Invest in children and reap the rewards

Lana
Lana Payne
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When it comes to early childhood education and child care, Newfoundland and Labrador has the worst report card in the country.

That's according to a recently released study headed up by Dr. Fraser Mustard, a world leader in the field of early childhood education.

The study, the third such comprehensive review of early childhood education in Canada since 1999, details the current state of Canadian families with young children and "provides the social, economic and scientific rationale for increased public investments in early childhood education." (It's available at www.earlyyears study.ca.)

Any kid with a report card like we just received from the Early Years Study would be in big trouble and/or requiring a major intervention.

There's still time

The good news, according to the study's authors, is that with investment and commitment, we can still make a difference. The study was supported by the Jimmy Pratt Foundation, a local foundation and one of seven that backed the project.

Dr. Fraser Mustard, who died last month, was an early childhood development and education crusader.

The early years report paid tribute to Dr. Mustard, who his co-authors said gave voice to three enduring messages that have permeated popular culture: the years before five last a lifetime; it takes a village to raise a child; and, pay now or pay later.

An opportunity

For Newfoundland and Labrador, this failing report card couldn't have come at a better time. As the provincial government consults on a new 10-year child care strategy, it is reports like this one which should provide even more incentive for action.

In addition, it is clear, according to the study, that child care and early childhood education must go hand in hand.

As Dr. Mustard reviewed the progress from the last report in 2007 to the one released last month, he was said to be satisfied that progress was indeed being made in many provinces.

According to the tribute to him, "he wanted to monitor the progress and show policy makers that change can happen, it can happen fast, and when it does it makes a difference."

Investing in early childhood education pays incredible dividends. The study gives numerous examples of this. Enhanced test scores for children, higher labour force participation by women, increased income taxes for governments.

The Early Years studies argue that if we want our children to have "an equal opportunity to maximize their potential" then it starts with doing all we can to enhance their early development.

The report notes that the fight for high-quality, universal early education is part of a larger battle to broaden the scope of government responsibility to ensure the success of young children and their families.

That means we have to let go of some commonly held stereotypes that this somehow means parents are then not "raising" their own children. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Those arguments don't hold water when our children reach the age of five and go off to kindergarten, and they don't apply to pre-five years of age either.

We don't need any more research to tell us that early childhood education and development is good for children.

What we need is the commitment to make the right investment, to make early learning high quality with highly trained staff and educators and then sit back and watch the positive results roll in.

The study warns that poor quality programs can be worse than doing nothing, slowing a child's development, wasting taxpayers' money and harming efforts to expand preschool.

Wrong turn federally

There is no doubt that Stephen Harper's decision to cancel child care and early learning agreements with the provinces in 2006 was a major setback for the advancement of early childhood education and for the kind of support young working families need.

It was another one of those Harper decisions that makes little sense and was based more on ideology rather than what was right for children, families and Canada's labour market.

Provinces had to step in and fill the void. Some have been struggling to do so.

And in that regard, Newfoundland and Labrador has a lot of catching up to do.

Not only do we have some of the most expensive child care in the country, the vast of majority of it is for-profit or commercial based.

The wages are among the lowest and dead last when the wage subsidy provided by the government to early childhood educators is excluded from the mix.

Yet at the same time, provincial government investment for low-income families is one of the best in the country, but we also have the lowest coverage in terms of spaces for children up to age 12. And we have a high turnover rate of early childhood educators leaving the field.

We can, as a province, change this picture.

We can make investments today that could result in big returns. It means getting the 10-year strategy right and it means being aggressive on the front end.

It will also mean looking at the child care we currently have and making it better, making it meet the high standards talked about in the Early Years Study.

As Nelson Mandela once said: "It always seems impossible, until it's done." Let's get it done. There should be no more failing grades for Newfoundland and Labrador.

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns Dec. 17.

 

Organizations: Jimmy Pratt Foundation, Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

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