As Canada emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, early education is key to the recovery of not just children and families, but of our social economy.
Children have endured learning delays and many have seen worsening mental health. The pandemic has also rocked an early childhood sector that was already unstable and uneven. We must do better.
The newly released Early Childhood Education Report 2020 monitors quality and changes in early child education across Canada, and suggests critical issues to consider. The report is produced by the Atkinson Centre, a research centre based at the University of Toronto that uses best available evidence on early child development to inform public policy.
The report evaluates quality based on analyzing data across all 13 Canadian provinces and territories in five equally weighted categories. It examines how early childhood education services are integrated across ministries, funding in ratio to provincial or territorial budgets, access, learning environments and how governments are being held accountable for policy decisions.
The recent historical federal 2021 budget announcement promised over $30 billion dollars towards early learning and child care with a vow to increase access and drastically reduce costs. It also proposes $2.5 billion over five years to build long-term investments in Indigenous-led early learning programming that parallels the government’s commitment to provinces and territories.
However, as heard in all budget announcements, these are funding and aspirational goals. The challenge lies in bilateral negotiations that successfully support each jurisdiction’s unique needs and ongoing initiatives. We must be careful not to take shortcuts.
Program quality must develop along with the growth of spaces and the capacity to offer more affordable parent fees. This will require using public infrastructure including school boards to expand access to early childhood programs, and a robust workforce strategy that addresses a current educator recruitment and retention crisis.
The Early Childhood Education Report 2020 is the fourth edition capturing the impact of the 2017-20 early learning and child care bilateral agreements.
The 2017 Multilateral Early Learning and Child Care Framework represented the first time in a decade that the federal government brought attention to early education, followed a year later by the Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework.
These frameworks set the groundwork for provincial or territorial governments to strive towards a common goal to expand access, affordability and inclusion.
Across the country, there are both similarities and stark differences in how early learning and care is run.
For example, 75 per cent of two- to four-year-olds in P.E.I. have access to regulated early learning programs, compared to only 27 per cent in Saskatchewan.
The inclusion of children with special needs in early learning programs that receive public dollars are only mandatory in three regions; Alberta (within early childhood services programs that serve children aged three and up with exceptionalities, including kindergarten), P.E.I. (within publicly managed early years centres: these must meet higher quality standards and employ all certified staff) and Manitoba.
Read more: Child care after the coronavirus pandemic should be more inclusive of children with disabilities
In 2011, we reported only eight provinces or territories with a curriculum framework in place to guide educator practice. Our report this year demonstrates that now all 13 jurisdictions have a curriculum framework, however, it’s only mandated in P.E.I., Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Québec, Ontario, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.
The qualifications of educators vary greatly across the country, as does the ratio of qualified to unqualified staff required in programs. No jurisdiction in Canada requires that all staff be qualified. Alberta only requires one in three staff to be qualified for preschool children.
Salaries of early childhood educators vary across the country. Yet they remain stagnant while related professions such as teachers have enjoyed salary increases. Low and stagnant wages contribute to country-wide shortages in early childhood educators with many leaving the sector.
Read more: Canada's COVID-19 child-care plan must start with investing in early childhood educators
In some places, workforce shortages have led governments to reduce qualification requirements. Alberta no longer administers the child care accreditation system, while Ontario has tabled legislative revisions that would allow people to work with children four years and older who are not certified in early education.
The 2017 federal funding prioritized access, quality and inclusion, and aimed to add 40,000 spaces for children zero to five across the country. We were able to report an addition of over 100,000 new spaces current to March 31, 2020, however, how the pandemic affected access is not yet clear. Many programs have collapsed under the financial stress brought on by COVID-19.
Overall funding allocation to early learning has seen an almost two-fold increase since the release of the first edition of our report to over $14 billion in 2020 from from over $7 billion in 2011.
A 25 per cent increase in overall funding was seen just since 2017, with provinces and territories increasing funding spurred by federal interest and investment. This is a noted difference of only nine per cent increase between 2014 and 2017 when federal interest was non-existent.
This demonstrates that even small federal action can produce significant change, stimulating spending and improving access.
More than half of provinces and territories have shown notable improvements in the quality of their early learning and child care provisions.
Although our 2020 report does not capture recent changes made in the Yukon, the territory is making notable leaps forward in their programming and affordability, and the territory partially credits the report as a guiding document. Child-care operators now receive $700 per month per child from zero to four years of age, reducing average monthly parent fees to $200. Full-day kindergarten for four-year-olds outside of Whitehorse will start in September 2021.
Educator shortages have been addressed by new wage enhancements with up to a $17.11 per hour top-up, taking the median salary of educators in the Yukon to the highest in the country. The region also has moved oversight of early education into the education ministry, integrating and streamlining services.
Transforming services to realize a system similar to public education is vital. Public delivery of early learning and child care is associated with better working conditions and increased compensation for educators, streamlined administrative costs and higher program quality.
School boards play a significant role in educating younger children in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten (junior kindergarten). Full-day kindergarten for five-year-old children is offered in all regions except Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Full-time pre-kindergarten programs for four-year-olds are offered in Nova Scotia, Ontario and the Northwest Territories, with Québec committing to province-wide pre-kindergarten by 2023.
Newfoundland and Labrador and P.E.I. have plans to roll out pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds. Federal funding can be leveraged to support these school-based early learning expansions.
A skilled workforce, leadership and ongoing professional learning are foundational to high-quality early learning and child care.
As the federal government negotiates funding with provinces and territories, this must be top of mind. Based on Canada’s population and the number of available spaces in regulated child care, we are currently at only 39 per cent access for children between zero and five, meaning we are looking to more than double access.
With shortages of a qualified workforce, we cannot allow expansion to be accommodated by reductions in qualifications or ratios of qualified staff. This will greatly reduce the quality of the early learning environment and rob children of the benefits they deserve.