N.L. pumps up performance

Province strong in early childhood learning: study; still a ways to go, researchers, advocates say

Bonnie Belec bbelec@thetelegram.com
Published on November 13, 2014
Kathleen Pratt LeGrow is the chairwoman of the Jimmy Pratt Foundation. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

A national report released Wednesday that singles out this province as having made marked progress over the rest of the country on early childhood education is promising, says the chairwoman of a local advocacy group for children’s learning.

However, Kathleen Pratt LeGrow of the Jimmy Pratt Foundation of St. John’s says Newfoundland and Labrador still has work to do when it comes to the cost of infant daycare fees and the affordability of quality child care.

“We’ve come a long way, but have a ways to go,” she told The Telegram Wednesday.

LeGrow said the fact the provincial government has refocused its priorities and created the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development means officials can focus on development, leaving prevention as the primary function of Child, Youth and Family Services.

“If you’re so focused on prevention and crisis management, it’s very difficult to look at the positive aspects of child development. … We know that children who are part of a high quality, universal, inexpensive early learning opportunity will fare very well, no matter where they come from in terms of their socioeconomic standing,” she said.

The Jimmy Pratt Foundation — a private philanthropic group —  was officially launched in 2011. Its website, jimmyprattfoundation.org, says it “advocates for the availability of quality, publicly-funded, early childhood education for every child from the age of two.”

The national report released this week, entitled It’s Time for Preschool, was released Wednesday by researchers at the Atkinson Centre at the University of Toronto during a live webcast, which The Telegram participated in.

The report concluded Newfoundland and Labrador’s commitment to implement full-day kindergarten in 2016 has propelled the province ahead of the rest of the provinces.

“Newfoundland was last in 2011, reaching only 1.5 in the 15-point scale. And today Newfoundland has reached nine benchmarks and has made the biggest leap forward across jurisdictions,” Emis Akbari, co-author of the report, told The Telegram following the webcast.

“Newfoundland’s decision to integrate full-day kindergarten programming has helped push the province from being last in investing in early childhood education to being noticed as one of the movers towards improving the system,” she said.

Akbari said the other factors that helped the province reach the middle of the scale in Canada are integrated governance, with a common early childhood education supervisory unit and a common early childhood education policy framework, an early curriculum framework that is aligned with kindergarten, an increased ratio of qualified staff and early childhood education professional certification and development.

The provincial government said it will spend $34.5 million to implement full-day kindergarten.

Following an eight-year study of 20 countries by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2006, Canada was in poor standing when it came to the provision of early childhood education programming.

Kerry McCuaig, a fellow in childhood policy at the Atkinson Centre and co-author of the study, said the OECD’s report was “an embarrassing exposé that identified Canada as being a laggard.”

She said the country’s quality of programs was questioned and its services were said to be all over the place.

“Provinces were told to get them in order, spend more money, but spend it smartly and expand access to early childhood education programs,” McCuaig said during the webcast.

This is the second early childhood education program study by the Atkinson Centre Since the OECD study. The first was in 2011.

McCuaig said in the past several years, the provinces have upped the percentage of gross domestic product spent on early childhood education programming. This includes

$3 billion added to provincial/ territorial budgets since 2011.

“Canada is now on its way to spending the one per cent of GDP that would bring it in line with early education investments made by other OECD countries,” she said.

Akbari said national spending in 2011 was $7.5 billion and today is  almost $11 billion.

She noted the increase is mostly driven by Quebec and Ontario, which have almost doubled their spending on spaces for child care.

“This promising trend has not been the norm. Historically, governments have looked at funding for young children as expendable. It may be too early to say that early education has become an issue that is sticking with decision-makers, but to date the news is promising,” said McCuaig.

Pratt LeGrow agrees.

“This is a huge improvement from the last report. I know we have a long way to go, but there is a lot happening in supporting early learning and giving children a good head start,” she said.