Tag Archives: Early Childhood Education

Teach them young and well


When former Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick Margaret McCain talks, people tend to listen. And why not?

She was not only the Queen’s representative in this fair province for several years, she is an internationally recognized expert in, and advocate for, early childhood education.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that whenever she swings through these parts, media outlets bend over backwards to lend her their ears.

According to a CBC report last week, Mrs. McCain says, “If the provincial government is serious about fixing its literacy problems it needs to make radical changes that could mean an expansion of public education. (She) said it’s time to adopt the Finnish model and expand public education to include four-year-olds and then three-year-olds. The Finnish model integrates early learning and care within the public system, which McCain said she feels is the best strategy. ‘If we want to reach all children, the public education system is a well-established system where there’s room for extending education downward,’ she said.”

In fact, she added, “You provide equal opportunity for all children. Public education is well-funded, well-structured, well-respected. It’s available, it’s affordable, it’s accessible and most of all there would be consistency of curriculum for all children. . .this is how you give every child an equal opportunity.”

Indeed, there’s little doubt now that around the world, the happiest results correlate with the earliest starts.

A recent Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development 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 our governments understand that this nation is not, as some 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 our various adherents of the status quo can’t begin to imagine.

Naturally, as Mrs. McCain states, “There will be some resistance because everybody fears change. And there is a sector of the daycare sector — which is a for-profit. . . If there is an early childhood education sector that wants to remain private then in my vision we have to see them as we do our independent schools. They have to meet certain standards.”

Still, the future of this province’s economic fabric relies on literacy. That’s a project that must begin early in every child’s life.

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Smart money from slow learners



New Brunswickers should harbor no doubt that Premier Brian Gallant, with the best of intentions, wants to transform the province into an oasis of educational innovation and attainment. But where’s his plan?

Some intrepid reporting by Brunswick News reveals that there isn’t one – or, at least, not much of one. A big chunk of the $261-million ‘smart-province’ initiative has yet to be assigned.

In fact, so little is known about the government’s priorities on this file that a legislative committee convened to review spending plans at the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour has been adjourned until more information becomes available.

Predictably, this has aroused the ire of the official Progressive-Conservative opposition. “The education minister (Serge Rousselle) could not answer the simplest questions about the premier’s new education and economy fund,” Tory Leader Bruce Fitch thundered.

For their part, Liberal spokespeople are buttressing the ramparts. Says one Molly Cormier, a mouthpiece for the province’s rather attenuated departments devoted to education (there appear to be many): “Senior officials as well as the minister are meeting with stakeholders in the post-secondary sector. . .The (new education and economy) fund was created to ensure government makes strategic investments into New Brunswick’s priorities of jobs and education.”

Fair enough. But Mr. Fitch and his colleagues across the aisle also make a decent point: If education is so important to the Gallant government – if, indeed, it is the architecture necessary for creating a brand, new, economically productive society in this part of the country – then why doesn’t it know what it’s doing, down to the penny, with $261-million in scarce, publicly raised capital? Why can’t it answer the questions its laudable ambitions have raised?

Some months ago, Premier Gallant told me: “I am a huge proponent of the role that education can play in developing our economy, and, of course, what it does for every individual in giving them opportunities in our province. So I am very happy, despite the fact that we face many challenges both fiscally and economically, that as a government we were able to prioritize education to the extent that we did, increasing the budget by $33 million.”

Still, specificity is the jewel in the crown of democratic leadership.

What value does the Gallant government assign to publicly accessible early childhood education?

How much money is it willing to designate to the training and support of early childhood educators?

As it cuts primary and secondary-level teaching positions, how much material value is it investing in literacy, numeracy and critical thinking to benefit the flower of New Brunswick’s youth?

Should all of this cost $100 million, $200 million, $300 million? Shouldn’t we know that $261 million in a government spending priority is properly appropriated before it’s charged against the taxpayer’s ledger?

Or, if this government doesn’t have a smart-money fund to build an innovative, creative province, then say so. And say it now.

I have heard this sort of tripe from our provincial leaders almost daily and for years: “Fellow citizens, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. We must embrace the better angels of our own nature. . .blah. . .blah”.

I would rather hear honesty, however brutal, from Freddy Beach.

“Fellow New Brunswickers,” Mr. Gallant might say. “I made a mistake. I should have done my homework before I decided that $261 million was sufficient to meet my ambitions for a smart province. I should have figured out what that sum was supposed to do. I didn’t. Now, though, I will.”

Then, perhaps, we’ll have a plan we can trust.

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Daycare is child’s play


For Ted Melhuish, authenticity is tantamount to, well, the genuine plate of Caribbean cuisine he was evidently relishing at a restaurant in downtown Fredericton.

It was early April 2013, and the tempests of a hard Canadian winter had abated just long enough to allow the sun to shine and the mercury to rise above 25 degrees.

He smiled like a kid in a candy store as he stuffed a bit of Jamaican jerk into his mouth. “Oh yeah,” he says. “It’s good. . .It’s very good. . .very original.”

Dr. Edward Melhuish is all about originality, reality, genuineness and authenticity. In a way, one might say, these qualities of mind have been his stocks in trade for more than 30 years. As his University of London (U.K.) biography stipulates, he “is Professor of Human Development at Birkbeck, University of London, and Visiting Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Education, University of London.”

He is also an “internationally recognized expert in the study of child development and childcare (who) has extensive experience with longitudinal studies. He was a Principal Investigator of studies of day care and family life in the 1980s, which had considerable influence on sections of the 1989 Children Act (U.K). He has also conducted research on child development, parenting and childcare in several European countries, on behalf of the European Commission.”

What’s more, “For several years Professor Melhuish has been a Principal Investigator on the Effective Provision of Pre-school Education (EPPE) in England and Effective Provision in Northern Ireland (EPPNI), which are following 4,000 children.”

Finally, “Professor Melhuish has acted as a consultant for the design of children’s organizations (e.g. UNESCO), government departments and film, television and radio companies. In addition he has frequently contributed to the media on children’s issues, including newspaper, radio and television programmes.”

In this context – that of a visiting scholar, educated in all matters related to early childhood education (ECE) – it’s worth noting just how far apart academia and actual practice has become in this province. After all, how many Professor Melhuishes has New Brunswick produced over the past three decades?

Instead, we face a risible crisis in ECE produced by broad ignorance about its benefits, suspicion fanned by federal and provincial governments, which seem to think that wedge-issue politics trumps the welfare of our children, and a calculable lack of expertise in the field.

In fact, a recent investigation by reporters of this newspaper group has found evidence of downright despicable conditions in New Brunswick’s regulated daycare operations: “In one year of visiting (these facilities) inspectors found guns, mouse droppings, lighters left out within children’s reach, and fighting on the playground with no one around to intervene.”

Worse, the report stipulates, you, dear reader, will not “find any details about these problems on the government’s online daycare inspection registry. Until now, violations in publicly licensed daycares have been kept largely secret from the public.”

Whether this secrecy was generated by fiat or general bureaucratic neglect hardly matters.

Nothing in our society should concern us more than the early childhood education of our offspring. After all, our kids will someday rule the planet, and how they govern in the future depends entirely on how we help them think and work and play today.

We have it, within our power, to create builders or destroyers, peacemakers or warmongers, physicians or psychopaths.

It is, as Professor Melhuish says, entirely up to us.

Shall we order in educational take-out tonight?

Or shall we make a good meal from a delicious pairing of ingredients in our own authentic land?

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Let’s get serious about early childhood education


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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The A-B-Cs of solving poverty in our time


New Brunswick’s Common Front for Social Justice is consistently well-meaning, invariably courageous and occasionally relevant.

So, why, then, in its recently released, roundly critical review of the David Alward and Brian Gallant governments (though, the latter’s has held the reins of office for all of four months), does the anti-poverty organization skirt any meaningful discussion of publicly subsidized, coordinated and integrated early childhood education as a crucial salve for the issues that concern it most?

The group states it wants minimum wage laws, employment insurance structures and pay-equity frameworks improved, enhanced and expanded. Fair enough.

It also demands that social assistance benefits rise; housing costs for the poor drop; the stock of public accommodations available to the economically disenfranchised enlarge; and that the controversial New Brunswick drug plan be reviewed for broad fairness and equitability. Again, well said.

As for “professional artists”, the Front states in its year-end report card, “The Alward government increased the budget for arts, culture and heritage. The Gallant government said it will put more money in its 2015 budget. The Alward government adopted a new cultural policy, put in place the Premier’s Task Force on the Status of the Artist and adopted a Linguistic and Cultural Development Policy for the French Schools.”

In fact, recognizing official support for professional artists is about the only cap this organization is willing to doff to either the former Tory or current Grit governments of New Brunswick. As to the rest, circumstances are, indeed, desperate:

“There is certainly a real deep financial cost to poverty,” the Front’s report writers acknowledge. “More importantly, there is a human cost that even if it is sometime(s) difficult to measure in dollars and cents is not less real.”

There is, for example, “the worry of parents who are not able to properly feed themselves and their children and have to rely on food banks in order not to go to bed hungry.” There is “the anguish of living in inadequate housing. . .the desperation of knowing that you are sick because you are poor. . .the hopelessness of teenagers knowing they have a lot less (sic) chance(s) of having a better life than their neighbour(s). . .the look of others because you are poor.”

Still, if any of this is true – and most of it is – why is there no concomitant mention, in this finely intentioned diatribe, of the exorbitant day-care costs most working Canadians face as they struggle to avoid poverty even as they slide inexorably into it?

A report, published late last year by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, makes a compelling point. To wit:

“While Canada spends less on early childhood education and care than most OECD countries, Canadian parents are among the most likely to be employed. As Canadian parents are working parents, child care fees can play a major role in decision-making and labour force participation, particularly for women.

“Torontonians pay the most for infant child care at $1,676 a month. Parents in St. Johns pay the second most at $1,394 a month. The lowest feesare found in the Quebec cities of Gatineau, Laval, Montreal, Longueuil and Quebec City, where infant care costs $152 a month thanks to Quebec’s $7-a-day child care policy (increased to $7.30-a-day in October 2014). The second-lowest infant fees are found in Winnipeg ($651 a month) where a provincial fee cap is also in place.

“There are roughly twice as many toddler spaces (1.5–3 years) as infant spaces and fees are lower. Toronto has the highest toddler fees at $1,324 a month. Vancouver, Burnaby, London, Brampton and Mississauga all have median toddler fees over $1,000 a month.”

And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the systemic inequity that two-income families with children endure every day. Those who do not qualify for subsidized spots in the sketchy day-care system across this country can pay anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000 per kid, per month.

The circumstance is not only bizarrely unfair; it’s a recipe for economic perfidy; a calculus for ruining national prospects in an increasingly competitive, technologically treacherous world.

Give all kids an early start on the state’s dime and they will return that investment a thousand times over – in critical thinking, empathy, intellectual courage and great, learned humour.

Watch the evils of poverty dissolve before them.

That’s a common front we should all get behind.

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And now for something completely different: Good news from New Brunswick


A reader writes, and I paraphrase: “While I agree with you about New Brunswick’s economic troubles and fiscal morass, why don’t you write something inspirational that offers some solutions? Why do you have to be such a jerk?”

I get love notes along those lines from time to time. I’m used to them, like this one from a few years back: “You disgusting, pompous prig! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.”

Which only serves notice that you should never forget your bartender’s birthday.

Still, I am not such an unreconstructed curmudgeon that I can’t recognize good news in this province when it becomes evident.

Consider, for example, a new report out of the Atkinson Centre, a research pod at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It says that this fine province has managed to improve its grade for the environment and services it provides to early childhood educators by a factor of two since 2011.

Specifically, it says: “In New Brunswick, the mandate for early childhood services merged under a new Department of Education and Early Childhood Development in April 2011. A new action plan, Putting Children First, details initiatives through to 2015 and builds on Be Ready for Success: A 10 year Early Childhood Strategy for New Brunswick (2008).”

At that time, “commitments included strengthening the capacity of communities to support families and young children through the integration of early childhood and family support services. In partnership with the Margaret and Wallace McCain Foundation, the Government of New Brunswick piloted Early Childhood Development Centres to inform program practice and help guide policy-makers in the building of an inclusive and accessible, family-centred child care and education system.”

Then, earlier this year, “the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development released The Linguistic and Cultural Development Policy: A Societal Project for the French Education System. This report was the result of a broad consultation to support the Acadian and Francophone community in meeting the challenges of the linguistic minority context.”

Fundamentally, though, “considerable attention is paid to the early years (birth to age 8) when the foundations for language and learning are established. The plan commits to ensuring equal access to services in French, including a single entry point in both urban and rural areas; the creation of a single file for each child, whatever the number and type of services received; and enhanced linguistic support to the professionals working in the francophone community.”

Overall, the 2014 survey gives New Brunswick a score of 8, compared with 4.5 three years ago, for its performance on the early childhood education front. That puts this least fiscally promising province in Canada, if not at the head of pack, at least in the crowd of first finishers. Or, as Atkinson Centre spokesperson Emis Akbari told the Telegraph-Journal last week, “It is not just about how much money is invested. It is about governance, funding, access, the learning environment that kids are exposed to and accountability. New Brunswick has moved ahead in quite a few areas.”

And that’s just great. I’m seriously happy about this happenstance, so don’t get me wrong when I say: Now what?

It seems to almost everyone in this business that the provinces are doing all the heavy lifting – all the weight-training the federal government decided to reject in 2006.

How long, then, can “have-not” jurisdictions, such as New Brunswick, be expected to cover the cost of providing, in its own region, what should be a national, publicly subsidized, universally accessible system of early childhood education?

Instead, this country’s parents are, just now, promised enriched monthly child benefits without the infrastructure, care, expertise and consistency that such investments would otherwise lever in a more sensibly arranged society.

The longterm social and economic advantages of a structured, comprehensive system of early childhood education, integrated into every public school system in Canada are so patently obvious, the fact that we’re not rushing to introduce one is just one of many patent absurdities that lace our evidence-hating proclivities in this erstwhile great nation.

On the other hand, I don’t want to be a jerk about this.

After all, too many federal, public officials already evince this personality trait far better than I ever could.

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In Canada, all children are being left behind


On almost every issue of significance to Canadian society, the federal Conservatives and NDP could not stand further apart. But on child care, in at least one important respect, they march in lockstep together: Both parties dramatically miss the point.

Early childhood education should, first and foremost, be about children – their welfare, their development, their opportunities to become happy, engaged, enthusiastic learners, thinkers and, eventually citizens.

So what, pray tell, does the Harper government’s determination to line parental pockets with a few more ducats every year under its Universal Child Care Benefit have to do kid-centred early childhood education?

On the other side of the ideological coin, what does the New Democrats’ proposal to subsidize as many as a million new daycare spaces across the country have to do with preparing the next generation of leaders, educators, professionals and skilled workers?

Granted, the NDP scheme at least attempts to acknowledge that, nowadays, families need two working spouses to make ends meet.

In contrast, the Tory concept seems tethered to weirdly antiquated notions about motherhood; its new $160-per-month, per-child under six, program is an undiluted attempt to resurrect the conviction that women with kids do actually belong in their homes until such time as they can make their great escapes back into the working world (yeah, after 10 or 12 years, good luck with that, ladies).

Still, each model, in its own way, utterly ignores the compelling bang for the billions of bucks each purports to spend, simply because neither focuses on kids, but rather on the adult parents, whose votes will fuel the next great democratic lottery come the autumn of 2015.

To this audience, Mr. Harper likes to say things like: “We have always been clear that money and support to help families raise children should not go into more bureaucracy. It should go to the real experts on child care. That’s mom and dad, and that is what we are doing.”

Well, no, actually, mom and dad are not always, or even usually, the “real experts on child care”. (My wife and I certainly weren’t when we had our two kids in the early 1980s).

Then again, neither are, necessarily, the legions of lightly trained, underpaid, overburdened daycare workers slogging away in frequently poor conditions from coast to glimmering coast in this country.

The real experts are those who have studied the science, research, policy and practice of early childhood development.

They are those who apply all of this where it matters – in the classroom, where kids benefit from structured play, early and often, where kids benefit from the certainty that what they learn in pre-school will carry them seamlessly into primary education systems.

And, in fact, this model works in Canada.

Look to Quebec, for one.

Just one decade after that province introduced a universal early childhood education system, integrated into higher grades, it went from the bottom to the top on many social indicators.

From having Canada’s lowest female labour participation rate, it now has the highest. Where Quebec women were once less likely to attend post-secondary education than their counterparts in the rest of Canada, today they dominate. Meanwhile, student scores on standardized tests have gone from below the Canadian average to above.

The research also shows that Quebec fathers are more involved in child-raising than ever before. Now, 82 per cent of fathers in that province take paid leave after the births of their kids, compared to just 12 per cent in the rest of Canada.

Moreover, childhood programs that allow mothers to work have slashed Quebec’s child poverty rates by 50 per cent.

I have lifted all of this, shamelessly and almost verbatim from the Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, because it is the gold standard of research on this subject in this country.

Here’s another:

“Based on earlier studies, 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 had existed – and increase of 3.8 per cent in women employment,” Montreal economist Pierre Fortin wrote in 2012. “By our calculation, Quebec’s domestic income was higher by about 1.7 per cent, or $5 billion, as a result.”

All of which should persuade any thinking person that public policy on child care should be about the child – not the venal, cynical intentions of political operatives looking to the next election, the next opportunity to lock in votes at the expense of real socio-economic progress.

In this respect, the lockstep march of the federal Conservatives and NDP is one step forward and one step backwards – which is to say standing still and, therefore, nowhere.

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Don’t pinch the public’s pennies for affordable daycare


For a study in contrasting world views, look no further than the federal Conservatives’ and New Democrats’ respective plans for daycare in Canada.

As the former ramped up its campaign rhetoric this week, promising tax cuts, credits and kiddie benefits for all – in effect, telling Canadians to take their own money and run – the latter unveiled a promising, though lightly coloured, early childhood education initiative that could find government-subsidized spots for up to one million pre-schoolers.

Of the two approaches, the NDP’s – which would charge parents a not unreasonable daily fee of $15 per child – is clearly the more thoughtful.

But the Tory scheme benefits both from its simplicity and its coarse, yet effective, appeal to base emotion: It doesn’t pick your pocket; rather, it appears to line your palm.

Try making the same argument about a multi-billion-dollar child-care program.

Right-wing politicos and their table-banging confederates in the chambers of public policy love to poke the mama bears of this country.

What right, they ponder provocatively, does the state reserve for itself – on the citizen’s dime, no less – when it interferes with a kid’s natural development in the home?

What’s wrong with babysitters, nannies, au pairs, or, for that matter, good, old mum and dad?

Stephen Harper’s “reformers” knew exactly what they were doing back in 2005 (before their ascent to power and prestige) when they promised to axe the Grits’ hard-won national daycare program and replace it with the Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB), which would dispense monthly cheques (each with a minimum value of $100) to families with kids under the age of six.

At the time, Mr. Harper said, “The only people who should be making these choices (about pre-school) are parents, not politicians, not the government.”

In effect, though, the future prime minister was signaling his intention to wield whatever authority he would soon possess to limit, not expand, options for working mothers and fathers. And recent reports from Ottawa indicate that he hasn’t changed his mind in the run-up to next fall’s general election.

According to National Post columnist John Ivison, writing on Saturday, “The Conservatives are planning to enhance the universal child-care benefit in the upcoming fiscal update, so that parents with children older than six will also receive $100 cheques, multiple sources suggest.”

All of which merely adds insult to the injury inflicted years ago when the Tories first propagated the absurd notion that $100 per child per month was a perfectly adequate, no-strings-attached alternative to universally accessible, publicly subsidized child care for kids aged 2 to four.

Still, many parents will prefer to embrace the Harper approach (and the money it provides) and dismiss the evidence, which is, frankly, overwhelming.

A report last year by Queen’s and McMaster Universities concluded that children who tend full-day kindergarten (FDK) are “better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school” than those who don’t.

A compendium of expert research and opinion on the subject, The Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, also states: “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.”

Yes, establishing and operating an effective system will cost billions of dollars. And yes, overcoming the inevitable problems, both large and small, won’t be easy.

But, as the The Early Years Study 3 points out, “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.”

With such facts staring us in the face, how can we take the money and run?

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Hey teacher, don’t keep those kids at home


If Ontario’s government hopes to maintain public support for its new full-day kindergarten (FDK) program, it had better abandon its inexplicably dismissive attitude about the regime’s evident growing pains.

News reports this week suggest that the province’s ministry of education has been flooded, in recent months, with complaints by both parents and educators about bloated class sizes and the noise, disruption and confusion this caused in several schools last academic year.

In at least once instance, as many as 40 tykes were crowded into a room. Documents obtained by the Globe and Mail through a freedom-of-information request indicate that “about 640 kindergarten classrooms, or eight per cent of those that introduced the (full-day) program had more than 30 children. . .according to a confidential briefing note to the minister in January.”

Moreover, the Globe reported, “Martha Hradowy, who represents early childhood education workers at Windsor’s Greater Essex County District School Board, said the situation has become so dire that some schools have created learning areas for full-day kindergarten students, which hold about 100 children. Classrooms are divided into four separate corners.”

This is exactly the kind of bad press no government should want as it implements the final phase of an FDK soft launch to all schools in the province. And yet, so far, the ministry’s response has been decidedly tepid.

Noting that daycares in the province are required, by law, to maintain a one-to-eight caregiver-child ratio and that pre-school primary programs must limit class sizes to no more than 23 kids, government officials blithely allowed that, at present, there is no comparable cap for FDK, only a requirement that school boards preserve an average class size of 26 throughout the system. 

Certain Ontarian editorialists of my acquaintance are, no doubt, itching to get busy scribbling their provocative nonsense in response to this new, so-called crisis in public education. “Ontario’s kids crammed into classrooms like sardines in a can”, “Ontario’s schools turning into factory farms”, “Ontario’s kindergartners pay the price for nanny-state meddling,” the headlines will scream.

The overcrowding, these pundits will write, proves that Ontario is nowhere near ready to assume the responsibilities of providing efficient full-day kindergarten; indeed, that such a monumental task is probably beyond the administrative and fiscal capabilities of any province in this country.

They will then use the point to segue into an entirely separate, if equally specious, argument: that there is no credible proof that FDK or, indeed, any form of early childhood education provides lasting social, psychological or educational benefits to kids; and that those youngsters who do evince advanced interpersonal and academic skills as a result of their exposure to such programs lose these advantages over their more classically schooled peers by the end of Grade One.

The arguments that it can’t be done and that it’s not necessary, anyway, have dogged the discussion about publicly sponsored and subsidized child care and early education for decades.

But it’s only been within the last 50 years when rigorous research and empirical evidence have shown that state investments in these programs have generated multipliers (in the reduction of public costs related to poverty, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, crime, illiteracy, innumeracy, and mental illness) worth billions of dollars a year in countries that have had the perspicacity to spend the money accordingly.

And the suggestion that all kids eventually even each other out, regardless of their early childhood education backgrounds (or lack, thereof), is hardly a resonant reason for abandoning such programs.

Who would want his enriched, curious, empathetic kid suddenly leavened in grade school by the lower common denominators in his midst?

Isn’t the better idea to raise everyone’s standards by providing a commonly accessible, superior system of play-based, pre-school education that’s integrated seamlessly into the higher grades where meritorious principles (team-playing, integrity, love of learning) may continue to flourish?

The growing pains the Ontario government’s FDK program now suffer are serious, but they are perhaps predictable and, more importantly, eminently fixable.

Now is no time for officialdom to take them lightly.

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Canadians say ‘ho hum’ to federal priorities


Sleeping giants, like the electorate, wake up...don't they?

Sleeping giants, like the electorate, wake up…don’t they?

Certain enclaves of the federal government have long suspected that Canadians are far less enamoured of their cherished policies than they have otherwise propagandized. 

Their buoyant rhetoric about the nation’s proud military tradition, bolstered by tens of millions of dollars for war memorials and stagy commemorations, have struck many citizens as crass testimonials to a certain prime minister’s preoccupation with battlefield derring do. 

Meanwhile, thousands of veterans needlessly do without – victims of red tape, official neglect and outright disinterest among corps of bureaucrats whose members have never, and likely never will, lace up an army boot.

Equally, Canadians are, in increasing numbers, dissatisfied with Ottawa’s leadership (or lack, thereof) on education – both pre-school and K through 12. Public school is properly the purview of the provinces, but a sense of national purpose is sorely lacking – a fact manifested in the hodgepodge of early education, primary and secondary programs across the country.

And then there’s health care, another provincial responsibility that could use some sage advice from federal policy makers and office holders. Still, Ottawa’s diffidence regarding long wait times for several medical procedures and widely divergent catastrophic coverage regimes virtually guarantees the nation’s mediocrity in this crucial service on the developed world stage.

In fact, in almost every way, the Government of Canada’s ‘jails and jobs’ agenda has failed to impress the general public. 

The wholesale flight of the feds away from things Canadians actually care about – the environment, hard science, and, of course, the social safety net – to things that merely bewilder them – fighting crime at a time when crime rates are at historic lows; taking credit for creating jobs while repeatedly reminding everyone that only the private sector can and should generate new employment opportunities – has conjured an atmosphere of ennui from coast to coast.

Now, some research commissioned by the federal Department of Finance confirms officialdom’s worst suspicions. 

According to a Canadian Press story this week, public opinion surveys conducted last winter, “suggest key government policies are out of step with Canadians’ priorities, including the Northern Gateway project. . .Members of focus groups. . .had ‘little enthusiasm’ for the proposed bitumen pipeline to the British Columbia coast – even those who said they support the controversial project. . .Rather the groups spontaneously raised education, health care, pensions, and veterans as their key issues.”

The operative word there is “spontaneously”. That indicates that participants weren’t prompted or even asked forthrightly about their feelings. They just blurted their concerns with a degree of unanimity that should truly worry a government that’s running second in the polls, behind the third-party Liberals, and preparing to head into a national election. 

As for western oil and gas, the report, itself – prepared by NRG Research Group – states that “detractors worry about the environmental consequences in the event of a spill, particularly as a result of a tanker accident off the B.C. coast. . .There is an appreciation that increased access to oil will be economically beneficial, but there is still a desire to do so in a more environmentally safe manner.”

A report like this is, of course, exactly why governments employ professional spin doctors. When I was one, back before the federal Grits suffered their political Waterloo at the hands of Stephen Harper’s bayonetted storm troopers, I might have prepared a statement that read something like this: “Naturally, Canadians care about the environment. So does this government. To suggest otherwise shamefully underestimates the intelligence of the electorate, which, need it be said, gave this government the mandate it now takes with great seriousness.”

See how that works? Wait for it; we’ve still got it in store.

In the meantime, however, we might do well to ruminate on what it means to live in a democracy where the government of the day – Conservative, Liberal, NDP, Green, Republican, Democratic, Rhinoceronian – brooks no criticism, takes no advice, considers no alternatives to its various hobby horses, and prosecutes its “mandate” with a perpetual scowl on its face. 

We might legitimately question whether this political machinery constitutes a democracy at all.

Then again, if we have decided that our rage against the machine will keep us home on voting day, we already have our answer.


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