1. Governance

Early childhood services are split between education, parenting and care programs. Kindergarten is delivered as an extension of public education, an entitlement for all and with no fees charged. Parenting programs have a mix of public and community sponsors. Where available, they are generally offered at no or minimal cost to parents. Neither kindergarten nor parenting programs address the need for non-parental care—that falls to child care. Market delivery dominates the delivery of child care services, leaving them fragmented, unaccountable and vulnerable.

In 2006, the OECD released Starting Strong, the most comprehensive examination of early childhood education and care ever undertaken.14 Its investigation of services in 20 countries found that in jurisdictions where the policy and delivery of education and child care are divided, similar challenges prevail:

  • Coverage is sparse.
  • Not all families receive the services they are eligible for.
  • Service location and affordability are barriers.
  • Service hours and parents’ work schedules often conflict.
  • Families with multiple needs have difficulty fitting services together.
  • Families lose needed services as children age or their circumstances change.

Service providers are also challenged:

  • There is no ongoing contact with families during their children’s early years.
  • Inflexible mandates and funding criteria prevent the delivery of cohesive support.
  • Funding is based on outputs rather than outcomes, making it difficult to tailor services to families’ diverse needs and circumstances.
  • Mandates are focused on the treatment of deficiencies rather than their prevention or the promotion of healthy development.

The OECD’s 2004 profile of Canada fit the description of countries with divided policy and delivery of early education and child care.15 Funding and access challenges were highlighted, but the absence of coherent legislative and policy frameworks was also identified. There is a need for more public investment, the OECD suggested, but how it is spent requires equal consideration.

Since then, a convergence of opinion among policy-makers, academics, parents and educators has agreed that early childhood programs should be structured to capture young children’s exuberance for learning and prepare them for school. In Learn Canada 2020: Joint Declaration Provincial and Territorial Ministers of Education, the prekindergarten years were named as the first of the four pillars of lifelong learning. High-quality early education should be available to all children, the declaration stated.16

A more mature understanding of the role of public policy in supporting early childhood education has spurred jurisdictions to adopt a more comprehensive view of the early years. Most provinces/territories have produced policy frameworks with visions and goals. In addition, education departments more actively promote learning for young children.

Since 2006, eight jurisdictions have appointed a lead department responsible for early childhood services. Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Ontario, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and most recently, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, have combined their education, child care and related early years services under their ministries of education. In Quebec, schools have been  responsible for after-school programs for children ages 5 to 12 years since 1998. Manitoba’s five-year plan for child care (2014) includes a commission to examine service delivery.

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Co-locating responsibilities for the early years within the same ministry does not necessarily result in policy and funding coherence. Some jurisdictions have established divisions within their ministries responsible for addressing the unique needs of young learners. These units have adopted a holistic view of child development, assisting schools to create environments suitable for younger learners and helping to allay reasonable concerns that schools are not sufficiently responsive to very young children. The early years mandate of New Brunswick education from birth to age 8 is reflected in the reexamination of its pedagogical approaches in the primary grades. NewFoundland and Ontario are reviewing their grades 1–3 curriculum to extend the experiential learning frameworks that have been successful with younger children.

Moving child care under the wing of education departments is limited if on-the-ground service delivery remains fragmented. Parents still struggle to find affordable, reliable services, and service providers continue to answer to multiple funding and regulatory masters. In a major reorganization, New Brunswick has aligned all its early years’ services to match seven new school divisions. Amendments to Ontario’s new child care legislation require school boards and service providers to cooperate with municipal children’s services managers in the planning and delivery of early years’ services.

Creating an early childhood education system out of a service patchwork is tough work, but it is worth it. When early education is organized so it also supports parents’ workforce participation, it more than pays for itself. Parents who are able to work pay taxes and draw less on social transfers. Children who are nurtured and stimulated in their early years are less likely to require expensive special education programs. Getting governance structures right is the foundation to growing effective ECE services.

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14. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2006). Starting Strong II: Early childhood education and care. Paris, FR: OECD Publishing.

15. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Directorate for Education. (2004). Early childhood care and education policy: Canada country note. Paris, FR: OECD Secretariat.

16. Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. (2008b). Learn Canada 2020: Joint declaration provincial and territorial ministers of education. Retrieved from www.cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/187/CMEC-2020-DECLARATION.en.pdf.