5. Early childhood options for all

All children should have the opportunity to attend places like the ones described in this chapter, staffed by sensitive, qualified ECEs like Darlene, Aisha, Nathan and the others. Few do. Most children must settle for mediocrity and live with the consequences. Experience tells us it is not enough to merely add preschool spaces; we need to be concerned with how good they are. Enrolling children in overcrowded classrooms with inept educators can make their lives worse. But quantity often wins out over quality for policy makers because it is easier to boast about increasing spaces than improving classroom quality.

Figure 3.4

Researcher Carl Corter notes: “In Canada, the story of government roles in early childhood programs has been told mainly in words like “fragmented” and “underfunded”, certainly not “foundational” for providing coherent supports to children’s development and to their families.”32

In the absence of public action to support children’s early learning, community innovators, often responding to the call of the Early Years studies, mobilize grassroots activities designed to meet the needs of young children and their families. Charismatic leaders bring stakeholders together to forge a common vision. Networks are established to collaborate around joint objectives and activities. Playgrounds, after-school clubs, morning playgroups, take-home book bags and Saturday gym programs emerge and are welcomed by families.

But community-driven initiatives operate on the margins of mainstream programs. They rarely challenge service mandates, funding or organization and most fail when the leadership changes. Occasionally large organizations or governments pick up innovations and morph them into yet another stand-alone program on the ever-changing list of activities available in communities. Seldom are they integrated into schools or health services to become part of the core services delivered to families.

Governments also initiate their own collaborative efforts, bringing service providers and stakeholders together to make services work better for people. These rarely have the authority to command the participation of key players or to direct the reorganization of mandates or funding. They usually last as long as there is money to allocate.

Evaluations of integration efforts agree—the goodwill of community advocates and committed stakeholders alone does not sustain institutional change.33 The personal experience of community leaders concurs: “Twenty years ago I thought I could work together with a school board leader and we could sprinkle the magic dust of collaboration around and all good things for kids and families would follow,” observes Graham Clyne, a community activist.

Community-level coordination efforts can inform new policy frameworks, but successful transformations require high-level political will and direction that goes beyond single ministries to embrace the whole government. Without top-level direction, departments remain accountable to their governance structures. As a result, most aim to improve coordination while retaining their respective funding and legislative mandates.

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