According to his research, Quebec infants in 2007 scored below those of a decade earlier, and in vocabulary tests, four-year-olds slipped slightly as well, trailing the average for the rest of Canada.
But many of these differences are too small to be clinically significant, argues Christa Japel, a child-development specialist at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and fail to account for the difference that quality care might make.
She points to other research – specifically tracking children in Quebec – that has found that formal, government-regulated care had a generally positive influence on development tests on all children, with even larger gains among low-income kids.
But parents, not just childcare programs, have an impact on results. How a government designs a childcare system can change family behaviour, sometimes with unintended consequences.
For instance, Dr. Lehrer says the national survey numbers suggest that, especially among low-income families in Quebec, parents now read less often to their children. Coming home tired after work, he says, they may assume the “education” part of their child’s day has been handled already. Parent education needs to be part of the childcare strategy.
And childcare doesn’t exist in a cultural vacuum. In Sweden, low-cost care is just one trademark of a society that supports parents who choose to work less and is extremely generous with parental and sick leave. This means that Swedish children stay home with their parents until at least their first birthday. And while almost all children attend preschool, they still spend a lot of time with their moms and dads.
In contrast, Quebec’s system is criticized for emphasizing full-time spots, making it difficult to find part-time care. Because spaces are in short supply, when one opens, parents often take it even if they aren’t quite ready or would prefer a balance between parental and public care. The result: Quebec children, especially those in the middle class, start care outside the home sooner and spend longer days there than those in the rest of the country.
Gaming the system
The most significant quality issue stems from the fact that even in Quebec’s “universal” system not all spots are created equal.
The publicly funded system consists of three types of childcare: non-profit centres such as Carrefour, home daycares that are regulated and managed through a non-profit and private, for-profit centres that offer low-fee spots. If no spaces are available, parents must wait or resort to unlicensed care – either in private centres or homes not subject to any regulation or inspection.
For-profit care can be very good– even Sweden maintains a small private sector to provide the public system with some competition. But because Swedish children are guaranteed a public space if they want one, private operators must offer something special. In Quebec, like the rest of Canada, for-profit and unlicensed care operates in a childcare market where demand outstrips supply – parents often have no choice but to take what they get.
Research has shown these last-ditch solutions are more likely to provide the lowest level of care. A 2005 study conducted by Dr. Japel and the Université de Montréal’s Richard Tremblay, one of Canada’s leading child-development researchers, assessed the programs and infrastructure at more than 1,500 Quebec centres. For-profit and unlicensed family care were four times as likely to be labelled “inadequate.”
Who receives this subpar care? The researchers found this group included 20 per cent of Quebec’s poorest children and only 9 per cent of those from wealthier families.
“The whole of idea of fostering school readiness was for everybody, independent of social background,” Dr. Japel says. “We are not there.”
Even many regulated daycares aren’t living up to expectations. The 2005 study showed that about 61 per cent of all childcare locations met a minimal standard. But the Quebec system had aimed higher – and only one quarter of them were deemed good or excellent.
So what is being done to improve quality? More inspectors have been hired to enforce health and safety standards. Some of the newly promised spots have been earmarked for lower-income families. The province is also creating a special school-based program to help four-year-olds in some poorer neighbourhoods to improve their learning skills.