A trend is emerging in education in Canada: We are recognizing that early childhood education is beneficial for children, for families, for everyone.
Provinces and territories are focusing more attention on programs for preschoolers and the federal government is prepared to invest billions of dollars in child care in the coming decade.
The Early Childhood Education Report 2017, released today by my colleagues and me at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, shows that Canada has made great strides since a 2004 study by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) exposed the country as a policy laggard.
Our report finds more than half of Canadian youngsters now attend an early education program before starting school. Governments are paying more attention to what goes on inside programs, with a focus on children’s safety and caregiver training, and schools are stepping up to offer more programs for preschoolers.
At the same time, the report underscores ongoing challenges for community-based child care.
National early learning program
In the OECD’s damning study, Canada came last in a review of early education across 20 member states. Our children were least likely to attend an early childhood education (ECE) program, and those offered were under-resourced and mediocre.
There is nothing like international shame to focus the mind of children’s advocates and, ultimately, policy makers.
The federal government responded with a national plan for early learning and child care, which had the provinces cutting ribbons on new childcare centres. In 2006, the Harper government came in with its own ideas about child care and the fledgling initiative ended. Dumped by their federal partner, the provinces nevertheless soldiered on.
By 2014, a cross-country scan of early childhood services found the provinces and territories reaching a number of benchmarks, based on the OECD’s prescription to improve their standing.
That year spending jumped to $10.7 billion, from $2.5 billion in 2004. More kids were attending early learning programs and their quality was improving.
Prince Edward Island ranks first
The Early Childhood Education Report 2017 (ECER 2017) is the third and latest study to assess Canada’s early childhood services against OECD benchmarks that define government oversight, funding, access, program quality and the rigour of accountability mechanisms.
The results are calculated from detailed provincial and territorial profiles compiled by the researchers and reviewed by government officials. Researchers and officials co-determine the scores.
Prince Edward Island ranks first in ECER 2017, with 11 points out of a maximum of 15. The lowest score, at five points, is from Nunavut. The average score is eight.
Investments in young children flat-lined
While jurisdictions added to their ECE budgets — spending $11.7 billion in 2017 — as a percentage of overall spending, allocations for young children have flat-lined since the last assessment in 2014.
Quebec remained steady, devoting 4.4 per cent of its 2107 budget to early education, while Nunavut, with the largest proportion of children under five, spent only 0.9 per cent.
The report sets three per cent of budget as the minimum target for ECE: A modest threshold for an age group that makes up between five per cent and more than 13 per cent of provincial and territorial populations.
The Canada-wide tally doesn’t include the first instalment of Ottawa’s $7.5 billion set to flow in 2018 as part of a 10-year agreement to improve access to early education.
Six of the 13 jurisdictions have signed bilateral agreements with the federal government, a necessary condition to receiving the first round of funding. Most have committed to topping up the federal infusion with their own funds.
The next edition of the ECER is scheduled for 2020, coinciding with the next payments to the provinces from Ottawa. Because the report doesn’t only measure how much jurisdictions spend but also whether they spend wisely, evidence from phase one of the agreements will be essential to shaping the next phases.
Schools biggest providers of preschool education
The report identifies other trends:
- Per capita spending for ECE programs in schools is three times greater than spending on child care.
- On average, kindergarten teachers earn twice as much as early childhood educators working in child care.
- There are over one million child care spaces across Canada. Over half are for-profit.
- Schools provide the majority of ECE.
- Overall 95 per cent of five-year-olds and 40 per cent of four-year-olds get their early education in school.
Kindergarten is not a replacement for child care, but it appears to provide enough care so that when these programs match the full school day, mothers enter the workforce at the same rate as they do when their children are in elementary school.
Canada’s unfinished business
Jurisdictions are wise to use schools to expand early learning. Education is already equipped. By contrast, outside of Quebec, child care reaches only 25 per cent of children. High fees exclude most families from accessing child care in all parts of Canada, including Quebec, and child care suffers from staffing shortages and quality deficiencies.
It would cost much less for schools to grow down to include younger children, and expand hours to cover parents’ working needs, than it would to transform child care into a universal, high-quality social program.
A recent analysis by the Conference Board of Canada calculates how expanding ECE would increase mothers’ labour force participation, improve child outcomes and reduce income inequality.
It recommends provinces and territories ensure all children have at least two years of full-day preschool and expand programming for younger children as resources permit.
This would bring Canada in line with its OECD counterparts.
Clear benefits into adulthood
Providing early education for every child in this way would be a big public spending item. But nearly 60 years of experimental studies indicate clear benefits for children that last into adulthood.
Canadian economists calculate the cost-to-benefit ratio at between $2 and $7 returned for every $1 spent, depending on the population studied.
Yet behind the numbers lives early education’s most important role: Offering young children their own space and place to be children.