The OECD recommended Canada “continue efforts to expand access while promoting greater equity”3. Equitable access is associated more with entitlement programs such as kindergarten. However, kindergarten does not address parents’ need for child care. Equity is but one more of the benefits of organizing ECE to meet the educational needs of children, while at the same time facilitating parents’ workforce participation. Barriers to ECE participation are many: economic, geographical, cultural, language, hours of service and special needs. One area where all jurisdictions have made an effort is by targeting resources to enable programs to include children with special needs.
Kindergarten is the sole early education program that is universally available across Canada. Full-day kindergarten for 5-year-olds has become the norm and is now offered in 9 out 13 jurisdictions. Full-day kindergarten also reflects the duration threshold, which research indicates is more likely to improve academic and social outcomes for children (Reynolds, 2011).
This benchmark focuses on 2 to 4 year olds, the group for which there is high unmet demand for ECE. Five year olds were excluded since the majority already attend kindergarten. Infants are a less likely group to participate in ECE programs because of parental leave. Determining the accurate enrolment of children in ECE programs is challenging. Schools tend to report enrolment numbers. Child care maintains a record of spaces, which may be vacant or used by more than one child, while other programs report capacity. The number of 2 to 4 year olds attending ECE programs was estimated using government reports of school-offered pre-kindergarten programs including parent/child programs in British Columbia and Ontario, child care, nursery school and Aboriginal Head Start availability. Care was taken not to double count children attending pre-kindergarten who may also attend child care. UNICEF’s benchmark is set at 80 percent of 4 year olds regularly attending an ECE program and 25 percent of children under 3 years of age. Fifty percent of 2 to 4 year olds represents a reasonable and achievable interim benchmark for Canada (Figure M3).
Figure M3 Percentage of 2-4 Year Olds Regularly Attending an ECE Program by Province/Territory
The threshold for this benchmark is provincial/territorial policy that requires programs to give equal consideration to the enrolment of children with special needs as a condition of funding. Funding as an incentive without policy directions does not provide parents with recourse if their child is excluded from participation.
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3. OECD, 2004. Page 8.
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