||Volume 20, Number
3, November/December 2007
Early-learning initiatives in BC steeped in politics
BC misses out on a golden opportunity to get it right from the start
By Noel Herron
One-time book handouts to preschoolers, a drop-in program for
caregivers masquerading as a genuine Head Start initiative, and to
top it off the added embellishment of the minister of
educations title with the add-on of Minister Responsible for
Early Learning and Literacy.
As in the recent case of Linda Reids (minister of childcare)
recent booster seat for needy families fiasco, all of BCs
early-learning projects to date are primarily designed for maximum
political exposure with minimum educational or social benefits.
Given the new StatsCan listing pointing to the dramatic increase
in child poverty in BC and the premiers own recent progress
board report showing that the province ranks near the bottom of the
social indicators category in Canada (9th out of 10 provinces),
the BC Liberals approach to early-learning and preschool
programs is nothing short of cynical manipulation.
Just over three years ago, the current provincial government
wanted to slash the already inadequate provincial funding allocation
to school boards for inner-city schools, only to be stopped cold by a
coalition of angry Vancouver parents, teachers, trustees, and
Out of BCs 1.1 million households, currently 177,935 are
lone-parent families struggling to make ends meet. The fact remains
that while one-in-four children in BC continues to live in poverty,
Victoria continues to ratchet up whopping surpluses year after
This should be of deep concern to the general public.
In order to give the appearance of doing something on the social
services and education files, this province treats us to a series of
superficial gestures and so-called policy initiatives.
Some of these are photo opsministers of education delivering
new textbooks to schools, a minister of childcare (including the
premier and attorney general) handing out booster seats to
representatives of disadvantaged kids, plus the ongoing handouts of
over-the-top press releases proclaiming that the province is becoming
the "most literate jurisdiction in North America."
With early learning in BC, its quite simply a case of crass
politics triumphing over sound educational practices.
The expansion of the Liberals blatantly mislabelled
"Strong Start" preschool program in school districts across
the province is the governments answer to its stated concern in
the Throne Speech that, "currently 25% of children (in BC) are
not ready to learn when they enter Kindergarten."
Placed under the jurisdiction of local school boards to lend them
a semblance of educational credibility, the three-hour-drop-in
"Strong Start Centres" dont even remotely resemble
genuine head-start programs in other Canadian or American
The cognitive boost in early childhood programs, so amply
demonstrated in long-established, genuine, head-start programs with
well-trained teachers at the helm, have been reinforced time and
again in longitudinal studies in the United States (Head Start from
1965) and in Britain (Sure Start from 1997).
With "Strong Start" in BC, stay-at-home parents (this
excludes most of the provinces 170,000 single parent families),
or grandparents must accompany their three- or four-year-olds to
these centres during the day.
In reality, these are limited babysitting services masquerading as
early childhood programs for those able to attend. They are totally
divorced from the contemporary working world needs of todays
parents. (The current crisis in the availability of childcare spaces
for working parents is yet another example of the gap between the
real world and government policies).
At the start of the current school year, an estimated 8,500 (of
the projected 35,000) Kindergarten students entered our public
schools lacking readiness for regular schooling.
Experienced Kindergarten teachers tell us that many of these
students have a limited vocabulary, a poor understanding of colour,
letters, numbers, sizes and shapes, and are often far behind many of
Their ability to listen and to follow the simplest routines is
frequently a struggle for them.
Sadly, their attainment gap widens as many of them advance into
At the start of the current school year, Hilel Goldman of
UBCs Early Learning partnership called for "a
pre-Kindergarten program that would be available to all BC
children," to be put in place.
Across the border recently, two leading Democratic candidates for
the US presidency, Hilary Clinton and John Edwards, joined a chorus
of early-childhood education advocates, governors, foundation, and
social activists promoting the cause of universal pre-Kindergarten
Here in BC, when one compares the present faltering and highly
politicized early-childhood initiatives with solid, long-term,
national and international programs one quickly realizes how far we
have fallen behind other jurisdictions.
And, more importantly, how much we are short-changing some of the
most vulnerable kids in our educational system.
Up to now we have missed a golden opportunity to get it right from
the start with our preschool kids.
Pre-Kindergarten at Strathcona Elementary
Pictured above is teacher Evelyn Tam with her pre-Kindergarten
class in Lord Strathcona Elementary School, Vancouver. This is one of
a handful of pre-Kindergarten classes for four-year-olds run by
school boards in BC. (The Ministry of Education maintains no record
of pre-Kindergarten classes, simply a listing of its recently
established "Strong Start" programs.) The pre-Kindergarten
class at Strathcona has been in existence for 16 years and, together
with its all-day Kindergarten, comprises the schools
early-learning program for this inner-city school.
Principal, Jim Ion, views his pre-Kindergarten class as "the
jewel in the crown of our early-learning program.
"This class, with its fully developed curriculum, has been a
tremendous developmental support to our regular Kindergarten program.
The pre-Kindergarten kids are better prepared to learn, to socialize,
and to enjoy school when they enter Kindergarten. Before taking the
class, pre-schoolers in Strathcona are assessed by UBCs
Dr.Clyde Hertzman as the least prepared for Kindergarten in the City
of Vancouver. So our staff and parents greatly appreciate having this
program at Strathcona."
Noel Herron a former Vancouver principal and school trustee
authored "Every Kid Counts," a history of Vancouvers