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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