Tag Archives: early childhood development

Valuable lessons from La belle province

What price doth the future demand?

What price doth the future demand?

Although Quebec’s Charter of Values is not, by any sane measure, a beacon of wise public policy, at least two of its civic programs indisputably are: its public child care initiative and its school system.

Fifteen years ago, La belle province launched universal, full-day, $7-per-diem early childhood education, a program unlike any other in Canada and one that a recent Globe and Mail report described as a “a wildly ambitious experiment in society-building – a controversial $2.2-billion bet that better daycare can not only transform child development but also vastly improve the prospects of women and the poor, and build a better labour force.”

Today, 15 years later, Quebec teenagers are among the most mathematically proficient secondary schoolers in the world; on par with their counterparts in Japan, and not far off the mark set by those in Macau-China. 

Considering that the rest of Canada declined precipitously in the 2012 Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development survey, compared with results from 2006 and 2009, it’s hard to escape the conclusion the Quebec’s structured and integrated approach – a “whole child” concept that provides both consistent and standardized learning opportunities from pre-kindergarten to post-grade school – is actually working.

That may come as a great disappointment to libertarian brand warriors, both in and out  of government, who believe that schools should reflect the diversity and often unequal capabilities of the “customers” they serve. 

For many, the Bush-era mantra of “no child left behind” means literally that: by hook or by crook, all kids matriculate either to university or into the workforce, regardless of their respective abilities to make change from a five dollar bill or find the square root of four (spoiler alert: it’s two).

That’s one reason why falling high school drop-out rates in Canada provides only false hope to educators, parents and employers. A far more serious problem is the widening skills gap – a complex problem that many experts say is exacerbated by rickety educational apparatus across the country.

“Jobs are being created, but we simply don’t have enough skills in the right place at the right time,” Alistair Cox, the chief executive of international recruiting firm Hays PLC told the Globe in October. “Sadly, there is a lot of friction in the system, which will make [the jobs mismatch] worse as the economy improves. . .Companies are really struggling to find the high-end niche skills that they need for the jobs that are available.”

Added the Globe writer: “One problem in filling the skills gap is that educational institutions take so long to redirect their resources to the jobs that are opening up, while immigration rules are being ‘tuned to mass and unskilled migration issues, as opposed to highly skilled migration,’ Mr. Cox said.”

It may well be as Paul Cappon, a senior fellow at the graduate school of international and public policy at the University of Ottawa, tells the Globe this week: “Canada will continue its decline in all international rankings in the education field until it develops a national strategy – including standards and shared learning outcomes for all age and grade levels.”

But Quebec’s example suggests that such ambitions are worthy. They even become workable when you consider the economic impact.

“We estimate that in 2008 universal access to low-fee childcare in Quebec induced nearly 70,000 more mothers to hold jobs than if no such program existed – an increase of 3.8 per cent in women employment,” concluded a report by Canadian economists Pierre Fortin, Luc Godbout and Suxie St.-Cerny a few years ago. “By our calculation, Quebec’s domestic income was higher by about 1.7 per cent ($5 billion) as a result. We find that the tax-transfer return the federal and Quebec governments get from the program significantly exceeds its cost.”

Indeed, given the larger and longer-term contributions of a national model of early childhood learning and disciplined public education to the country’s prosperity and competitiveness, any program would be a bargain at thrice the price of Quebec’s.

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Learning life’s lessons early and often

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Apart from global warming, few issues in Canada provide readier cannon fodder for partisan warfare than early childhood education. That’s because, when it comes to her kids, every mum is willing to fight to the death on the battlefields of ideology.

When should the state intervene with structured pedagogy? When a tyke is five years old, or four or three? When she’s a toddler? What’s wrong with private daycare? For that matter, what’s wrong keeping your youngster tethered to your apron strings for as long as possible?

Politicians on the right side of the continuum love to make hay with this. They frame the debate, literally, as a motherhood issue. And the strategy works to marvelous effect within a certain important segment of the voting public.

The reform-minded Tory team – before it became the federal government – launched a terrific salvo into the camp of the reigning Liberals in 2005 when, as the CBC reported at the time, “Stephen Harper unveiled a Conservative plan on Monday that would give parents of young children $100 a month for child care. The. . .leader made the announcement at a noisy day-care centre in Ottawa. ‘This is just like a caucus meeting,’ he said on a campaign stop for the Jan. 23 federal election.”

The item continued: “Addressing the challenges parents face in raising kids while trying to earn a living, Harper said, ‘The Conservative plan for families will help parents find that balance.’ The Conservatives’ two-part plan includes money to help create child-care spaces as well as the $100-a-month ‘choice in child-care allowance.’ With the new allowance, families would receive $1,200 a year for each child under the age of six. . . .In fact, the only people who should be making these choices are parents, not politicians, not the government.’”

In fact, all the evidence suggested, contrarily, that early childhood education –  universally accessible, structured, and integrated into the public school system – is a boon to kids, their parents and, in fact, society at large.

A new study – reportedly the largest of its kind in Canada – seems to bear this out. The report, released earlier this week, by Queen’s and McMaster Universities found that children who attend full-day kindergarten are “better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school” than those who don’t.

That’s according to a blurb on the Ontario government’s website, which also states: “Comparisons of children with two years of FDK instruction and children with no FDK instruction showed that FDK reduced risks in social competence development from 10.5 per cent to 5.2 per cent; reduced risks in language and cognitive development from 16.4 per cent to 4.3 per cent; reduced risks in communication skills and general knowledge development from 10.5 per cent to 5.6 per cent.”

How much better prepared would they be if they had access to a national early childhood education (pre-kindergarten) system shouldn’t be a matter of conjecture. A seminal report on the subject, The Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, is both categorical and convincing: “Researchers have found that parents whose children attend programs that are integrated into their school are much less anxious than their neighbours whose kids are in the regular jumbled system. Direct gains have also been documented for children. Evaluations of Sure Start in the UK, Communities for Children in Australia and Toronto First Duty found children in neighbourhoods with integrated children’s services showed better social development, more positive social behaviour and greater independence/self-regulation compared with children living in similar areas without an integrated program.”

Naturally, there is a cost. But there’s also a reward. And as The Early Years Study 3 points out, the return far outweighs the investment: “Economist Robert Fairholm. . . (shows) how investing in educational child care (is) a handsdown winner. Investing $1 million in child care would create at least 40 jobs, 43 per cent more jobs than the next highest industry and four times the number of jobs generated by $1 million in construction spending. Every dollar invested in child care increases the economy’s output (GDP) by $2.30.”

These considerations, alongside the evidence of improving outcomes for kids, makes you wonder not whether our society can afford early childhood education, but whether we can afford our society without it.

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