The early childhood programs the federal government directly oversees are often mired in legislative duplication, over-regulation and blurred responsibility for delivery. Governance ambiguity spills over to complicate funding effectiveness and to compromise program access, quality and accountability. These same challenges are found at the provincial level.
Early childhood services are split between education, parenting and care programs. Kindergarten is delivered as an extension of public education, an entitlement for all and with no fees charged. Parenting programs have a mix of public and community sponsors. Where available, they are generally offered at no or minimal cost to parents. Neither kindergarten nor parenting programs address the need for non-parental care—that falls to child care. But with little public support, child care services are unresponsive,24 fragmented, unaccountable and vulnerable.25
In 2006, the Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development (OECD) released Starting Strong, the most comprehensive examination of early childhood education and care ever undertaken. Its investigation of services in 15 countries over eight years found that in jurisdictions where the policy and delivery of education and child care are divided, similar challenges prevail:
Service providers are also challenged:
The OECD’s profile of Canada embarrassingly fits the profile.26 Funding and access challenges were highlighted, but the absence of coherent legislative and policy frameworks was also identified. There is a need for more public investment, the OECD suggested, but how it is spent requires equal consideration. The Early Years Study 2 built on the OECD’s observations and advocated integrating early childhood service silos into a single, comprehensive system, aligned with public education at the program, policy and management levels. The education of young children would be the system’s central purpose, but programs should also champion the role of parents and be organized to facilitate work and family schedules. The report encouraged governments to consult with stakeholders to develop strategies with priority targets, benchmarks and timelines, and with guaranteed budgets to fund appropriate governance and expansion.
Since then a convergence of opinion among policy makers, academics, parents and educators agrees that early childhood programs should be structured to ensure all children start school ready to succeed. In Learn Canada 2020: Joint Declaration Provincial and Territorial Ministers of Education,27 the pre-kindergarten years were named as the first of the four pillars of lifelong learning. High-quality early education should be available to all children, the declaration said. Its sentiments are echoed in other public policy and research documents identifying early childhood programming as a prime lever to school success.28
Spurred on by the requirements of the federal/ provincial/territorial early learning and child care agreements and a more mature understanding of the role of public policy in supporting early childhood education, jurisdictions are adopting a more comprehensive view of the early years. Many have produced policy frameworks with visions and goals. Education departments have become more activist in the promotion of learning for young children. More attention is being paid to curriculum approaches in early childhood settings, and efforts have been made to enhance educators’ training. In Alberta, one of the minister of education’s three priorities is to explore options to provide children with access to early learning opportunities. In British Columbia, early learning is part of the directives for schools and has resulted in a curriculum framework for all early childhood programs. Manitoba’s five year plan aims to strengthen partnerships between schools and child care.29
One trend is to appoint a lead department responsible for early childhood services. Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have taken steps to combine their education and child care departments. In Quebec, schools have been responsible for after-school programs for children ages 5 to 12 years since 1998.
Figures 5.4 and 5.5
Reasonable concerns that schools are not sufficiently cognizant about how young children learn have been addressed by organizing stakeholder input to build on the grassroots work of communities. Some jurisdictions have developed special divisions within their education ministries to address the unique needs of young learners.
But moving child care under the wing of education departments is sometimes as far as it goes. On the ground service delivery remains split between child care and education. Parents still struggle to find affordable, reliable services, and service providers continue to answer to multiple funding and regulatory masters.
Creating an early childhood education system out of a service patchwork is tough work. It takes new legislative and regulatory oversight, the amalgamation of agencies and changes to funding arrangements, position descriptions and recruitment and training practices. Integrating education and care is not an incremental process. On their own, partnership protocols and stakeholders tables intended to better coordinate services often entrench the status quo. System-making requires a paradigm shift in our understanding of the real circumstances in which young children live and actions to match. There is room for improvement in every jurisdiction.
Next: 3.2 Policy developments: The provinces and territories - Funding
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