Early Years Education: What Stands in the Way of Universal Early Learning?

A recent Ontario study of some 700 children attending the new Full-Day, Two-Year Kindergarten program claimed that the first cohort was better prepared to enter Grade 1, showing  strong language development, improved communications skills, and better social skills.   That report was welcome news for an Ontario Liberal Government, now headed by Kathleen Wynne, that has staked its reputation on a $1.5 billion program that critics characterize as an expensive form of government controlled day care.  If the gains are real, then the key questions become – do the gains justify the enormous costs and will the head start last?

KindergartenKidsBritish Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec also offer all-day Kindergarten,  but Alberta has delayed its planned implementation because of financial pressures.  In Nova Scotia, the Darrell Dexter NDP Government  has followed a curious, meandering course.  On August 22, 2013, on the eve of a provincial election, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex  announced the plan to open  four little bundles of joy – in the form of spanking new Early Years Centres  for young children in elementary schools scattered across the province.  Initial indications are that universal early learning in Nova Scotia, if it materializes, will most likely be implemented piecemeal, in stages.

Early learning advocates, inspired by the late Dr. Fraser Mustard and his Council on Early Child Development, have long identified Nova Scotia as a laggard among the Canadian provinces.  In November 2011, Dexter and his cabinet were stung by the CECD’s Early Years Study 3 ranking Quebec and P.E.I. as tops and giving Nova Scotia low marks (five out of 15 points) for its current patchwork of programs. Since then pressure has mounted on the NDP government to embrace universal, publicly-funded ECD starting at age two in Nova Scotia.

Universal, publicly funded programs like that in Quebec, where parents pay $7.00 per day per child, have proven to be enormously expensive.  Former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden made an initial effort, but it stalled in 2006 at the federal level and the campaign was, until 2010, sputtering in both Ontario and Nova Scotia.

With the passing of its legendary champion Dr. Mustard, philanthropist Margaret Norrie McCain started carrying the torch for universal, state-funded early learning programs, utilizing the considerable influence of the Margaret and Wallace Family Foundation.

Eighteen months ago, with Ontario’s Liberal government threatening to scale back on its $1.5 billion full day junior and senior kindergarten (FDK) spending, McCain and the universalists began focusing on Nova Scotia. On February 9, 2012, she secured a private audience with Dexter. That’s what finally swayed the cautious-by-nature Premier.  

One Thursday in late May 2012, Dexter visited a Halifax family resource centre and—without any warning—announced that Nova Scotia was embarking on Early Years programs in a big way. He unveiled a discussion paper, Giving Children the Best Start, and local media scrambled to report that a previously unannounced advisory committee would be producing a go ahead plan within a month’s time.

The policy paper recycled CECD research and claimed that one out of every four Canadian children “arriving at school with vulnerabilities” was “more likely to fail” out of school with limited life outcomes. Not surprisingly, it strongly endorsed a universal, school-based, state-funded early childhood education program for children as young as two years.

When Dexter and Jennex welcomed the report, it looked like the NDP government was preparing to buck the national trend to austerity by embarking on a costly public spending program.  In July of 2013, the McCain Foundation greased the wheels by investing $500,000, at $100,000 a year, to kick-start the program and fund Early Years Centres.

The McCain campaign for universal pre-school education is not about winning widespread support from daycare operators, parents or families. In early February 2012, Kerry McCuaig, a Toronto-based CECD research fellow, let the cat out of the bag. “It’s political leadership that matters,” she told a Halifax Public Forum, and the Ontario FDK initiative showed that there is “no real need to seek a public consensus.” What about the existing private and non-profit day cares spread across the province?   “There’s a dog’s breakfast of programs out there, “ McCuaig stated. “ Let’s reorganize it. It costs us nothing to do so.”

Nova Scotia’s bold plan for universal Early Childhood Development will, it is now clear, be entering the province through the back door.  That way the government can side-step and delay the whole thorny issue of accommodating the 220 existing private day cares and 160 non-profit day cares currently operating here in the province.

Top down leadership worked in Quebec, Ontario and P.E.I.  Here in Nova Scotia it has – so far– produced a typical ad hoc, staged implementation policy response.  Even the architect of Ontario’s full-day Kindergarten initiative  Dr. Charles Pascal now says that the current program falls short of universality.  It’s beginning to look like universal early learning will remain a vision beyond reach.

 

About Paul W. Bennett


Founding Director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, NS

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