For a top-notch child-care system close to home, Canadians should look to the country’s smallest province.
Over the past two years, Prince Edward Island has launched what many experts consider the most comprehensive child-care strategy since Quebec brought in its renowned low-fee program in 1997.
PEI is tackling an issue that child-care advocates argue Canada needs to address to boost the economy, relieve families of the rising cost of care that’s often poor quality and improve the futures of the next generation of skilled workers.
In 2010, PEI decided to move kindergarten – until then publicly funded but delivered by private daycare centres – into the school system. The government recognized it was creating a major problem for child care. The existing centres estimated they would lose 40 per cent of their children and a major source of revenue, so to cover the costs, they would have to hike the fees for younger kids.
To make matters worse, the province offered the newly created kindergarten teaching jobs to qualified early-childhood educators (provided they agreed to work toward a university-level degree in the field). This meant centres would lose some of their best staff, if not the owners themselves. If the daycare closed, some towns stood to lose their only source of child care.
So the province started over. Before the new program, PEI had the highest percentage of regulated spots in Canada – double the national average – though its overall financial investment in the system was low. Child-care providers complained that the combination of poor funding and seasonal work force meant they sometimes couldn’t cover salaries or electricity bills.
But by 2011, a year after the first class of five-year-olds arrived at school, the province had built a network of 45 licensed Early Years Centres with stable funding agreements. Parent fees were set by the province, staff training was under way, and a provincial curriculum was in place. The number of infant spaces doubled.
It’s easy to dismiss PEI’s progress as too small-scale to be instructive – the province is spending $7-million, one-tenth of 1 per cent of its GDP. (By comparison, Quebec spends $2.2-billion on its child-care system, or roughly 0.7 per cent.) PEI has a population of just 140,000 – less than one-tenth that of Montreal – and fewer than 6,000 kids under five.
European countries have built their national child-care programs in small, focused steps. And PEI’s progress has earned praise from the country’s leading childhood development experts.
“The goal is to create the best positive environment for the next generation,” says Premier Robert Ghiz in an interview with The Globe and Mail.
“If we want to compete with the Chinas and the Indias in the world, it needs to start with the education system.”
As both Quebec – which keeps working to improve quality and add spaces to its popular, publicly funded, $7-a-day system – and PEI demonstrate, good education and a modern family policy can start long before kids arrive at kindergarten.
Here are 10 lessons that should guide a national discussion to improve child care in the rest of the country.
1. Make the economic case clear
Public child care is an expensive investment and a tough political sell when the majority of the population – the segment that most votes – is long past the days of diaper bags. But the benefits of affordable, accessible child care to the economy and the health of families and children aren’t confined to one generation.
PEI, along with Quebec, considers early learning a labour-force strategy as well as a child-development issue. To boost its population and its economy, PEI has increased immigration and launched public relations campaigns to lure native islanders home.
The province is trying to expand in tech industries such as aerospace and bioscience, and Mr. Ghiz says cutting-edge child care “will help train the next generation of islanders for the work force” and help attract people back.
2. Call it education
One of the first moves PEI made was to shift child care from social services to the Education Ministry, says Kathleen Flanagan, the child-care consultant whose report formed the basis of the province’s strategy. The move established the program’s child-development goals and put educators in charge of its design. (Four other provinces and two territories have done the same.)