Let’s get serious about early childhood education

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If the federal government is truly concerned about the welfare of women and children, then it should rethink its social policies before it pours good money after bad.

The current thinking in Harpertown posits a minefield of ideological presuppositions that is as breathtaking in its scope as it is in its peril: That young children benefit only when mum is chained to a doorknob in her kitchen; that women find their best, truest selves only when raising a brood with Captain Canada’s monthly cheques (about enough to cover the cost of novice hockey-league membership); that dad should, but should not necessarily be forced to, engage in raising the children he sired in the first place.

Did I say “Harpertown”? Let’s properly call it “Pleasantville”.

Pleasantville is now spending tax dollars to hike the children’s fitness tax credit; arrange for income-splitting among worthy, affluent families; and double down on the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) for children under age six, to wit:

“As of January 1, 2015, parents will receive a benefit of $160 per month for each child under the age of six up from $100 per month. In a year, parents will receive up to $1,920 per child.”

That notice comes directly from the Canada Revenue Agency, by way of the Prime Minister’s Office. What it doesn’t bother to mention is that these election goodies will cost, all tallied, upwards of $7 billion a year – just about as much as a truly scientific, comprehensive, empirically designed program of national, government-subsidized early childhood education.

In a 2013 syllabus on the broad effects of early-years instruction, TD Bank Group’s senior vice president and chief economist Craig Alexander had this to say: “There is a great deal of evidence showing overwhelming benefits of high quality, early childhood education. For parents, access to quality and affordable programs can help to foster greater labour force participation. But more importantly, for children, greater essential skills development makes it more likely that children will complete high school, go on to post‐secondary education and succeed at that education. This raises employment prospects and reduces duration of unemployment if it occurs.”

In fact, according to his research, “for every public dollar invested in early childhood development, the return ranges from roughly $1.5 to almost $3, with the benefit ratio for disadvantaged children being in the double digits.”

Indeed, around the world, the happiest results correlate with the earliest starts.

A recent OECD report states that in Sweden “The system of pre-school education is outstanding: (a) in its fidelity to societal values and in its attendant commitment to and respect for children; (b) in its systemic approach while respecting programmatic integrity and diversity; and (c) in its respect for teachers, parents, and the public. In each of these categories, the word ‘respect’ appears. There was trust in children and in their abilities, trust in the adults who work with them, trust in decentralised governmental processes, and trust in the state’s commitment to respect the rights of children and to do right by them.”

In Finland, the OECD concludes, “The early childhood education workforce has several strengths, such as a high qualification level of staff with teaching responsibilities, advanced professional development opportunities and favourable working environments. Staff with teaching responsibilities are well educated and trained with high initial qualification requirements. Professional development is mandatory for all staff; and training costs are shared between individual staff members, the government and employers. Working conditions in terms of staff-child ratio are among the best of OECD countries.”

All of which confirms that early childhood education is not the expensive experiment that cynics decry. On the contrary, it is a plausible, workable application for meeting some of our hoariest, long-term social challenges.

The sooner this federal government understands that this nation is not, as its political operatives like to assume, a blank canvas for partisan portraiture, the sooner we can get on with investing good money where it belongs: In the future of our kids, who will return dividends that Pleasantville can’t begin to imagine.

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