the Quebec program has improved the employment rate of women of child-rearing age.
Early childhood development still deserves to be identified and acted upon as an educational priority. Public spending on early childhood care and education continues to lag and we still rank last (at 0.5% of GDP) among comparable European and Anglo-speaking countries. Looking at total spending, including child payments, parental leave benefits, and child care support, we remain 17% below the OECD average. Parents, except those in Quebec, pay 50% of the program costs, fourth highest among the OECD countries. Now that our federal treasury is back to surplus, early learning should be a much higher national priority than doling out special, targeted tax exemptions, expressly designed to snare votes.
What’s standing in the way of a more committed, robust investment in Early Child Development at both the national and provincial levels? Given the countless reports demonstrating the learning challenges facing young children, how much longer can it be ignored or subject to underfunded, piecemeal public fixes? Whether we decide to go universal or to target our early years investments, isn’t it time to take on the fundamental public policy issue?