Access to early childhood programs is as important as primary education

Posted on December 20, 2017 in Child & Family Policy Context – Opinion
December 19, 2017.   CRAIG ALEXANDER

The federal government has made it clear that it wants to foster inclusive economic growth, which includes reducing inequality and removing barriers to disadvantaged groups, such as women. Provincial governments would also like to achieve these noble goals. Greater investment in early childhood education (ECE)can be a springboard to meeting such objectives.

Canada does a good job of ensuring that all five-year-old children have access to early childhood education through kindergarten programs. But educational enrolment for children under 5 falls substantially below the average of other advanced economies. Canada’s enrolment rate for children ages 2 to 4 is 58 per cent, compared with the average of close to 70 per cent in comparable advanced countries. In countries such as France and Belgium, the enrolment of children in this age group exceeds an estimated 90 per cent. The Canadian ratio is even lower if one excludes Quebec’s high rate of enrolment. Bringing Canada’s enrolment rate for children ages 2 to 4 up to the average of other countries would put 134,000 more children in ECE programs. Achieving enrolment levels consistent with the best performers would result in almost 400,000 more children attending ECE.

Canada provides parental leave to all families and all children have access to primary education. Between the end of parental leave and the start of school, however, parents are left to their own resources to provide for their child’s development, a period when much brain development occurs. This gap is an important dimension of inequality within Canadian society today.

According to our research, children who receive effective curriculum and play-based early years education – through kindergarten, prekindergarten or licensed child-care programs – develop better cognitive abilities, and math and reading skills. The improved educational outcomes, in turn, boost skills development and earnings later in life. Kids that attend ECE classes also tend to have better self-regulation by the age of 5. As a result, children from wealthier families that can afford high-quality early education are more school ready and better prepared to benefit from public education.

ECE can also boost female labour participation. If Canada increased ECE rates to the top-performing countries in the OECD, an additional 76,500 women would likely enter the work force. Increased labour-force participation would boost household incomes, which in turn generates greater spending and higher GDP. As well, provincial and federal governments would collect more tax revenues. Moreover, a greater number of women in the labour market would help to address some of the demographic pressures from an aging work force.

Our analysis shows that investments in ECE, which bring more mothers into the work force, will result in a more equitable distribution of family incomes. In 2015, Canadian families with young children where the mother didn’t work made up 43 per cent of low-income households (those below $36,000), compared with just 12 per cent of those with working mothers. Introducing extended ECE programming would lower income inequality for families with young children and help reduce poverty.

The most important dimensions for policy makers to tackle are enrolment rates and the duration that children receive ECE programming. These are key factors tied to better future academic scores, and they are the areas where Canada falls well below the standards in other advanced countries.

We recommend that provinces not currently offering full-day prekindergarten and kindergarten to all children aged 4 and 5 should draft and implement a plan to provide these services. All Canadian children deserve equal access to ECE regardless of what province or territory they live in. Provinces where educational programs are already available to children aged 4 and 5 should plan to extend the provision to three-year-olds. The remaining provinces and territories should work toward matching this objective after they have implemented full-day access for four- and five-year-olds.

Ensuring all Canadian children aged 3 to 5 have access to full-day education would come at a cost. Complete coverage for ages 4 to 5 is an estimated $2-billion in annual operating costs and $1.8-billion in one-time construction costs. However, the economic benefit derived from this investment would exceed the outlay. Our analysis suggests that the long-term benefit could be as high as $6 for every dollar invested.

The bottom line is that investments in play-based high-quality ECE can help children from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed. It can also help improve income for low-income families and help support women in the labour market. And, it would remove a key source of inequity. Research suggests that early access to ECE should be considered as important as access to primary education.

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