On an ordinary weekday, in any French suburb or town, remote Norwegian fishing village, or Spanish city, virtually all three-year-olds (and many two-year-olds) will be found at play in early childhood programs with other preschoolers from their neighbourhood or village. Indeed, in the 1980s and 1990s, early childhood education and child care pro- grams (ECEC) became a mainstream policy and program area in most industrialized countries. Today in continental Europe, most children begin publicly funded ECEC programs sometime between their second and third birthdays, whether their mother is in the labour force or not. In some countries, these full school-day programs are free with some fees for infant/toddler programs and for ”œtop-up” portions of the day that accommodate parents’ work hours. In Britain, one of the European Union’s ECEC strag- glers, the ruling Labour Party has recently made a series of com- mitments to improvements in ECEC programs.

Not so in Canada. Even in the United States, considerably more three-year-olds attend early childhood programs than is the case here. Though the federal and provincial governments have introduced several reforms to the family policy package in recent years, Canada has failed to make progress toward a system of uni- versal high quality ECEC.

Today ”œearly learning and child care” or ”œearly childhood education and care” refers to child care (or daycare), nursery schools and kindergarten, ideally delivered as one seamless program. There is strong support for the idea that ECEC should be available to all children whether they are poor or middle class, whether or not the mother is in the workforce, abled or disabled and whether they live in Montreal, rural Manitoba or a remote Inuit community, that is, it should be universal. In Canada today only kindergarten for five-year- olds, usually part-day, is universal and the main ECEC programs, kindergarten, nursery school and child care " are sep- arated, not integrated.

Why has Canada been such a lag- gard when it comes to ECEC? Two political elements help explain how this has developed. The first arises from the nature of Canadian federalism in which responsibility for social programs is provincial/territorial. While the respective roles and responsibilities of the two orders of government have shifted and changed over the years, Canada underwent a deconstructing trend in the 1990s. As the federal gov- ernment relinquished its 1960s and 1970s leadership role that created the modern social safety net, the challenges of devising a new, costly social program began to seem insurmountable in a decentralized, downsizing Canada.

Second, as a liberal democracy with a relatively weak welfare state, Canada has traditionally relied on the marketplace for development and pro- vision of child care. This means that public investment in child care has been limited and there is high use of informal care; reliance upon parent fees with subsidies for those who qual- ify; and private, often for-profit provi- sion. Perhaps the clearest symbol of the private nature of Canadian child care is that almost all responsibility for developing and managing it (even finding capital funds) is assumed by the private sector " parent groups, voluntary organizations or entrepre- neurs. International research (such as that of the OECD) shows that, in com- parison, ECEC is provided more equi- tably in countries where there is a much stronger state role in funding, policy setting and service delivery.

These two factors have shaped the current situation: a hodgepodge of ECEC policies and programs, most of which are sparsely supported with lim- ited public funding and unevenly dis- tributed across regions and family circumstances. At a practical level, this means scarcity and inequality of opportunity for children and families in virtually all regions of Canada.

Beginning in the 1980s, successive federal governments did attempt to initiate national strategies for developing child care in collaboration with provinces/territories but none of these was successful. ECEC even stalled in the 1990s as the federal gov- ernment withdrew the limited sup- port for regulated child care that had been available through the Canada Assistance Plan. Federal transfer pay- ments were reduced and most provinces/territories balked at spend- ing more and more funds for these programs. Child care and kinder- garten programs were sometimes eroded, sometimes strengthened as the provincial/territorial governments who are responsible for them changed political stripes with almost bewildering frequency. Differences among provinces/ territories in access and quality grew even greater, but overall the ECEC situation was essen- tially stagnant in the 1990s.

In March 2003, six years after adopt- ing a National Children’s Agenda that promised to produce a ”œcomprehensive strategy to improve the well-being of Canada’s children,” the federal govern- ment and all provincial/territorial gov- ernments except Quebec (which had already begun putting its own universal program in place) agreed to a Multilateral Framework on Early Learning and Care. This framework agreement restricts feder- al funds to regulated child care and requires public reporting in key areas, but it has no national goals, objectives, legis- lation, targets and timetables or imple- mentation plans. At the time, the initiative was described by then Human Resources Development Minister Jane Stewart, credited with securing the agree- ment, as ”œthe first step to a national child care program.”

If Canadian provincial/territorial and federal governments are to meet the com- mitment of the National Children’s Agen- da, a number of well-crafted next steps must follow this ”œfirst step.” In addition to the Multilateral Framework on Early Learning and Care, the groundwork for these next steps has been laid by the vision statements and principles already agreed to by federal, provincial and terri- torial governments in the National Chil- dren’s Agenda and the Early Childhood Development Agreement (2000).

In this context, the obvious key question is: When will we move to the next step? A second, less obvious ques- tion is: What is the next step?

Observers believe that the time is ripe for the next steps on ECEC. There are two compelling reasons for this. First, abundant child develop- ment research has reinforced ideas that were " until recently " new to many Canadians: learning begins at birth, young children learn through play, development in the early years forms a platform for future success, and early childhood education programs have an important role to play in how chil- dren develop. The strength of this research has convinced observers from diverse areas of interest such as eco- nomics, politics and health to embrace the idea that high quality ECEC is the foundation for lifelong learning and fundamental for a prosperous society.

Parents also seem convinced that ECEC programs are valuable. Experience in all regions of Canada shows that when kindergarten, nursery school, preschool and child care centres are available, affordable and of high quality, families do enroll their children in them. Indeed, some parents line up for hours on kindergarten registration day and put their names on child care and preschool waiting lists before the child is born. This signals that Canadian parents from all social, eco- nomic and cultural groups and from all regions seek opportunities for their children to get the best start in life.

A second " and equally important " reason the time seems ripe for ECEC has to do with the labour force partici- pation of mothers of young children, which has been steadily increasing for at least twenty-five years. It rose from 68 percent to 73.4 percent between 1995 and 2001 (for mothers with youngest child 3-5), with the majority employed full time. It seems clear that while a growing number of women and men take paid parental leave in the year after birth, the prevalence of family arrangements whereby children were mostly in their mother’s care until they reached school age is no more: women are in the workforce to stay. Given this reality, and the compelling evidence on the importance of the early years, the haphazard way Canada has responded to this fundamental social change is neither appropriate nor sensible.

Two overarching policy issues char- acterize Canada’s current ECEC situation. First, public policy at both national and provincial/territorial lev- els is incoherent, shifting and poorly developed. Second, the amount of public financing devoted to ECEC pro- grams overall is severely inadequate. These two issues not only go hand-in- hand but are also directly linked to the main program issues " the problems with access to programs and the uneven quality of child care that per- vade all regions of Canada.

For ECEC programs to be accessible to families requires an adequate supply of services, affordable fees (either very low cost, geared to income or free to the user) and serv- ices that fit the needs and character- istics of the family and the child (for example, they must be responsive to parents’ work schedules and to chil- dren’s needs). While kindergarten for five-year-olds is free through the pub- lic education system, it is usually pro- vided only for 2.5 hours a day, a time span that suits few parents who are employed (or training) full time or even those who are employed part time. In addition, some kinder- gartens rotate morning/afternoon shifts, and still others are offered full- day, every other day, especially in rural communities.

Provincially/territorially regulated child care (this includes child care cen- tres, nursery schools and regulated fami- ly child care) is available only for an estimated 12 percent of children aged 0- 12 or 15 percent of children aged 0-6 (coverage by province ranges from 4.2 percent (Saskatchewan) to 21.1 percent (Quebec) (2001 figures). Child care is especially scarce for infants and toddlers, for those in rural and remote communi- ties and for children with special needs. Note also that regulating a ”œspace” usu- ally does not mean attaching public funding to it. While some provinces pro- vide some funding for child care pro- grams, such as wage and equipment grants, this is usually too limited to bring parent fees into the affordable range. Additionally, while all jurisdictions except Quebec provide fee subsidies, eligibility is limited so many families are excluded. Thus, in all provinces except Quebec, regulated child care is primarily a user-pay program. This, together with the short supply of fee subsidies, even for eligible low income families, and sur- charges that even subsidized families have to pay means that most low-, mod- est- and middle-income families cannot afford regulated child care.

Yet it is the quality of ECEC programs " not merely whether children partici- pate in them " that is critical in deter- mining how developmentally beneficial they are. This pertains to all children, both from low-income and from affluent families (although children from low- income homes may benefit more from high quality ECEC). Research shows that the quality of ECEC programs is pivotal in determining whether they are benefi- cial or potentially harmful. If an ECEC program is of poor quality, it does not provide early childhood education or ”œthe best possible start in life.”

While there are various ways of con- ceptualizing quality, there is consider- able knowledge about what makes an ECEC program high quality in the ”œschool readiness” and social competen- cy sense. The importance of teacher training in early childhood education, good working conditions and wages and low turnover are well documented. Equally well known are the connections between quality and structural features of programs like regulation, funding and operational basis (i.e., not-for-profit or for-profit). Studies show that while the quality of regulated child care programs varies considerably between and within Canada’s provinces and territories, gen- erally, the quality is often too mediocre to be termed ”œdevelopmental.” It is also important to note that the large majori- ty of Canadian children whose mothers are in the paid labour force are in unreg- ulated care arrangements such as unreg- ulated family child care or are in the care of a babysitter or nanny. While these are of unknown quality, it is generally agreed that they do not provide devel- opmental early childhood education.

What are the next steps? The first step toward the long-term goal (10 or 15 years) of a universal ECEC system would be for the federal gov- ernment to make a clear public com- mitment to achieving such a system. Once the long-term goal of universal ECEC has been established, a specific action plan and a well-crafted public policy framework are absolutely funda- mental to success " steps that will require close federal/provincial/territo- rial collaboration.

The ECEC policy framework should include: a) pan-Canadian principles; b) national legislation; c) timetables estab- lishing service targets and plans for meeting them; d) pan-Canadian stan- dards and strategies for meeting them; e) definition of roles and responsibilities for management and funding; f) clear plans for accountability including effec- tive tools for monitoring and, finally, (g) adequate funding for the initiative.

An important next step for the fed- eral government would be to designate new multi-year funds to support the long-term goal and shorter-term targets. For the first phase of a national child care strategy, the federal Liberal caucus Social Policy Committee has proposed an initial four-year budget, with $1 billion in year 1, rising to $4.5 billion in year 4.

It is assumed that, in addition, exist- ing funds would continue to be spent on ECEC. As table 1 shows, currently provinces/territories spend more than $3 billion (estimated) on regulated child care and kindergarten, with some (notably Quebec) spending much more than oth- ers, and the federal government spends an additional $700 million. Thus, in 2001 public spending on ECEC totalled almost $4 billion (the value of private spending by parents is unknown).

Although a detailed costing would require clarification of assumptions about factors that determine the public cost such as parent fees, teacher/child ratios and teachers’ wages, it is estimated that the public cost of a mature, univer- sal ECEC program will be more than $10 billion at the end of 10 or 15 years. This figure would be consistent with Canadian estimates such as those of Cleveland and Krashinsky (1998), as well as with proposals from the European Union’s Child care Network, which rec- ommends spending at least 1 percent of GDP for ECEC for 0-5 year olds. It should be noted that the absence of a coherent ECEC policy in Canada reduces the effec- tiveness of the (not inconsiderable) cur- rent spending.

In addition to designating funds, Ottawa has several other policy tools it could employ to meet its responsibili- ties. Important next steps include:

  • Establishing an Early Childhood Education and Child Care Secretariat within the Department of Social Development. This would be charged with a) putting the vision and public policy framework into action; b) co-ordinating strategies with other departments, jurisdic- tions and sectors; c) developing and maintaining strong ties with the community and experts to facilitate knowledge-sharing; d) determining resource and research needs; and e) ensuring public accountability.

  • Developing a national plan for collecting and analyzing ECEC data. This would use vehicles such as existing provincial/territorial admin- istrative data and Statistics Canada to collect basic national data on new topics (e.g., ECEC enrolment and coverage, the quality and the status of the curent ECEC workforce).

  • Supporting a long-term research and evaluation agenda. This would be supported by sustained annual investment and build on previous federal research programs. The agen- da would include research to support key policy goals and ongoing evalua- tion of policy initiatives and resource allocation. It would involve multiple disciplines and methodologies.

While setting national goals and tar- gets demands a strong federal leadership role and resources, progress in areas fundamental to ECEC such as qual- ity, access, planning and human resources requires energetic, co-operative provin- cial/territorial collaboration. These proposals for collaboration on ECEC are very much in the spirit of federal/provincial understandings, described in the Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA) as ”œworking in partnership for Canadians.” But the interplay between the two levels of government is always a delicate bal- ancing act that requires considerable political will and creative solutions.

To facilitate the intergovernmental processes, a federal/provincial/territorial ECEC working group would work with the Early Childhood Education and Child Care Secretariat and provincial/ territorial departments. The group would work together to develop policy options within the national ECEC strategy. Important key steps include:

  • Overcoming the current fragmenta- tion of services and resources by developing blended, coherent ECEC systems in each province/territory. This process would include formu- lating effective options that use knowledge of best ECEC practices and would make the best use of existing provincial/territorial funds for regulated child care and kinder- garten together with new federal funds that could be earmarked to encourage best practices. Provin- cial/territorial models might vary according to regional needs and situ- ations. For example, one model used in Quebec for putting in place a universal, more blended ECEC system over time includes a) full-day kinder- garten for all five-year-olds, with after-school care programs (Ministry of Education) and b) full-day child care programs (Centres de la petite enfance under the Ministry of the Family and Children) at a low flat fee (originally $5 a day, now $7) for all children aged 0-4 as space permits.

  • Developing long-term provincial/ territorial plans for achieving target levels of service. This would take into account national targets and timetables, existing levels of ECEC coverage, diversity and the needs of special populations (children with disabilities, Aboriginal Canadians and people in rural areas) and the quality of existing services.

  • Developing plans for making ECEC financially accessible to parents. There could be a variety of options for balancing public funding with parent fees (e.g., low flat fees such as in Quebec, sliding fee scales as in Sweden or no-fee full-school day pro- grams with wrap-around program- ming to meet labour force needs as in France) but financial accessibility for all would be the ultimate goal.

  • Bringing provincial/territorial regu- latory and pedagogical regimes into line with the best available knowl- edge about ECEC quality. This would include developing clear provincial/territorial strategies for improving quality, increasing the qualifications of staff and develop- ing provincial/territorial ECEC cur- ricula that consider the whole child.

  • Setting targets for improving wages, benefits and working condi- tions for ECEC employees. This would take into account existing wage levels, staff/teacher education levels, existing wage levels in the region, and specific situations such as provincial/territorial pay equity.

The political context for these next steps on ECEC is the accession of a new prime minister in Ottawa. As Jane Jenson observes in the December/ January Policy Options, Prime Minister Paul Martin will have to overcome the legacy of Finance Minister Martin " a legacy that has left Canada’s social safety net in tatters, increased income inequality, and increased the social exclusion of Aboriginal people, immigrants and the poor. However, Prime Minister Martin’s promises of ”œnew era” for Canada, com- mitments to ”œstrengthening our social foundations,” to ”œbuilding a 21st century economy” as well as to a ”œNew Deal for cities,” to Aboriginal people and to pre- serving medicare auger well as a system of ECEC could well play a transformative role in each of these. In other words, if it is well-designed, ECEC is a value-added program that provides tremendous ”œbang for the buck.” It would indeed make a convincing centrepiece for recommit- ment to social policy in Canada.

I stated at the outset that a strategy for a well designed national system of ECEC must be at the heart of a renewed social policy mission for Canada. A crit- ical part of such renewal is getting key elements " the goals and objectives, who the programs are for and how they are delivered " right from the start and designing policy approaches that have been shown to reliably deliver the most desirable outcomes. This is important both in terms of serving families and children and in terms of making the best use of public finances.

Investments in early childhood development are central to evidence- based strategies for lifelong learning that will contribute to Canada’s social fabric, competitiveness and increased productive growth in the 21st century. And a system of high quality ECEC is fundamen- tal to healthy child development and lifelong learning. It is also key to labour strategy, the urban agenda, equality for women, social integration of newcomers, strengthening social cohesion and is a social determinant of health.

Since the 1970s, the question of an effective system of ECEC has risen to the top of Canada’s social policy agenda a number of times but has failed to become a reality. Other nations with a variety of histories, cultures, fiscal capac- ities and political arrangements have set the enabling public policy for ECEC pro- grams for their people in motion. In Canada " as in other nations " taking these steps requires vision, commitment and the political will to turn aspirations into reality. Most observers " even the strongest advocates " agree that build- ing a universal system of high quality ECEC programs across Canada will take some years. They are equally clear that doing so requires a process beginning with long-term vision and employing a planned approach with goals, targets and timetables.

Ultimately, whether Canadians will come to have the ECEC programs they want and need will be a state- ment about how we see our fellow cit- izens, our country, and ourselves.