All-day kindergarten and seamless, school-centred childcare for four and five-year-olds are the recommendations of a proposed new education policy that could herald a sea change in Ontario's approach to child development, one that could become a national model.
After two years of study, former deputy minister of education Charles Pascal will today release his long-awaited report on the province's early years education program.
It recommends that Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty make the neighbourhood public school the hub of every community, where parents will get everything from prenatal advice and nutrition counselling to childcare for those under four, full-day kindergarten, and before and after school programming. Its doors would be open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., its hallways filled with parents, infants, school-age children and grandparents, Mr. Pascal said.
By placing all these services under one roof, parents can minimize the difficult transitions that disrupt their own lives and the lives of their children, while allowing teachers and early childhood educators to focus on a mixed program that in the long run will boost literacy, graduation rates and post-secondary participation, the report says.
All this would begin in 2010 - fulfilling a 2007 campaign promise by the McGuinty Liberals. The all-day kindergarten for four and five-year-olds would be phased in over three years. It would not be mandatory but all parents would be entitled to it.
There would also be daycare, after school and summer programs that would have some cost attached, ranging up to $27 a day, the report states, with some provisions for low-income earners.
By 2020, Mr. Pascal is recommending that workers also be guaranteed 400 days of parental leave to allow them more time with their children during a critical developmental period.
He sees all these initiatives as part of a grander vision to better equip the province for the rigours of the innovation economy, and draws on the research of dozens of academics who have advocated a similar initiative for years.
Canada has been ranked by Unicef as having one of the poorest records on early learning when compared to other wealthy nations, but years of similar reports have never been acted on.
At the moment, 27 per cent of Ontario students enter Grade 1 with significant educational deficits compared to their peers, and a great many will never close the gap, going on to lives of poverty and sometimes crime, the report states.
Many studies have shown it's much more efficient to invest early in a student's life than to try to intervene later, Mr. Pascal said.
The recent report, Ontario in the Creative Age, by Roger Martin and Richard Florida, described early childhood development as "the highest payoff investment we can make in our long-run prosperity."
"This is an economic stimulus package that will keep on giving," Mr. Pascal said. "The economic return on investment is not a fairy tale."
The initiative would bring an additional 250,000 children into the school system, and would require the renovation of schools and the hiring of more teachers and early childhood educators to staff the new programs.
But with the province sinking further into deficit as a result of the global recession and the decline in manufacturing, some are skeptical about whether Ontario can afford such a grand vision.
Progressive Conservative education critic Joyce Savoline said the report will obviously be popular with parents, but its cost hasn't been calculated in this year's budget.
"I don't know where they're going to find the money," Ms. Savoline said.
Mr. Pascal estimates that additional operational and staffing costs would be in the range of $790-million to $990-million a year, while extra capital costs to renovate and expand public schools would be about $130-million a year over 25 years.
Gerry Caplan, who was co-chair of a Royal Commission on education that issued a report recommending a similar program in 1995, said such a policy is long past due.
"Based on all the evidence we saw, nothing was a greater driver of children's success. It equalized class, it equalized equity issues, it made it easier for all kids to learn better," he said. "In terms of public policy, there couldn't be a single better idea."
Martha Friendly, a leading childcare and education researcher, said she expects the report will be the model adopted by provinces across the country as they move toward a more seamless integration of childcare and education.
"It's become quite obvious, as the head of Unicef said years ago, that childcare and early childhood education are inseparable," Ms. Friendly said.
"All the provinces have this same kind of split system, and very few have any provisions for four-year-olds."