2. Changing the conversation

At the same time as Quebecers were launching their children’s revolution, Dr. Fraser Mustard and I released the first Early Years Study (1999). It became a conversation-changer for traditional stakeholders and sparked interest among new elements in the scientific, financial and health communities. In it we recommended integrating the existing jumble of children’s services into community-based early child development and parenting centres that would be open to every child. The vision led to projects such as First Duty in Toronto, Schools Plus in Saskatchewan and Community Schools in South Australia. These early demonstration sites gave policy makers a place to “touch and feel” the difference between conventional, siloed children’s service delivery and a comprehensive format. Parents got to experience an integrated program; politicians, practitioners and experts from far and wide came to see what the future could look like. This helped boost governments’ confidence, allowing them to commit to expansion.

These models were highlighted in Early Years Study 2, which focused on the policy framework necessary to sustain such initiatives. The report recommended that early childhood programs be grounded in public education. The work of these leaders who showed how to combine the governance, resources, facilities, staffing and pedagogical approaches of early learning, care and family supports continues  to inspire innovation elsewhere. Indeed, it is informing demonstration sites supported by the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation, in partnership with the governments of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and a First Nations community in Ontario.

Alongside the development of these early learning laboratories, ground-breaking research revealed how the interplay between nurture and nature in earliest childhood sets a course for future learning, health and behaviour. New economic studies analyzed how preschool impacts on children, translating into increased economic growth and a significant return on public investment. The findings were disseminated through reports, conferences, journal articles and public information campaigns, many of them supported by a group of  foundationsa that have come together to make awareness of early human development a focus of their work.

Together we have a goal that is ambitious, promising and fundamentally progressive: to expand publicly funded preschool education for all 2- to 5-year-olds. It would be available, affordable, top-quality and voluntary. Parents would decide if and how often their children attend. We are building on recent success; the majority of 5-year-olds in Canada now attend full-day kindergarten, and some jurisdictions are expanding access for 4-year-olds. The crosscountry analysis in chapter 5 shows that even 2- and 3-year-olds are more likely than before to attend some type of group programming.

Our proposal is also realistic. By broadening education’s mandate to include younger children, we can bridge the gap between parental leave and formal schooling. By including the option of extended-day activities for families who request it, Canada can have its long-demanded early learning and care program. We make publicly funded education the starting point of our initiative because it enjoys the confidence of Canadians and already reaches out to all school-aged children. With less effort than starting a whole new social program from scratch, education can meet the needs of preschoolers as well. At the same time schools can become the centre of the community for families with supports and programs from pregnancy on.

The fight for high-quality, universal early education is part of a larger battle to broaden the scope of government responsibility to ensure the success of young children and their families. This includes better parental leave, income support and family-friendly work environments. Quality is the key word. The benefits from high-quality early education and care have been firmly established, but poor-quality programs can be worse than nothing, retarding children’s development, wasting taxpayers’ money and inflicting long-term harm on efforts to expand preschool when they fail to deliver promised results.

The results promised are justified by an avalanche of evidence showing how a public commitment to improving children’s development can have transformative effects. The corollary of failing to act is deleterious for the individual and for society. The developmental gap that emerges so soon after birth for so many children not only robs individual potential, it also creates an unsustainable burden for our education, health and mental health systems. It deprives the economy of productive capacity and society of engaged, contributing participants. Reversing this trend requires smart decisions  about program and system design. It requires public investment in a system for early childhood, comparable to the public investment made for the education of children 6 to 18 years.

a Atkinson Charitable Foundation; Fondation Lucie and André Chagnon; Lyle S. Hallman Foundation; Lawson Foundation; Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation; J.W. McConnell Family Foundation; Muttart Foundation and Jimmy Pratt Foundation.

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