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Purple bibs to identify the children of cpe du carrefour, a daycare as they get ready to go outdoors in Montreal, October 17, 2013.

This is the first in a Globe six-part series about building a better daycare system in Canada. We'll examine just who is watching the kids, across the country and around the world. Join the conversation on Twitter: follow @globelife and use the hashtag #globedaycare

A group of four-year-olds stand at a busy intersection in Montreal's east end, holding hands and counting down in unison as they wait for the light to change. They aren't just killing time: The purple bibs they wear mean that they are from the nearby Carrefour centre de la petite enfance, a publicly subsidized daycare centre staffed by educators trained to integrate informal math and language lessons like this one into everything their tiny charges do.

The kids come from a range of backgrounds. Some spots have been reserved for low-income families, others are used by professional parents who live in high-end condos popping up in the area or more affluent neighbourhoods nearby.

All of them pay the same rate for full-time care: $7 a day.

That's the envy of parents just about everywhere else in Canada, who shell out as much as $2,000 a month (in some cases more than their mortgage payments) for care that amounts to babysitting in somebody's basement.

But Quebec's program is about more than just affordable daily care. It is a wildly ambitious experiment in society-building – a controversial $2.2-billion bet that better daycare can not only transform child development but also vastly improve the prospects of women and the poor, and build a better labour force.

Such a bold approach has been watched closely across the country and around the world. And more than 15 years after it was launched by Premier Pauline Marois, then a cabinet minister, the results of Quebec's big gamble are increasingly evident – a big payoff both in social and economic terms.

Yes, the "Sweden of North America" still has growing pains. Cheap childcare, so hotly debated when it was first proposed, has proved so popular – among all income brackets – that quality has too often come second to demand. Truly universal access remains a stumbling block – especially for many of the province's poorest kids.

But the state of childcare in the province is still a giant step up from the unlicensed and unmonitored care that so many Canadian parents are stuck with. Childcare in Quebec has also proved to be a formidable social lever – decreasing poverty, increasing mobility for mothers and producing more babies among all income brackets.

All of which offers an important lesson for other provinces. As our population ages, Canada will need both more babies and more working adults than ever before – just as young professionals and new immigrants face an unprecedented squeeze on their time and their pocketbooks.

The only solution? A new way to mind the kids.

She is better known today for her hard line on sovereignty and controversial Charter of Values, but Ms. Marois has a unique perspective on families. Thirty years ago this month, she became the first cabinet minister in Canada's history to give birth.

"I had four babies in six years," she recalls during a Globe and Mail interview. "Then I said, 'My dream is that all families in Quebec have access to childcare services and parental leave.'"

That dream, which was rolled out in the fall of 1997 after years in the making, followed the lead of many European countries – particularly Sweden – and made early childhood education part of a sweeping package of family-friendly reforms.

The province expanded leave benefits (adding five weeks exclusively for fathers) to encourage parents to stay home in the first year, when even the best infant care can't compete with mom and dad. Full-day kindergarten was created for five-year-olds, with schools required to provide after-school care as well – a move more than a decade ahead of current initiatives by provinces such as Ontario.

And for preschoolers – for whom good care is both hard to find and extremely important to foster social and cognitive skills – a daycare space was promised for every child who needed one. Perhaps the most daring decision of all: no matter their income or the age of their child, the spots would cost every citizen the same amount.

In Sweden and other European countries, parents' fees are set according to sliding scales based on income up to a maximum amount. But Quebec decided that higher-income families were already paying more in income tax so "we're not going to make them pay twice," says federal New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair, who was part of the opposition at the National Assembly when the daycare plan was being vigorously debated.

To deliver a one-fee system, Quebec now invests $2.2-billion a year in its childcare strategy, nearly two-thirds of the $3.6-billion spent by all provinces and territories combined. The number of childcare spaces that are regulated – subject to government standards for staff qualifications and safety and subsidized by as much as $13,000 a spot – has risen to more than 230,000 from 77,000 before the system was introduced. Nationally, there are only enough regulated spots for about 22 per cent of children under 5 – Quebec now has enough for half of them.

But half is clearly not enough. "All these families came out of the woodwork who wanted this kind of daycare, who had been using babysitters and grandmothers," says political scientist Jane Jenson, who is the Canada research chair in citizenship and governance at the Université de Montréal and has studied Quebec's childcare policy.

"Parents really wanted it. And so each government over time has had to make more of a commitment to increasing the number of places."

It should have been no surprise that parents rushed to grab spots. Nothing in the rest of Canada comes close to Quebec's flat rate – first proposed at $5, then raised to great outcry to $7 in 2004 after the Liberals came back to power. A family in Gatineau, Que., pays $140 a month for a space in regulated, centre-based care – just across the river in Ottawa, the same family would pay $900 a month or more.

But this surge in demand has led to some unforeseen compromises.

Cutting corners on what those low-fee spots would look like, for one. Ms. Marois had envisioned a system mainly made up of non-profit, publicly funded centres, which are known to offer better care. But such spots are the most expensive and time-consuming to produce – and the province didn't have enough qualified educators to staff them.

To meet demand, Quebec has relied more than it had intended on home-based services, which are subject to less stringent regulations and employ caregivers who have less training. The Parti Québécois government also assumed that private daycare, where quality is often lower, would be phased out. But costs increased faster than expected, partly because newly unionized early childhood educators bargained for higher wages. So when the Liberals came back to power in 2003, they reined in costs by allowing for-profit care to expand its share of public spots; in exchange for a lower subsidy, for several years they were also permitted to meet lower standards.

Since the PQ's return to power a year ago, Premier Marois has already started adding a promised 28,000 spots, which should bring regulated care to about 250,000 spots over the next few years. But that may still not be enough.

Meanwhile, there are waiting lists just like those that frustrate parents in the rest of the country.

Montreal first-time mother Sylvana Côté applied for a provincial spot as soon as she knew she was pregnant. But when she was ready, none was available: The daycare at her workplace, for instance, had 2,000 children on the waiting list and only five spaces opening in the short-term for infants.

When it comes to getting a $7-a-day spot for anyone younger than a toddler, she says, "I think the chances are about as good as winning the lottery." Even private centres in her neighbourhood were full. "It's not like you can say, 'I am ready to pay the price,' and there's a space," she says.

As a last resort, she tried an unlicensed home daycare, spending days there observing the kind of care her son received, only to decide that for $40 a day, it wasn't good enough.

"This time is spent eating, putting children to sleep, and changing diapers," Ms. Côté reports. "He was just hanging out, waiting his turn." So today she is back at work, but paying two babysitters with ECE training to look after her son, now 15 months old, at home.

The cost? More than $2,000 a month.

70,000 more working moms

Even limited spaces, though, have allowed Quebec to meet one major goal: to get moms working and lift families out of poverty. And that's gone a long way toward paying for the system itself.

In 1997, women 25 to 44 in Quebec were less likely to be in the labour force than those of any province outside Atlantic Canada. Ten years later, their participation was among the highest in the nation – an about-face especially notable among those with children under 12.

The number of mothers with jobs went up across the country. But unlike places such as Newfoundland, where oil was fuelling some of those hires, Quebec employment rates aren't tied to an obvious change in the job market. Quebec economists, such as Pierre Fortin, a professor at the University du Québec à Montréal, ascribe the boost to childcare. According to Dr. Fortin's work, in 2008 alone, the program accounted for 70,000 newly employed moms.

Increasing the number of working moms is not only good for the labour force or women's career aspirations. European studies also show that when household income is shared more evenly there's better gender equity. (According to a study released this summer, happiness scores have risen in the province, too, for men as well as women.)

For Hortense Ngalula, a single mother originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, affordable care has meant the difference between improving her education and sitting around with few prospects. When she needed care for her six-month-old daughter, a social worker helped her find a spot at a Carrefour location. Now a toddler, the little girl is learning from trained Early Childhood Education workers who, as she gets older, will use a play-based curriculum to prepare her for school.

Ms. Ngalula, meanwhile, is about to finish the technical course she is taking and wants to become an administrative assistant. Without public care for her child, she says, "I don't think I would have been able to leave the house."

Quebec's low-cost daycare has already changed the fortunes of many women like Ms. Ngalula. In its first decade, the percentage of working mothers rose 22 per cent. In that same period, the number of single parents on welfare was cut in half, and their after-tax income increased, on average, by 81 per cent. The past 16 years have also seen Quebec's child poverty rate halved – and while other anti-poverty measures have contributed to this decline, affordable childcare is seen as the most significant.

The growing ranks of working mothers has produced a substantial economic payoff too. A 2011 study found that the benefits just from the increased employment of those with children under 4 – both through the extra tax they pay and the reduction in tax transfers and welfare payments they now require – recouped 48 per cent of Quebec's childcare costs.

In a study he co-authored with two other economists, Dr. Fortin estimated that for every dollar spent on the program it brought back $1.05. Ottawa was a happy recipient as well: the federal government received an additional 44 cents on the dollar in tax transfers it was spared – "for nothing," as he puts it.

Not just for the 'poor'

Childcare outside the home has historically been a welfare service – a social support for poor mothers.

But research – certainly the best European examples – makes a case for a system that is offered to children from every income level. Good childcare helps middle-class parents reconcile career aspirations with family priorities. It also helps grow those families; when Quebec's daycare program was launched, the birth rate, long a source of despair, began a steady ascent that has levelled off only recently.

And research shows that high-quality early education benefits babies of all backgrounds – especially those with learning and behavioural issues that may make it harder to succeed at school.

A system that treats all families the same also gets more political support. It's "part of what made Quebec's program so bulletproof," says Susan Prentice, a childcare researcher at the University of Manitoba.

"The later [Liberal] government who came in and tried to undo it faced this huge wall of public opposition because you just had everybody who used and loved their childcare saying, 'Touche pas.'

There are downsides, however. While a system that mixes children from different backgrounds can foster social cohesion and help lower-income families avoid the stigma often associated with any program solely geared to "poor kids," critics of the one-fee-for-all system argue that it means low-income families (as well as parents who choose to stay home) are indirectly subsidizing daycare for their wealthier peers in their taxes.

Quebec has also struggled to address the fact that in its original design the universal system overlooked a universal truth – that better-off and better-educated parents are nothing if not resourceful. In its early years, when spaces were being created at a furious pace, the program relied heavily on neighbourhoods, community groups and workplaces to organize and apply for new registered daycares that would then be publicly funded.

"So places where parents were already politically active, already thinking about children's development and knew how to work with their neighbours – they knew how to get a childcare centre," Dr. Jenson says.

Because regulated daycares don't have official catchment areas like schools, families with means can arrange to have their children driven to locations when spots opened – and also know how to get their names on the right waiting lists.

All of which puts parents with limited cash and connections at a disadvantage.

"You cannot provide a public system in such a way that you ask people to play musical chairs for access," Dr. Fortin says.

The quality challenge

Even for kids who find a spot, the long-term gains aren't certain.

Childcare advocates often cite the findings of the famous Perry Preschool Project as evidence of the transformative impact of high-end early education. In the 1960s, a small group of disadvantaged African-American children, then three or four years old, participated in an intensive program in Michigan that was taught by university-educated public-school teachers and included weekly home visits. Researchers followed them into adulthood: Compared with a control group of peers, they were more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to have a criminal record as adults and more likely to have a job when they turned 40.

A universal system, as high-performing Scandinavian nations demonstrate, may also achieve good results – but, without specific interventions for children who need extra help, researchers say, it cannot expect to match those of the Perry experiment.

It's too soon to say what Quebec's program can do. Its Grade 11 standardized test scores, for example, includes results only for students who "graduated" from the childcare program's first two years. Their class did better, but to credit their preschool experience for the gain would be too much of a leap. After all, a lot happens to children once they leave daycare, both at school and at home, and prominent U.S. studies have found that, without ongoing support, some learning gains among low-income kids disappear early in grade school.

And assessing the impact of childcare is not a simple matter of test-taking. Children's response differs based on how early they enter childcare, how much of the day they spend there, the stimulation they receive at home and the education level of their parents, especially their mothers.

Queen's University economist Steven Lehrer has a special interest in education, and studies data gathered for the National Longitudinal Survey of Canadian Youth and Children which, until it was cancelled last year, had tracked a broad range of factors, including social development and vocabulary scores, in young children since 1994.

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.

Despite the private sector's strong lobby, the government is also targeting non-profit centres for its 28,000-space expansion. And last month, Quebec announced plans for a central waiting list. It's meant to allow all families to access the system more easily, and help officials react more rapidly when new spots are required.

Even Sweden took time

Still, the sustainability of Quebec's $7 miracle remains in question – especially as the province struggles with a heavy debt load and lousy credit rating. Ms. Marois's government has so far found a way to avoid cutting direct funding to childcare, but that may not be a line the government can hold for the long term.

A rate hike is something experts such as Dr. Fortin believe is long overdue. If supply can't match demand, and quality is an issue, should a Montreal family earning $200,000 a year get $7-a-day childcare, when there aren't enough spaces for a lower-income family down the street?

The answer depends, of course, on who is asked that question.

For her part, the premier is in no hurry to change the fee structure. Ms. Marois concedes that it is difficult to point to clear gains in childhood development, but argues that, even after 16 years, it's too early to measure the system's performance "because the network is not yet completely developed; we're in the process of finalizing it."

She may have a point. Back in the early 1990s – about 20 years after Sweden put its ambitious programs in place – parents were complaining, even publicly protesting, about waiting lists and too-high fees, as well as concerns that kids who needed preschool most weren't getting spots. It has taken the country more than four decades to perfect its system, and it is still tweaking it today.

Perhaps all Quebec needs is more time, and, an election call notwithstanding, the political clout that comes with having one of the program's architects in power.

Certainly, for all its flaws, parents don't want Quebec to turn its back on its pioneering social experiment.

In a survey a decade into the changes, 92 per cent of parents using a subsidized spot were happy with it – and 66 per cent of those who didn't have a spot wished they did.

"The ball game has changed," Dr. Fortin says. "The program gets the enthusiastic, near-unanimous political support of users, so that the practical question from now on is how to improve it. Child development is doing very well in other countries that have the same kind of program, so if Quebec's is wanting, it must be due not to the type of program but to its specifics. So let's improve these specifics."

And what should the rest of Canada take away from a program with laudable intentions, popular support – but, so far, uneven benefits?

A childcare system takes patience – and real money – to build. Even with its multibillion-dollar investment, and working moms helping with the bills, Quebec spends only 0.7 per cent of its GDP on childcare, less than the one-per-cent the OECD recommends for a high-end system.

Creating spaces also has be to balanced against quality. And targeting is key: even in a universal system, low-income children need a boost to get to the front of the line for the best spots.

Governments should expect that line to be long. In a country where most families are trapped by a market-based system that charges high fees for poor service, parents are desperate for a fix.

Tweet your thoughts to authors @erinanderssen and  @kimmackrael, with the hashtag #globedaycare

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