Start school at 2, study urges
TheStar.com – news
Published On Tue Nov 22 2011. Laurie Monsebraaten and Kristin Rushowy, Staff Reporters
Every Canadian child should have access to publicly funded early childhood education starting at age 2 in their local school, says a new report based on an “avalanche of evidence” that shows how such programming can transform kids’ lives.
“Education is well-established and a well-valued system within our country, and it’s a place we feel it should be attached to, to build on,” said Margaret Norrie McCain, who co-authored the report with the late Dr. Fraser Mustard and Kerry McCuaig.
“We need to think of building education downward, but at the same time not ‘schoolifying’ kids but stimulating kids” through optional, play-based programs.
While the federal government ended the national child care plan in 2007, that hasn’t stopped the provinces from making progress “by stealth,” says McCuaig.
The Early Years Study 3 was obtained by the Star in advance of its Tuesday release. In an exclusive interview in October, Mustard, who died last week, said the recommendations should be easy for Ontario, which is already implementing full-day kindergarten for 4- and 5-year-olds.
“I would come down to 3-year-olds, then 2-year-olds and 1-year-olds,” he said.
“I’d move right down, and I’d pay (early childhood educators) well, and if you are telling me we don’t have the money, I’d make the point that the risk for physical and mental health problems is actually set in early development.”
Rather than starting a whole new program from scratch, the report argues that schools should also “become the centre of the community for families with supports and programs from pregnancy on.”
Despite the cancellation of a fledgling federal program in 2007 and Ottawa’s refusal to put up any new money, the number of child care spaces across Canada has grown by more than 20 per cent.
Half of all children regularly attend regulated child care centres or school-based kindergarten and preschool programs and most provinces could provide universal access with staged prudent investments, the report says.
“You could say we are already halfway there!” it adds.
More children are involved in early childhood education than ever before, says the report, noting 66 per cent of mothers with young children are in the workforce.
However, the split between oversight and delivery still requires too many parents to piece together arrangements to cover their work schedules, it says.
Provinces have embraced the overwhelming social, economic and scientific evidence favouring investments in early-childhood education and are steaming ahead with plans and programs, says the report.
McCain said “the message echoes from one coast to the other,” adding that “if the federal government jumped on board, Canada would be ready to explode in this area and be a model for the world, certainly for North America.”
Instead, between the end of parental leave and the beginning of school, working parents across the country are abandoned to a patchwork of often costly and low-quality care for their children.
That’s when “supports break down and public policy is confused about what to do,” says the report. “Ensuring that all young children enjoy the best preschool that we can devise is Canada’s unfinished business.”
One example the report cites is Toronto’s Bruce Junior Public School, which was slated to close but instead turned into a pilot project showcasing how parenting centres, child care and kindergarten could be combined under one roof and be cost-effective.
The Bruce experience, along with other similar examples across the country, convinced Mustard and McCain that schools should become the community hubs they recommend.
“We need to turn our family policy junkyard into a human development system,” the report says.
“By viewing the school as a family centre not only for students during the school day, but also for families during non-school hours, we can have an early childhood system that responds to the new Canadian mother and her children, as well as the expectant mother, the at-home father and dual-income professionals and their children.”
Early learning progress
In the absence of any comparable national data about the quality of early childhood education, the study’s co-authors have created a new index that rates provinces against five standards. Three provinces — Quebec, PEI and Manitoba — received a passing grade. Ontario was ranked fourth. It will be updated every few years.
Nationally, the report notes:
• Participation in early childhood education has more than doubled, from 20 per cent of kids in 2004 to 52 per cent of kids today
• Federal/provincial child care spending has doubled from $2.4 billion in 2004 to $4.5 billion today (covering children up to age 12)
• Spending on kindergarten has tripled from $1 billion to $3 billion today
• Since the last Early Years Study in 2007, the number of provinces offering full-day kindergarten has jumped from three to six
• All provinces are planning or have implemented specialized early childhood education curricula and four provinces have a single ministry overseeing both child care and education
Source: Early Years Study 3
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