During the past two years, the cancellation Canada’s embryonic national early childhood education and child care (ECEC) program has had the effect of reigniting a long-standing public and political debate about child care. In the wake of their 2006 electoral victory, the Conservatives promptly annulled the Martin government’s commitment to collaborate with provinces and terri- tories to begin the process of developing a national early learning and child care system. This has generated new inter- est in such public policy questions as: Why does Canada not have a child care system? Why do families in other countries have early education and child care while we don’t? Without access to reliable child care, how can Canada support families, and mothers as working women? What does the absence of an adequate child care system mean for Canada’s labour force and population growth? How do we see child care ”” is it an early childhood education program designed so that young children have the benefit of an enriching environ- ment that also supports families’ participation in the labour of force? Or is it a necessary but not particularly desirable place to keep children safe while mothers are at work? Should ECEC be seen as a public good, an individual responsibility or a commodity to be traded on stock markets by multinational corporations? Should ECEC programs be designed as targeted to low-income or working-poor families presuming that they ”œneed it most” or as a universal program for all Canadians?

Today early childhood education and child care is part of many social agendas ”” anti-poverty, labour force, eco- nomic prosperity, women’s equality, social justice and health promotion. While many details of a future Canadian ECEC system have yet to be worked out, a range of actors representing a variety of social and economic agendas concur not only that such a system is necessary but also about many of the key features of such a system. These include a blended approach to ”œcare” and early education that accom- modates parents’ and children’s interests; accessibility for all children; responsibility for substantial funding and clear policy on the part of governments; complementary family support pro- grams such as maternity/parental leave and child benefits; and a choice of ECEC options for parents within a coherent system.

The recommendations generated by the 2008 research-to-policy confer- ence on improving conditions for the working poor held at McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy are a good reflection of the current consensus about moving forward on ECEC. The conference made these recommendations:

  • There should be a Canada-wide public policy approach on ECEC and after-school programs that complements other social policies. ECEC policy should include clear policy goals and rationales, and a multiyear plan with targets, timetables and required invest- ments for building and sustaining a supply of high-quality programs over time.

  • Policy developments should be based on the best available evi- dence on such issues as financing, human resources and for-profit status and be accompanied by appropriate research and data col- lection that supports planning, monitoring and evaluation.

  • Policies should be developed to ensure that programs are of sustained high quality, accessible to all Canadians and responsive to the needs of diverse communities.

In the past few decades, two developments have been the main drivers for establish- ment of an ECEC system. The first is the presence of mothers of young chil- dren in the labour force. Today it has become the norm for mothers to work outside the home even when their chil- dren are infants and toddlers; 69 per- cent of women with a youngest child of three years or less and 76 percent of women with a child aged three to five years were in the labour force in 2005, up from 61 percent and 68 percent, respectively, 10 years earlier. This devel- opment has been a major driver for interest in child care by groups like the participants at the McGill conference; women who fall into the ”œworking poor” category are by definition in the labour force and need access to reliable child care. But middle-class mothers as well as affluent physicians, lawyers and executives in the private sector are in the labour force and require child care too. So do students at all levels, women in training programs trying to move out of poverty and newcomers to Canada in all income and occupation categories. At the same time, birth rates in Canada as in many other countries have fallen, and concerns about aging populations mean that the participa- tion of women in the paid labour forc e is now seen as integral to labour strate- gies. Cross-national research such as that of US economist Kevin Daly rein- forces the argument that access to child care increases the likelihood that women will both participate in the labour force and continue to have babies.

A second main driver for establish- ing an early childhood education and care system is the expert opinion and public recognition that now embrace the idea that good-quality early child- hood education is an important foundation of lifelong learning with long-term implications for prosperity at the societal level.

Child development research over- whelmingly supports this conception, although the importance of the quali- ty of ECEC programs for child devel- opment cannot be overstated. Public opinion polls, as well as the fact that when early childhood education pro- grams ”” nursery schools, kindergartens or child care centres ”” are available and affordable, parents in all regions of Canada eagerly enrol young children from two or three years of age, indicate good public support for ECEC. It should be noted that child development as a driver featured in the McGill conference’s ECEC recom- mendations, which identified not only accessibility to support low- income mothers in the workforce but quality as fundamental to the pro- posed system as well.

Yet while many other countries have managed to do so reason- ably over the last 20 years, Canada has made little progress toward an ECEC system designed to meet these twin motivators. In the last few decades, Canadian kindergarten pro- grams have expanded, more child care spaces have come on stream, provinces and local nongovernmental groups have undertaken pilot proj- ects, development and quality improvement initiatives, and public spending has crept up to some extent.

But Canada has seen little real sub- stantive or transformational change to reflect the considerable knowledge that has accumulated, not only about the effects of early childhood educa- tion and care but about the policy choices that make these programs work in the best interests of children and to support families and communi- ties. This is so even in Quebec, which in the late 1990s became Canada’s ECEC leader by striking out on its own to develop an ECEC system more advanced than any in Canada.

Yet the data show that with a change in government and shifting political agendas even Quebec’s progress toward full access and high quality has flagged in recent years. At the same time, other provinces have failed to follow Quebec’s lead by making transformational change in their own ECEC situations. Overall, when we compare what we know about ECEC and what we do in Canada, it is clear that although much good evidence is available, ECEC policy-making in 21st century Canada is not based on the ”œbest available knowledge.”

Over the past few decades, exten- sive evidence about the effects of ECEC on children, families, com- munities and the economy and about how characteristics of ECEC policy and programs are associated with these effects has accumulated from two main kinds of sources. The first knowledge source is a large body of empirical studies, many in the area of child development. These come mainly from the United States with a small but robust body of Canadian research in several disciplines and some studies from other countries. One key policy-related conclu- sion that has been drawn from this literature is that it is the quality of early childhood programs, not participation in them per se, that has an impact on children’s development; some evidence suggests that poor- quality ECEC programs may have deleterious effects, especially for chil- dren from poorly resourced homes. Indeed, psychologists Jack Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips note in an American Academies of Science research summary that ”œthe positive relation between child care quality and virtually every facet of children’s development that has been studied is one of the most consistent findings in developmental science.”

Exemplified by the reports of Margaret McCain and Fraser Mustard, the benefits of ECEC programs have most recently been associated in Canada with an emphasis on human development as interpreted in concep- tions about prosperity in modern soci- eties. Economists such as Nobel Prize winner James Heckman are often cited to support arguments that universal early childhood education must be part of the human capital strategies considered critical for modern compet- itive countries. In this conception, the quality of an ECEC program is judged by the extent to which it has the right characteristics for producing children who are ”œschool ready.”

While there are arguably other valid ways of conceptualizing the benefits of ECEC programs for children, the research discussed here primarily reflects benefits based on measures of cognitive, language and social development.

A robust collection of empirical studies go on to identify characteristics of child care programs and policy that are predictive of or associated with bet- ter child outcomes or higher program scores using standard measures of ECEC quality linked in research to child outcomes. These include teaching staff and directors with post-secondary training in early childhood education; higher staff salaries; a favourable staff-child ratio; a positive centre organizational climate. A small- er selection of studies show the value of program characteristics such as reflective practice, good physical environ- ment and a planned approach using a defined curriculum framework. In addition, multiple studies identify aus- pice ”” whether a program is operated for profit or not for profit ”” as a key quality-related characteristic. These studies have found that programs oper- ated as profit-making businesses are significantly less likely to produce high quality than not-for-profits.

A second important policy-related conclu- sion drawn from research is associated with accessi- bility. A 2008 literature review by Gillian Doherty concludes that accessibili- ty to high-quality ECEC programs benefits all children, not merely those who are poor or at-risk. Doherty, reviewing the evi- dence on universal approaches com- pared to targeting services to the vulnerable, asserts that ”œwhile the initial costs [of universal ECEC] are higher than those for targeted pro- grams, a universal approach is an attractive alternative.” She summa- rizes the evidence on two points: first, universal programs reach a higher proportion of vulnerable chil- dren than targeted programs. Second ”” perhaps even more significant ”” child development research shows that high-quality ECEC programs benefit children from all income groups, not just those who are poor, although children from low- resourced homes may benefit most.

Policy research is the second important source of evidence about best practices in ECEC. Policy research ”” often comparative ”” has accumu- lated as many countries have put workable ECEC systems in place or begun contributing significant public funds. International and comparative studies have identified ”œbest” prac- tices, for example, those described in an Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD) 20-nation study (1998-2006). Using the detailed country analyses, the OECD concluded that eight ”œpolicy lessons” were associated with accessi- ble, high-quality ECEC systems: (1) a systemic and integrated approach to policy development and implementa- tion; (2) a strong and equal partner- ship with the education system; (3) a universal approach to access, with par- ticular attention to children in need of special support; 4) substantial public investment in services and the infra- structure; 5) a participatory approach to quality improvement and assur- ance; 6) appropriate training and working conditions for staff in all forms of provision; 7) systematic attention to monitoring and data col- lection; and 8) a stable framework and long-term agenda for research and evaluation. The study concluded that ”œcountries that have adopted some or all of these elements of successful policy share a strong public commitment to young children and their families.”

Some policy studies also identify ”œworst” policy practices. An exam- ple of this is found in Australian politi- cal scientist Deborah Brennan’s work documenting the results of the corpora- tization of Australian child care. Her analysis describes how generous ”œdemand-side” subsidies fuelled the boom-and-bust growth of a publicly traded corporate child care monopoly but did little to make child care high quality, equitable or affordable, illustrat- ing the OECD’s 2006 conclusion that ”œevidence suggests that direct public funding of services brings more effective governmental steering of early child- hood services, advantages of scale, bet- ter national quality, more effective training for educators and a higher degree of equity in access compared with parent subsidy models.” Another example of analysis of ”œworst practices” comes from psychiatrist Michael Rut- ter’s 2008 analysis of the poor results of the British Sure Start program as preven- tative intervention; he suggests that, among other policy features, the absence of clear policy and implementa- tion plans is implicated in Sure Start’s poor results: ”œIf it is to work…there must be clarity and explicitness on what is to be integrated. The problem for Government is that there is no ”˜it’ that comprises Sure Start.”

The two sources of knowledge about ECEC discussed here ”” empirical research and policy studies ”” are not mutually exclusive but often rein- force one another. Today it would be accurate to say that there is extensive evidence upon which Canada could draw to use the ”œbest available knowl- edge” about best policy and program practices to develop ECEC models that work for Canadians.

In the review of Canada published in 2004 that was part of its compara- tive study, the OECD commented that ”œnational and provincial policy for the early education and care of young chil- dren in Canada is still in its initial stages.” The OECD team’s comments on Canada’s early childhood situation included the following observations:

  • Other than in Quebec, there has been no significant expansion of the system in Canada over the past decade.

  • There are long waiting lists in community services, including in cen- tres catering to children with special needs.

  • There is a market-deter- mined fee structure (except in Manitoba and Quebec), resulting in high parental contribu- tions to child care costs.

  • The subsidy system, with widely varying and complex eligibility criteria, is inefficient, and is accessed by only 22 percent of lone parents and around 5 percent of married moth- ers from low-income families.

  • Public expenditure rates per child in child care are low.

  • There is generalized underfunding in the child care sector with respect to wages, learning envi- ronments and infrastructure, both physical (premises, outdoor spaces) and non-physical (the infrastructure of planning, admin- istration, training, monitoring, evaluation, data collection).

  • There has been a general stagna- tion in quality across the board. Canada’s limited, badly directed public funding and weak public policy have had two key results for ECEC. First, although research shows ECEC quality to be of key importance for children’s development, quality in Canadian child care is too often mediocre at best. Second, reliance on user fees and ineffective fee subsidy systems as well as scarce or nonexist- ent capital funding and limited plan- ning have acted as barriers, making fees unaffordable and the supply of programs far from adequate.

As the OECD research describes, public investment in ECEC systems has become the norm in many coun- tries, which have set up publicly funded systems blending education and care reasonably well and making them available to most children from two or three years of age. Canada, however, has done little to modern- ize its approaches to ECEC or to develop a systematic approach. The two key ECEC policy issues of quali- ty and access, and the policy tools that affect them ”” financing, regula- tion and human resources ”” have generally stagnated in Canada as pri- orities, ideologies and policy approaches have shifted repeatedly at the provincial and federal levels. For the most part, key policy-linked features of ECEC programs including educational requirements for early childhood educators, how educators are paid and treated, financing meth- ods, system and program develop- ment and approaches to quality have remained relatively static, little touched by the knowledge that has been accumulating for more than two decades.

To be accessible to a family, a place in an ECEC program must be avail- able at an affordable price (or have no fee), and the program must be suitable vis-aÌ€-vis age, language, schedule and ability/disability. Between 1992 and 2006, coverage (number of children divided by spaces) in regulated child care increased only about 10 percent, from 7.5 to 17.2 percent for children aged 0-12 years. The most recent data show that between 2006 and 2007, expansion in child care supply fell to the lowest level in some years. This slow down includes Quebec; while Quebec’s expansion had accounted for half Canada’s child care growth in the early 2000s, its growth has now slowed dra- matically. At the same time, coverage is extremely variable across Canada: Quebec provides spaces for 34.8 percent of children aged 0-12, while Saskatchewan covers only 5.9 percent.

Cross-Canada data on affordabil- ity (fees) have not been available since 1998. Two provinces, Quebec and Manitoba, set maximum fees ($7/day in Quebec, $376/month for two- to five-year-olds in Manitoba). Elsewhere, parents pay close to the full cost for child care, unless they are among the minority of low-income families ”” estimated by the OECD to be only 22 percent of lone-parent families ”” lucky enough to get a fee subsidy.

It should be noted that access to kindergarten ”” an ECEC program usually quite separate from regulated child care in Canada ”” is universal and free, but in most provinces it is available only for five-year-olds. In addition, as kindergarten is only part- time (2.5 hours/day in most provinces), it doesn’t accommodate working parents’ schedules.

Quality is ECEC’s second main policy issue and, as noted earlier, key in determining child outcomes. In the most recent Canada-wide study of quality in 1998, regulated child care programs were predominantly rated as mediocre to poor using standard observational measures and key indi- cators of quality (training in early childhood education, wages, working conditions and benefits, management style, in-service training and staff morale). Two Quebec studies show similar results.

More recent data on quality that are comparable across jurisdictions or over time are unavailable. Current information on some indicators of quality is available but not encourag- ing. Early childhood education training requirements and child care wages are low. Auspices ”” linked in empirical studies to staff training; wages; working conditions; staff turnover and education, administrative envi- ronment; compliance with minimum standards of health, hygiene and safe- ty ”” continue to be a contentious issue with a new multinational and chain child care sector growing in some provinces. And although research recently reviewed by the Australian Gary Moore shows that quality in early childhood education is partly related to the quality of the physical environment, the OECD’s review of Canada noted that physical environments for Canadian child care are often makeshift and poorly designed, materials and equipment are ”œof doubtful learning quality,” and the quality and availability of outdoor environments are frequently poor.

Public financing has a significant impact on ECEC quality through staff wages, retention, working conditions, physical facilities and equipment. When calculated per space, public financing in Canadian child care is extremely low (mean spending per regulated space was $3,259 in 2006, an increase of $36 over 2004 and only $74 since 2001) compared to public education or financing in countries with high-quality ECEC programs. Over time, Canadian ECEC financing outside Quebec has increased very lit- tle. Indeed, the 2006 final report of the OECD’s study showed Canada’s public spending for ECEC programs (including regulated child care and kindergarten) to be the lowest among the 14 countries included; Canada as a whole spent only 0.25 percent of GDP compared to more than 1.5 percent of GDP for the highest spenders.

It’s now almost 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women recommended a national daycare act and more than two decades since the 1986 Task Force on Child Care filled a 400-page report with rationales and recommendations for setting up such a system. There have been federal, provincial and local government reports, task forces and commissions on the need for child care and the value of early childhood education. Conceptions about working mothers and early childhood education have shifted, a solid majori- ty of Canadian mothers are in the paid labour force, and child poverty has remained stubbornly high.

Four federal govern- ments ”” Trudeau’s, Mulroney’s, Chrétien’s and Martin’s ”” have put ECEC on their political agendas and taken at least the preliminary steps to ward a national approach. A Canada-wide advocacy movement has continued to press for a universally accessible, high-quality, publicly funded, not-for-profit system. But four decades after the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, Canada still has no coherent approach to ECEC. Although it is a provincial/territorial responsibility, ECEC is still fragmented into care and education and characterized by dubi- ous quality and unequal access in every region of Canada.

Comparing the current state of Canadian ECEC with best policy practices reveals a vast gap between what we know and what we do. Much good evidence is readily available but ECEC policy-making in 21st century Canada continues not to be based on the best available knowl- edge, leaving an extensive evidence gap. This is neither good public poli- cy-making nor in the best interests of Canadians. 

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