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Quebec, PEI, Manitoba surge ahead on early childhood education

Ron Blatz, executive director, works with young children at the Discovery Children's Centre, a childcare centre in Winnipeg Tuesday, November 22, 2011.

JOHN WOODS/john woods The Globe and Mail

Over the course of his career, Fraser Mustard became known for big ideas that linked diverse fields, from medicine to psychology, and later, to education. He devoted his final major report, released less than a week after his death, to early childhood learning, leaving the provinces with a way to measure and compare their preschool systems.

Dr. Mustard, and his first-of-its-kind Early Childhood Education Index, gave a passing grade to only three provinces in the report, which was released on Tuesday morning.

Despite the low marks, he was optimistic that the provinces would use the index to learn from one another, and continue recent improvements to early childhood programs.

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Growing research supporting a link between quality preschool programs and later academic success has prompted governments to boost investment in early education. According to the report, annual spending is up 100 per cent, to $7.5-billion, over the past four years.

Just three years ago, only Quebec would have made the grade, but Manitoba and PEI have surged ahead.

"We have a long way to go, but it's definitely getting better," said Kerry McCuaig, the Atkinson Policy Fellow at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and one of Dr. Mustard's co-authors.

The index builds scores on a 15-point scale. They're calculated based on governance, funding, quality, accountability and access to child-care for 2 to 5 year-olds in each province.

THE LEADERS

Few were surprised to see that Quebec, with its universal access to $7-a-day child-care, is leading the way, scoring 10 points. More surprising was that Prince Edward Island, which recently overhauled its child-care system, is close behind with a score of 9.5. Manitoba was the third province to earn a passing grade.

What these jurisdictions have in common are systems that allow near universal access to subsidized care, unlike that of provinces such as Ontario, where families must meet a low-income cut-off.

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"Manitoba and PEI also gain points because they're the only provinces that require government-funded programs to serve students with special needs," said Jane Bertrand, the report's research co-ordinator.

FULL-DAY KINDERGARTEN IS NOT ENOUGH

Despite the introduction of full-day kindergarten last year, British Columbia and Ontario both fell to the middle of the pack.

"Where Ontario and B.C. fall down is, although they've paid really good attention to kindergarten, they did it without attention to programs for younger kids," Ms. McCuaig said.

Both provinces lost points for the way they finance early childhood education – less than two-thirds of the spending goes toward program operations – and because salaries paid to early childhood educators are low compared with those paid to teachers.

THE LAGGARDS

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Newfoundland and Labrador earned the lowest score, and was tied with Alberta for the lowest participation rate in early childhood care.

That province was one of the few that doesn't have an early childhood curriculum and it has some of the loosest requirements for child-care staff.

"This index is a no-place-to-hide reporting system that calls attention to areas that need improvement," said Charles Pascal, a professor of human development and applied psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. "This will really help the provinces learn from each other."

THE SCORES

Newfoundland and Labrador: 1.5

Prince Edward Island: 9.5

Nova Scotia: 5

New Brunswick: 4.5

Quebec: 10

Ontario: 6.5

Manitoba: 7.5

Saskatchewan: 4.5

Alberta: 3

British Columbia: 4.5

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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