When Stephen Harper scrapped the national early learning and care program created by the Martin government in consultation with, and signed off by, all of provinces and territories, experts, advocates and parents alike bemoaned the shortsightedness of the prime minister.
Ignoring the social and economic evidence regarding the important return on investing in early learning, we thought Canada would be left even further behind as a result.
Not so. Several provinces decided to proceed without the promised federal partnership. Quebec had already committed to an innovative approach to child care and family-friendly policies including an upgrade to parental leave.
Ontario’s Premier McGuinty has stepped up big time with a bold pre-natal to age 12 vision with its universally available full day learning for four- and five-year-olds that will be implemented over a four to five year phase in. And experts and advocates across the country are taking notice of other provinces’ foray into early learning for pre-first graders, including P.E.I.’s remarkable quick off the mark full implementation of mandatory full-day kindergarten for five-year-olds.
I recently met P.E.I. Minister Doug Currie. While I was already impressed with what P.E.I. was doing, the minister’s passion gave me pause to look a little deeper into what’s happening on the Island. Glad I did because there is much to learn from P.E.I.’s approach.
P.E.I.’s approach reinforces the need to ensure that the quality of the pedagogy is job one, that those who work with young children need to be well versed in early child development and supported well. The in-service training provided to all those involved in the school and the commitment to high quality pre-service education will be key to enabling the social, emotional and cognitive gains that excellent learning programs can provide. As well, a new early years play-based curriculum that will focus on infants to four-year-olds that will do wonders regarding respecting the wondrous individual differences of the youngest learners is on the way.
It seems as though the entire world has embraced the investment opportunities of early learning at the same time. True, we do not have national leadership at present. But we have nationwide leadership with provinces like P.E.I., Quebec, Manitoba, British Columbia and Ontario doing variations on the early learning theme.
While there are widely different contexts, both similarities and differences provide good grist for learning from one another. Ontario, with its 13 million people and P.E.I. with its 140,000, would seem like strange co-learners, but the opposite is true. P.E.I. is already “all-in” with its five-year-olds giving Ontario an opportunity to learn from the Island’s staffing and training model and compare notes as Ontario continues its phase-in process.
Ontario has already done some excellent work on curriculum that might be of interest to P.E.I. and is beginning a longer-term process to develop its pre-natal to age 12 children’s system. And P.E.I. has moved quickly from a mixed non-system approach with huge variations regarding salaries, fees and programming to a more publicly managed and coherent system working both to implement full-day kindergarten for five-year-olds and at the same time working to develop its learning and child-care offerings. P.E.I.’s clear vision and comprehensive implementation is worth studying.
And we both have similar challenges as a result of moving off the status quo in supporting better futures for our children. It is always the case that something innovative and something new is always challenging for some. Those who operate child-care centres need some time to adjust to the challenge of losing five-year-olds in their centres as they reshape their programs to best serve a younger group of children; so that over time, our fragile child-care offerings become better, more accessible and available.
While we do not have a national program, we have provinces on the move. I look forward to increasing my own knowledge by learning more about what P.E.I. and others are doing over the next few years.
In the final analysis, we need to ensure that it means the same thing to be a child through the supports children and families are provided whether she or he lives in Cavendish, Thunder Bay, Saint John or Kelowna. This would be the best measure of national progress.
In the meantime, provinces like P.E.I. are taking the lead and learning across provinces will get us closer to something that looks like we are all from the same nation, when what it means to be a child in Canada has common meaning. Maybe then, a federal government can run to the front of the parade and become a partner in something that is so evident in its nation-building qualities.
Charles E. Pascal is professor of human development and applied psychology with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto and special adviser on early learning to the premier of Ontario.