Canada’s educational performance by international standards is quite good. Our 15-year-olds performed very well in the international PISA 2000 assessment of reading, maths and science (www.pisa.gc.ca), and Canadian students have also done well on other recent international assessments. We have a good high school graduation rate and one of the high- est rates in the world of post-secondary participation and completion.
Nonetheless, we still have our educational challenges. Most importantly, too many Canadian children still do not receive an adequate education either in terms of years com- pleted or skills attained. Something around 20 percent of Canadian children can be described as likely to experience adverse educational outcomes, which are in turn linked to worse health, lower income, more unemployment, more accidents and shorter life expectancy.
It is also increasingly clear that schools alone cannot solve the problem of educational inequality. Recent work in several places (e.g., the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy [www.umanitoba.ca/academic/centres/mchp], and Clyde Hertzman in British Columbia [www.earlylearning.ubc.ca]), shows that by age 5 the pattern of substantial inequality among children is already well established and closely linked to their school and adult outcomes.
This connection is one of the reasons for the growing atten- tion in Canadian social policy to early childhood. The federal- provincial Early Childhood Development Accord of 2000 reflected a growing consensus that improving the situation of young children in Canada was vital to improving educational outcomes and to the country’s social and economic future.
The growing interest in early childhood is an interesting example of how research can play an important role in shaping policy. Decades of research have shown increasingly the impact of the first few years of life on children’s long-term development and outcomes. This research, carried out in a variety of fields from sociology to neurology, has consistently found that experiences from conception through pre-school are important, and that measures such as reducing the number of low-birth- weight babies and providing good nutri- tion, continuity of care and appropriate- ly stimulating environments all have lasting effects on children’s health, behaviour and intellectual functioning. Among others, the Early Years Study (1999), by Margaret Norrie McCain and Fraser Mustard, is a good start to review this evidence.
Evidence by itself is rarely a deci- sive influence on public policy. Policy choices are made through social and political processes in which research is only one factor, and often not a very important one. However, in the case of early childhood, various groups and individuals took concerted steps to raise the profile of the issue in the pub- lic policy debate. Fraser Mustard was especially important, using the net- works and prestige of the Canadian Institutes for Advanced Research to argue vigorously and often for greater attention to the early years of life. The success of Mustard’s involvement led some commentators to note how these events revealed the importance of gen- der; when the issue of young children was primarily being raised by women it seemed to receive little attention, but once some important men became involved it seemed to gain quite a bit of status. However it should also be noted that growing attention to early childhood was not just a Canadian issue, but one receiving worldwide attention. For example, Starting Strong: Early Childhood Education and Care, published by the OECD in 2001, is an important policy study on this issue which reflected the interest in many of its 30 member countries.
Research played an important role in this process, in ways that illustrate the inevitable " indeed, necessary " connection between research and political processes. The evidence base around development for young chil- dren is very strong but in the public debate, necessarily, a few key elements of that base took centre stage. The prestige of neuroscience was an impor- tant factor; constant references to brain research gave a degree of legiti- macy to policy arguments that would likely not have been gained from research in, say, sociology. Another fre- quently-used strategy was reference to the cost-effectiveness of early child- hood interventions. The figure of $7 in savings for each $1 spent was often cited, even though this number rests on a very weak base of evidence, pri- marily the Perry Pre-School Study, which has a very small number of par- ticipants and where the size of the cost-benefit ratio might well be open to question.
My point here is not to denigrate the evidence in support of early childhood policies and interventions, but rather to show how the political process requires the distillation of a complex body of research into a few simple messages that are actually like- ly to penetrate public consciousness and therefore influence political deci- sions. Researchers need to understand this process if they wish their work to influence public policy.
Over the last five or so years, there have been some important policy and programmatic develop- ments in early childhood interventions in Canada. Of particular note are efforts to improve nutrition for pregnant women and babies, to reduce the inci- dence of fetal alcohol syn- drome, and to create a stronger public infrastructure of cen- tres and services for young children. Manitoba’s Healthy Child initiative (www.gov.mb.ca/healthychild) is an example of some of the exciting devel- opments taking place.
At the same time, one cannot be too gushing in assessing the current state of early childhood supports in Canada. The long-promised national daycare program is still only a promise, " repeated in the 2004 federal election for the third or fourth time, and most recently again in the Speech from the Throne, but it is yet to be implement- ed. McCain and Mustard were quite critical of the actions of the former Ontario government in their 2002 fol- low-up to their 1999 report. And even where there have been important developments, as in the Manitoba example just cited, early childhood remains a very small public policy enterprise when compared with ele- mentary education or child welfare. For example, Manitoba has about 100,000 young people under the age of six, for whom the main public expenditures for learning are daycare ($65 million in 2002-03) and the Healthy Child pro- gram ($21 million in 2002-03). This is less than $1000 per young person per year. The public school system, on the other hand, spent in 2002-03 about $1.4 billion for some 200,000 students, or about $7000 per student per year. Expenditures on post-secondary educa- tion are even greater on a per-student basis. Other provinces would show a very similar picture, with public spend- ing on young children only a small fraction of spending on schools and post-secondary education. Compared with many other countries, Canada still lags far behind in our provision for very young children.
My main argument in this arti- cle, however, is that an early childhood strategy cannot be truly effective if attention is confined only to young children. The needs of young children are inextricably con- nected with the situations of their parents and families; support to very young children must inevitably therefore also involve support to parents and families. And one of the strongest influences on children’s sit- uations, according to a substantial body of research, is the education level of parents, especially mothers. Thus an early childhood strategy should also involve an effort to improve the education level of par- ents, which means it must have an adult education component.
Just how parental education affects children’s outcomes is not entirely clear, although many plausible connec- tions leap to mind. More educated par- ents are more likely to be employed and to have reasonable incomes, both of which are connected with good situ- ations for young children. Their nutri- tion knowledge and practices are likely to be better. Their households are more likely to have books and other devel- opment stimuli. They are more able to provide access to music, lessons of var- ious kinds, and cultural experiences. They are more likely to read to their young children and to talk with them, and more likely to employ the kinds of positive parenting practices described by Douglas Willms and others in Vulnerable Children (2002), on the basis of evidence provided in Canada’s National Longitudinal Study of Children and Youth.
Of course all parents, with only very few exceptions, want to do well by their children and give them a good start in life. The difference is not in will, but in capacity. Many parents in difficult circumstances make enor- mous efforts and sacrifices to look after their children, going without food or material goods for that purpose.
The potential of adult learning was brought home to me years ago by events at William Whyte school in Winnipeg’s inner city. The school’s prin- cipal, Heather Hunter, realizing that many children in the community were poorly fed and that one reason was that there was nowhere nearby to buy wholesome food at reasonable prices, worked with parents to establish a fami- ly centre located just across the street from the school. The centre included a food-buying club, family-meal-making and a community store that sold items virtually at cost. Parents took leadership in these activities despite low levels of literacy and other constraints. A number of them became involved in informal adult education classes at the school, some attending with their children. These initiatives had many positive effects for children as well as adults. However they fell outside the normal scope of school activity and funding, and required enormous additional ener- gy by people in the school and community.
The need for adult education in Canada is quite substantial. In 1997, the International Adult Literacy Study (IALS) found that Canada had quite high levels of adult literacy in comparison to most of the other participating countries, but that between 15 and 18 percent of the sample were at the lowest level on each indicator. Using a more conventional measure, the 2001 cen- sus shows that some 3.7 million Canadians, or 23 percent of those between the ages of 25 and 64, had not completed high school. In Manitoba, the proportion was 28 per- cent, or some 163,000 people. Even if one assumes that a significant portion of this group either had reasonable skills or was incapacitated in some way, there are clearly many, many thousands of Canadian adults who would benefit from further education.
In light of these figures, opportu- nities in Canada for adults with low levels of formal education to return to school and improve themselves are wholly inadequate. Many high schools and colleges will enroll adult learners in various upgrading pro- grams but success rates in these pro- grams are often low, and necessary supports such as ongoing income, transportation, or child care provision in off hours are not available. We have good evidence that if good quality, supportive and accessible adult educa- tion were provided, many, many adults would participate.
The potential benefits of improved adult education are well illustrat- ed through Manitoba’s Adult Learning Centres. In 1997, due to a policy change by the province, school dis- tricts realized that they could take in adult students and generate at least enough additional revenue from the province to cover all the costs. Indeed, the temptation to generate revenue was so strong that one school district launched into the adult education business in a big way, setting up cen- tres all over the province and eventu- ally enrolling more than three times as many adults as it had children in its schools. Unfortunately, it later turned out that the district had falsified enrol- ments and generated substantial amounts of revenue to which it was not entitled, using the money to keep its own local taxes lower than they should have been. An investigation by Manitoba’s auditor general ended in the school board being dismissed, sev- eral senior officials leaving, and the district having to pay back several mil- lion dollars to the province. (As an aside, this is a good example of how the currently popular ideas of more entrepreneurship in schools and tying school funding closely to enrolments can have very bad results.) The full story of the adult learning centre scan- dal is told in my forthcoming University of Toronto Press book, Governing Education.
While public attention was on the district that had created so many prob- lems, quite a few of the adult learning centres that were set up in the late 1990s were actually providing a good and important service to some of the many adults in Manitoba who have not completed high school. A number of centres were set up by community groups in central Winnipeg, rural Manitoba and the north to serve pop- ulations with low levels of formal edu- cation. The programs did not charge any tuition fees, and they ran accord- ing to well established principles of adult education, with strong support for learners. Within a couple of years the centres were allowing hundreds of adults every year to complete their sec- ondary education, as well as to qualify for and often begin post-secondary studies. (Another policy change made by the province in 2001, and modeled on several US examples, allows stu- dents to take post-secondary courses and count them both as high school credits and as credits towards an appropriate post-secondary program. This dual-credit option has been very popular with many adult learners who previously had to complete high school in order even to apply for col- lege or university study.)
While I was deputy minister of education in Manitoba I visited many of the adult learning centres and spoke to many students. They ranged in age from their 20s to their 40s and 50s. Almost all had had negative expe- riences in school, and many had been away from school for many years.
One question I often asked is what motivated people to return to school given that they had little confidence in their academic skills and a negative edu- cational history. I was struck by how often the answer I got had to do with children. Learners would say that they felt they had to return to school in order to be able to help their children with their homework, or to set an example so their children would stay in school. ”œHow can I tell my kids that school matters if I’m not willing to finish high school?” was a frequent comment. I remember vividly being at a graduation at a learning centre that was operated by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Winnipeg. The class valedictorian, a rather tough-looking character, gave a good, upbeat talk. But he had tears in his eyes when he recount- ed how his teenage son had said that he, the son, would finish high school before the father, and how he, the father, had vowed that that would not happen.
In 2003 Jim Silver, Darlene Klyne and Freeman Simard from the University of Winnipeg conducted an independent study of learners, especially Aboriginal learners, in several adult learning cen- tres. Their conclusion was very similar to the one I reached based on my informal visits and interviews " that many cen- tres were providing opportunities for Manitoba adults not just to complete high school, but to be more confident learners, stronger parents, better role models and more active participants in their children’s educations. The provi- sion of adult education does not just benefit the learner; it benefits his or her partner and children and clearly has pos- itive effects on the ability of schools to be successful with all learners.
The financing of the adult learning centres amounts to about 2 percent of what is spent in Manitoba annually on high school education. In 2001, in recognition of the important work of the adult learning centres, the Manitoba Legislature passed the Adult Learning Centres Act, establishing these centres as an integral part of the education system in Manitoba. Many centres are closely linked to school districts, colleges or uni- versities but can also be entirely inde- pendent organizations run by a variety of public and non-profit organizations. One of the most effective centres is oper- ated in central Winnipeg by the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development (CAHRD), a non-profit independent Aboriginal agency. CAHRD produces more Aboriginal high school graduates each year than any other institution in the province, playing a key role in the vital task of providing proper edu- cational and other opportunities to Manitoba’s growing Aboriginal popula- tion. In the last few years, Nova Scotia’s community college has also completely changed its adult education provision to promote the same kind of learner-orient- ed, success-focused approach.
Still, the reality is that adult educa- tion in Canada remains a marginal enterprise with weak financial support, very little legislative framework and few strong institutional or community advocates. While almost everyone is willing to support more opportunities for young children, it is a tougher polit- ical sell to advocate second chances for adults, who may be seen " correctly or not " as the authors of their own pre- vious misfortune. My argument is that if we want to improve educational out- comes for children, we must also pay attention to adults, and improve adult education provision across the country.