The social dividends of an early education

He deserves the best start life affords

He deserves the best start life affords

For such a dynamic, complex subject – teeming with diverse research and evidence from best practices around the world – it does seem strange that some attitudes towards early child education (ECE) in Canada remain frozen in time.

Without regard to the very real achievements of enlightened jurisdictions, administrators and practitioners in this country, the naysayers and poo-pooers continue to contend that a public system of structured, universally accessible and fully integrated ECE is, at best, an expensive frill. At worst, it’s a wobbly experiment that does not, in fact, live up to its billing.

Yet, the results of a study, released in September, of 693 Ontario kids in Grade One showed convincingly that those who had participated in two years of full-day kindergarten (FDK) in that province were far better equipped to thrive in school than those who had not.

The research, undertaken by Queen’s and MacMaster universities concluded, “Overall, students in FDK are better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school. In every area, students improved their readiness for Grade 1 and accelerated their development. 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 5.8 per cent; in language and cognitive development from 15.8 per cent to 4.3 per cent; (and) in communication skills and general knowledge development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent.”

At the time, some likened this to winning educations lottery. Others, however, remained unmoved.

In October, McMaster professor of public economics Philip DeCicca told a national columnist that preschool outcomes are not things that “can be studied in a rigorous way” and intimated that the money required for such programming might be used to more efficacious effect.

I would argue just the opposite.

Preschool – specifically, early child education – is, in fact, something that has been studied “in a rigorous way” both here in Canada and around the world for a number of years. The question is not whether we can afford ECE. The question is whether we can afford to do without it.

This past fall, the Solutions Network of the United Nations issued its long-awaited report, “The Future Of Our Children: Lifelong, Multi-Generational Learning For Sustainable Development”. In it, the organization recommends that “all girls and boys complete affordable and high-quality early childhood development programs, and primary and secondary education to prepare them for the challenges of modern life and decent livelihoods (and that) all youth and adults have access to continuous lifelong learning to acquire functional literacy, numeracy, and skills to earn a living through decent employment or self-employment.”

Meanwhile, as a means to fight the pernicious and growing income disparity in much of the developed world, The Economist (a sober voice of pragmatism if ever there was one) issued this appeal in a September editorial: “A two-part agenda drawing on ideas from both left and right, aimed at reducing boondoggles for the affluent and increasing investment in the young, could achieve a lot. . .Investment in the young should focus on early education. Pre-school is a crucial first step to improving the lot of disadvantaged children, and America is an international laggard. According to the OECD, it ranks only 28th out of 38 leading economies in the proportion of four-year-olds in education.”

All of which confirms that ECE is not the expensive frill or wobbly experiment  skeptics and detractors would have us believe. On the contrary, it is a tangible, real-world application for fighting some of society’s biggest problems. What’s more governments from Sweden to the UK to right here at home in Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and (if I correctly understand the sentiments of Brian Gallant, New Brunswick’s Liberal aspirant to the provincial premiership) are committed to success.

The sooner some of our more frigid attitudes on this complex, dynamic subject begin to thaw, the better for our children; the better for all of us.

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