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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 6, April 2007

Childcare—Let’s make it happen

Early childhood programs in BC, a vast wasteland

by Noel Herron

"Up to 80 Strong Start Centres will open in underutilized school spaces over the next year."

(Speech from the throne, February 13, 2007)

The simultaneous announcement of the expansion of the BC Liberals’ much-vaunted early childhood initiative, erroneously labeled "Strong Start," and the sharp cutbacks in the established provincial network of Child Care Resource and Referral centres for young children in the same Throne Speech, highlight the disarray and confusion around the provincial government’s approach to a crucial area of public policy in this province.

In response to an uproar from the childcare community, Linda Reid, minister of state for childcare, in a recent back-pedaling e-mail message to resource and referral programs, promised to reinstate part of the funding. But $5 million is still being cut and layoff of workers and centre closures are still going ahead in parts of the province.

Additional cuts for childcare operating funding will force operators to raise parent fees and a cap on capital funding for new spaces guarantees that families will languish on waitlists for existing spaces.

Given the conflicting announcements by various ministers over the past three years, the recent disbanding of the interministerial subcommittee on early childhood, the fragmented ad hoc approach to the use of federal funds awarded last year by Ottawa, the slashing of funding to provincial resource centres that helped families find childcare spaces, and the current jurisdictional split between Tom Christensen’s Ministry of Children and Family Development, Linda Reed’s Ministry of State for Child Care, and Shirley Bond’s Ministry of Education, we now find ourselves in early childhood disarray.

By comparison with jurisdictions in Britain and France, and closer to home—in Quebec and Ontario, it is no exaggeration to say that given three decades of research and practice in this area, when it comes to planning and implementing a comprehensive continuum of quality care, learning programs, and initiatives in early childhood, BC is close to being in the Dark Ages.

It is ironic that the self-same speech from the throne that boasted about the progress in working for preschoolers and about making BC "the most literate jurisdiction in North America" pointedly contained the following statement:

"It is widely recognized that early learning experiences and development play a major role in the child’s later academic success. Currently, approximately 25% of children (in BC) are not ready to learn when they enter kindergarten."

The launch last year of pilot "Strong Start" programs, (there are 15 currently in operation according to Susan Kennedy, the provincial co-ordinator, who works out of the Ministry of Education), is a good start.

However, closer examination of these programs, of which there is little or no information on the ministry’s web site, and no written evaluation available, indicates that they are simply three-hour drop-in programs for parents or caregivers. As Kennedy was at pains to stress, they are "not preschool or childcare programs."

While there are many models for early childhood programs in existence, "Strong Start," modeled on a Toronto School Board program, should be viewed as merely a marginal intervention in the comprehensive early childhood continuum needed in BC. This was forcefully underlined by the hundreds of angry childcare protesters in front of the legislature in Victoria when the House resumed sitting.

And school boards, or rather newly-named boards of education under Bill 20’s "expanded mandate," are now responsible for "Strong Start’’ programs if they avail themselves of the measly $20,000 in funding (with $30,000 in start-up funding). According to Kennedy no decision on ongoing funding has been made, so school boards beware!

The "excessive demands" placed on some of these "Strong Start" centres, as noted by Kennedy, highlights the current crisis in childcare in BC. This essential component of any worthwhile, quality, early childhood program, was forcefully rejected by the BC Liberals during their first mandate and by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives with the latter’s $100-a-month cheque to preschool parents—called a housekeeping allowance by some critics—in lieu of childcare. It seems clear that ideological rigidity forms the basis for these rejections.

But what about preschool education programs in this province with one in four kids arriving in BC schools, by the Ministry of Education’s own admission, ill-prepared for formal schooling?

We are truly looking at a vast wasteland.

Thousands of kids arrive in Grade 1 with their variations in oral language, vocabulary, and comprehension so great that it is difficult for classroom teachers to narrow the gap between children who are more or less ready to learn in a formal setting.

Compare BC with the early childhood infrastructure in Ontario for the past decade where carefully researched and proven programs for 4- and 5-year-old preschoolers with an emphasis on literacy and numeracy are now an integral part of the public school system in that province.

BC, with the highest child poverty rate in Canada, currently does not have a single pre-kindergarten class for 4-year-olds in our public schools funded directly by Victoria. Yet both the research and practice strongly support structured and developmentally appropriate intervention for poor kids, and indeed for all other kids, at this key juncture in their early lives.

The continuation of limited and discriminatory admission to all-day Kindergarten programs (only ESL, First Nations, and children with special needs are funded) is also an affront to equality of educational opportunity.

And handing out books to preschoolers and developing parent guides, while welcome in themselves do not an early childhood program make. Neither does the recent, one-off, grant of $12 million to the BC School Trustees Association for promotion of preschool programs by school boards constitute a substantial initiative.

Unwilling to make a major, comprehensive, and long-term investment in early childhood education programs, the fragmented and sometimes overlapping policies of two separate ministries under the BC Liberals undermines the future of thousands of children about to enter our public schools.

In his recently released and excellent book on early childhood education entitled, Building Blocks, subtitled: Making Children Successful in the Early Years of School, researcher Gene Maeroff of Columbia University, notes "that students may have a lifetime of troubles awaiting them if schools don’t get it right at the beginning."

BC has yet to get it right at the beginning.

Noel Herron is a former elementary school principal and Vancouver school trustee.

Some facts and comments on daycare

  • Since 2002, the provincial government has cut $50 million in support of daycare in BC.
  • As part of the workforce, women contribute 5% of the Gross National Product—over $50 billion annually to the Canadian economy. The economy would be damaged if women were forced to withdraw from the workforce.
  • The crisis in BC daycare is highlighted by the huge wait lists of children—over 1,500 in some areas of the province.
  • Canada ranks last in a recent OECD study on early education and care.
  • The newly elected Conservative government cancelled the federal Liberals’ national early learning and childcare program.
  • Last year BC received $86 million from Ottawa but cancelling of the national agreement eliminated $455 million transfers to the province ($152 million a year).
  • Canada has some of the highest childcare fees in the developed world.
  • In February 2006, the Washington-based Committee for Economic Development, an economic and public policy organization that represents top corporate executives, produced a position paper outlining the economic benefits of high quality, early childhood programs.
  • Dr. Clyde Hertzman, BC’s leading early childhood researcher, has "mapped" BC’s 59 school district’s and found that 25% of preschoolers lacked readiness when they entered the public school system.
  • Last year’s BC Budget was ironically called "the children’s budget" by the provincial government.
  • On January 5, 2007, BC announced cuts to Childcare Resource and Referral Centres totalling 77% next year. More recently these cuts have been reduced to 36%.
  • BC’s new Strong Start initiative is a three-hour drop-in program for children who can come with a parent or caregiver during the day.

Sources: The Committee for Economic Development (Washington), Canadian Education Association, Coalition of Daycare Advocates of BC, Report on Education from the Deputy Minister of Education (Victoria), Office of the Minister of State for Child Care (Victoria), CCPA Budget Analysis


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