Public debates concerning the validity of early childhood programming often revolve around the rubric of “parental choice.” Opponents point to the large numbers of young children who do not regularly attend programming as an indication that parents either do not want or do not need organized programs for their young children.
But family preferences may be disguised by a number of barriers. Are programs available in accessible locations? Do they operate during hours that meet work and family schedules? Are they affordable? Are they responsive to the language, culture and routines of the community?
Whether or not children attend programming can also be influenced by the family’s knowledge of what early education is and the benefits it offers their children. Poor health and poverty, with their related economic and social demands, may also limit parents’ views of their options.
There are other ways of gauging demand. Where early years programs are present, affordable and of reasonable quality, they are well-used. Kindergarten is available for 5-year-olds across the country. Even where attendance is non-compulsory, over 99 per cent of children attend.43 Four-year-old kindergarten has been available across Ontario for two decades, and over 80 percent of children participate. In Quebec, where 60 percent of children age 1 to 4 years have a place in a state subsidized children’s centre, 40 percent of families without a place want one.44
Early childhood programs often come with hefty fees attached, yet demand still outstrips supply. More provinces and local regions are making online registries available to help parents find scarce child care placements. Scarcities run high particularly in the Prairie provinces. There is less than one child care space for every six children in Manitoba. For infants and school-aged children and for children from rural and northern communities, the gap is even wider.45 Wait times for coveted infant spaces routinely top two years. Toronto’s child care registry is restricted to those who have been pre-approved for fee subsidies. It regularly exceeds 20,000 children or 10 percent of the city’s preschool population.
Family income is a major influence on whether or not children participate in out-of-home activities with other children. Over 65 percent of children under 5 years of age represented in the poorest quartile have no involvement, compared to only 30 percent of children in the most affluent families. In Prince Edward Island, where a recent overhaul of early childhood programming has bumped participation, 50 percent of families exiting Best Start, the province-wide home visiting program for vulnerable families, do not have access to an Early Years Centre. Even in Quebec, which comes the closest to meeting parent demand, one-third of children from lowincome working families do not attend children’s centres, compared to one-quarter of children from the most affluent families.
As part of their early years plans, provinces have responded with funding to increase the number of regulated spaces, and have adapted subsidy requirements to better reflect the actual costs of child care. But child care remains within the private sphere. Whether operated by non-profit organizations or private owners, it is a market service. With the exception of Quebec, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island, jurisdictions that play an activist role in managing children’s services, most governments limit their involvement to regulating health and safety standards and using funding to encourage service expansion. Authorities may assist with planning or other infrastructure supports, but decisions about location, cost, content and clientele are the operators’ domain.
Some jurisdictions have opted to expand access to early childhood programs through their publicly delivered education systems. The number of children participating in school board operated early years programs has increased by 25 percent over the past decade.46 Six out of the 13 provinces and territories now offer full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds. Ontario is extending full-day programming for 4-year-olds, and several jurisdictions have expanded access to 3- and 4-years-olds in at-risk circumstances. Education departments have also become more proactive in preparing preschoolers for kindergarten. School boards in Ontario and British Columbia directly operate drop-in centres that provide a consistent program during the school year, staffed by early childhood educators. Other provinces schedule sessions to orient children and parents to kindergarten. Some, such as Newfoundland’s Kinderstart, are quite intensive. New Brunswick has a transition to school coordinator in each school district.
While education departments have increased their comfort level with young children, other than Quebec, they are averse to operating programs beyond regularly scheduled school hours. When considered, the needs of modern families are addressed by locating child care programs in schools. Provinces may establish guidelines to avoid conflicts, but the status of school-based child care centres rarely extends beyond that of a tenant on a short-term lease, and children’s learning is still disrupted by the back and forth between daycare and kindergarten.
For the child care sector, schools directly operating early childhood programming can be destabilizing. Schools typically take on programming for 4- and 5-year-olds, the age group that is the economic mainstay of child care. Quebec and Prince Edward Island managed the introduction of full-time kindergarten with a comprehensive transition plan that refocused child care operators to care for younger aged children. Child care programs in these provinces now enjoy greater stability and families have more options.
In contrast, a short-lived trial in Ontario requiring school boards to offer extended hours as part of a seamless day was abandoned under pressure from child care operators. The operators were concerned for their continued viability in the absence of any transitional leadership to deal with the exodus of 4- and 5-year-olds into full-day kindergarten. But providing after-hours activities for children in fullday schooling is no economic lifeline for child care. Ontario child care centres are losing qualified ECEs, who prefer to work in the school system rather than the split shifts of daycare. Centre closures are up 5 percent over 2009, and operators predict a marked decrease in services as they close or downsize to deal with the loss of enrollment.47
While there are more educational opportunities for young children than ever before, the schism between publicly delivered early education and child care continues requiring parents to piece together programs to meet their work and family demands.
Next: 3.4 Policy developments: The Provinces and Territories - Learning Environments
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