Provinces and territories have increased their investments in early education programs, but access has not kept pace with the mini-baby boom happening in this some parts of the country. The population of children aged 4 years and younger increased 4 percent overall between 2011 and 2013. Population increases may be uneven, but child population growths do not necessarily result in a corresponding bump in resources for young children.
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Some jurisdictions have opted to expand access to early childhood programs through their education systems. Seven out of the 13 provinces and territories now offer full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds, with Newfoundland readying for 2016 enrolments. Ontario and the Northwest Territories are extending full-day programming for 4-year-olds, and Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta have expanded access to 3- and 4-yearsolds in at-risk circumstances. Education departments have also become more proactive in preparing preschoolers for kindergarten. School boards in Ontario and British Columbia directly operate drop-in centres that provide a consistent program during the school year, staffed by early childhood educators. New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Quebec offer intensive orientations to kindergarten.
While education departments have increased their comfort level with young children, other than Quebec, they are reluctant to operate programs beyond regularly scheduled school hours. Regional school boards have responded to the needs of modern families by providing extended hour programming. In addition to Quebec, some school boards in the Northwest Territories, Alberta and Ontario provide before- and after-school programs.17 In Ontario, where four school boards have opted to directly provide out-of-school care, access has quadrupled, fees have decreased and early childhood educators are enjoying the benefits of public sector employment.18
For child care operators, full-day kindergarten can be destabilizing. Quebec and Prince Edward Island managed the introduction of full-day kindergarten with a comprehensive transition plan that refocused child care operators to provide services for youngeraged children. Child care programs in these provinces now enjoy greater stability and families have more options.
Under pressure from child care operators, Ontario abandoned its short-lived trial requiring school boards to offer extended hours as part of a seamless day for children in full-day kindergarten. But providing after-hours activities for children in full-day schooling is no economic lifeline for child care. Despite stabilization efforts Ontario child care programs are losing qualified early childhood educators, who prefer to work in the school system rather than the split shifts of daycare.19
While there are more educational opportunities for young children than ever before, the schism between publicly-delivered early education and child care continues, requiring parents to piece together programs to meet their work and family demands.
Public debates concerning the validity of early childhood programming often revolve around the rubric of “parental choice.” Opponents point to the large numbers of young children who do not regularly attend programming as an indication that parents either do not want or do not need organized programs for their young children. But family preferences may be disguised by a number of barriers. Are programs available in accessible locations? Do they operate during hours that meet work and family schedules? Are they affordable? Are they responsive to the language, culture and routines of the community?
Whether or not children attend programming can also be influenced by the family’s knowledge of what early education is and the benefits it offers their children. Poor health and poverty, with their related economic and social demands, may also limit parents’ views of their options. There are other ways of gauging demand. Where early years programs are present, affordable and of reasonable quality, they are well-used. Kindergarten is available for 5-year-olds across the country. Even where attendance is non-compulsory, up to 99 percent of children attend.20 In Quebec, where 60 percent of children age 1- to 4-years have a place in a state-subsidized children’s centre, 40 percent of families without a place want one.21
While access to ECE has increased, overall Canada lags behind the majority of its OECD counterparts, which have made ECE a universal program for most 4 year olds.
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17. Atkinson Centre. Resources on Extended Day (by School Board). Retrieved from www.oise.utoronto.ca/atkinson/Resources/Topics/Extended_Day.html.
18. Janmohamed, Z., Akbari, E., McCuaig, K. (in press). Schools at the Centre: An examination of extended hours programming in 3 Ontario regions. Atkinson Centre, University of Toronto.
19. Ontario Municipal Social Services Association. (2011). On the teeter-totter: The challenges and opportunities for licensed child care in rural, northern, and remote Ontario. Retrieved from www.omssa.com/lib/db2file.asp?fileid=37058.
20. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Social Policy Division, Directorate of Employment, Labour and Social Affairs. (2014). PF3.2: Enrolment in childcare and preschool. Retrieved from www.oecd.org/els/soc/PF3_2_Enrolment_in_childcare_and_preschools_1May2014.pdf
21. Fortin, P., Godbout, L., & St-Cerny, S. (2012). Impact of Quebec’s Low fee child care program on female labour force participation, domestic income, and government budgets. Research Chair in Taxation and Public Finance. University of Sherbrooke.
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