Discussing a new F/P/T Early Childhood Agreement

By Kerry McCuaig / kerry.mccuaig@utoronto.ca

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A starting point for discussions on a new federal/provincial/territorial early childhood agreement

Provincial and territorial social service ministers meet with their federal counterparts this week to begin talks on a National Early Learning and Childcare Framework. The Ministers of Families, Children and Social Development and of Indigenous and Northern Affairs arrive armed with their mandate letters* from the Prime Minister to launch consultations “as a first step towards delivering affordable, high-quality, flexible and fully inclusive child care”. They have little else to table. The Liberal platform attaches no money, targets or timelines to the project.

While thin on opening content the talks do have optical significance. It will be the first time in a decade that provincial and territorial social service ministers have collectively met with Ottawa. Historically such talks have delivered, creating an intergovernmental and public dialogue and a handful of federal, provincial and territorial (henceforth FPT) initiatives that propelled the interests of young children forward. Yet by any standard public supports for the early years remain underdeveloped. Canada drags the bottom in most international comparisons*. The Early Childhood Education Report*, which compares Canadian provinces and territories to one another, exposes the social and regional inequities in early years programming.

However the absence of details going into these talks could be a bonus. The success of early childhood initiatives are traditionally measured by the counting of new child care spaces or the size of financial transfers per child. These are inadequate measures that on their own do not improve outcomes for children. The pending talks between Ottawa and the provinces/territories should open a new dialogue, and be informed by the best research, and centred around the best interests of young children. These discussions can be a catalyst for turning provincial/territorial service patchworks into effective early childhood systems that finally tackle the inequities children experience, especially those of Aboriginal heritage.

Stakeholder groups have not advanced detailed plans but do share a big picture vision* of what such an agreement might contain. They are backed by research identifying key features in early childhood systems that are necessary to deliver their promise to children, families and society:
o Enough children attend from across the socio-economic spectrum.
o Children attend regularly and for long enough to experience benefits. One-off, short-term interventions are not sufficient.
o The curriculum is child focused and delivered by educators who know how young children develop.

While any agreement arising from the negotiations is unlikely to address Canada’s cumulative early childhood deficit, it can offer a good start so long as it does not place barriers to early childhood system development and second if it provides the necessary capital and research infrastructure. The following recommendations are made with this in mind:

1. Make federal funding available for early childhood programs operated by schools.
Federal funds in past early learning agreements have excluded school-operated programs. Yet neighborhood schools are a community’s biggest resource in meeting the educational needs of its children. Today the majority of Canadian kids receive their early education at school. Eight out of 13 jurisdictions offer full-day kindergarten for five year olds. Schools in nine jurisdictions provide some junior kindergarten or other preschool programming for infants to four year olds. Jurisdictions are recognizing the advantages of growing education down to include younger children. They should not be required to change course in order to access federal funds.
While not tied to parents’ workforce participation, school-offered programs do double duty as a labour force support. Maternal labour force participation jumps when children enter primary school at age six. Where full day kindergarten is available, mothers of four- and five-year olds are in the workforce at the same rate as those with children in primary school.

2. Fund the capital costs for early childhood programming out of the capital infrastructure fund.
The Liberals have two envelopes funding their agenda – one for capital projects and another for new social spending. Early learning and care should be able to draw from both. Building costs are a major barrier to the expansion of early childhood programs; particularly those located in schools and in First Nations communities. Any new agreement must include access to Ottawa’s infrastructure dollars to support new facilities. This would address immediate needs while building sustainable capacity in communities.

3. Invest in research, evaluation, and innovation.
In a federation such as Canada’s, with distinct FPT and Aboriginal jurisdiction over early childhood services there is an important role for the federal government in supporting research, accountability and innovation. Merely counting the number of children attending programs provides no assurances to families or the public that children’s lives are improving or that services are meeting goals. Drawing on assessment tools already in use and introducing new measures where necessary should create a collaboratively established reporting format. This should be complemented by research into interventions that can make a difference in children’s lives.
Innovation funding would allow provinces and territories to rationalize their early childhood services to promote quality, accessibility and oversight. These types of processes allow governments to set informed targets and effectively measure progress.

4. Expand paid parental leave to 18 months. Raise payments to match Québec’s levels. Incorporate a “use it or lose it” period for fathers and same-sex parents.
Adequate parental leave is the foundation of an early childhood strategy. It supports child and maternal health and allows parents to develop the essential attachments infants need to thrive. A robust parental leave strategy supports parents desire to spend time with their infants and relieves the demand for infant care – a service that is both very expensive and very difficult to provide well.
Instituted in 2006, Québec’s parental leave provisions are more generous than those delivered in the rest of Canada through Employment Insurance. A Statistics Canada’s study* revealed that 90 percent of working mothers outside Québec took some type of leave following the birth of their child. On average, the leave lasted 44 weeks. One-in-four new fathers took leaves, with the average lasting 2.4 weeks.
The situation differed quite dramatically in Québec where almost 99 percent of working mothers took leave; lasting an average of 48 weeks. More than 3 out of 4 fathers took an average of 5.6 weeks leave. The higher amount of leave taking can be attributed to Québec’s more generous income replacement levels and the proviso of six weeks of leave for the exclusive use of fathers. This is an example of best practice that can be emulated across Canada.
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*LINKS:

Mandate letter: http://pm.gc.ca/eng/minister-families-children-and-social-development-mandate-letter

Internatinoal comparisons: http://www.oecd.org/els/soc/PF3_1_Public_spending_on_childcare_and_early_education.pdf

Early childhood education report: http://timeforpreschool.ca/en/

Big picture vision: CMEC Early learning and development framework: http://cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/327/2014-07-Early-Learning-Framework-EN.pdf

Leave practices of parents after the birth or adoption of young children (Statistics Canada) http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-008-x/2012002/article/11697-eng.pdf

Ten years have passed since the last early learning and childcare agreement came and went. The early childhood landscape has changed since then. There are many made-in-Canada examples of good practice and the steps jurisdictions took to achieve results. Any new agreement should facilitate needed improvements but not suggest that there is only one route to success.

These talks are taking place in an environment where there is a greater understanding of early education and its ability to leverage the best from other family policies. Still to be hammered out are the money, timing and who gets the credit but this is an historic and not a cynical moment. It is another chance for Canadians and their governments to get it right from the start for our children.

Kerry McCuaig is a Fellow in Early Childhood Policy at the Atkinson Centre, OISE/University of Toronto. Send comments to kerry.mccuaig@utoronto.ca.

Kerry McCuaig is a Fellow in Early Childhood Policy at the Atkinson Centre, OISE/University of Toronto. kerry.mccuaig@utoronto.ca

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