The importance of good quality early education

The education of children – from early childhood to Grade 12
needs to be nimble and adjust. The children of today will have a
multitude of jobs and will learn to be “renaissance” people rather
than the specialists of the current adult generations. They will also
function in a new, better social system, hopefully free of racism
and prejudice. They need to be exposed to that in the way they
learn from their earliest entry into educational systems – that is
from early learning and child care. This is the best time to start
cultivating the competencies and principles that will serve them as
adults – and will be enhanced at each step of the K-12 education.
Magdalena Janus, Professor Psychiatry & Behavioural Neurosciences,
McMaster University
Why early learning matters to all learning
The world is changing rapidly and facing challenges that require us to
engage the minds and efforts of our entire pool of human talent — from our
youngest learners to lifelong learners. In Canada, our efforts are dedicated
to helping our education systems evolve so that they are grounded in
the skills- and competency-based learning and assessment practices
necessary to eliminate the social, racial, economic, and geographic barriers
that undermine the ability of all learners to reach their full potential.
Currently however, funding levers, policies, and curriculum goals are
vaguely and inconsistently articulated between all the “layers” of our
systems. To be successful, we will need the full commitment of all
governments – provincial, territorial, and federal – to building seamless
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education policy and funding architecture that supports a true Continuum
of Learning – where policy, funding, and learning goals support continuity
from early learning and childcare through to postsecondary education.
In this way we will be able to promote lifelong learning and set the stage
for shared and sustainable prosperity.
The main challenge of education right now, in general, is that
the job market – or the way adults become gainfully employed
so that they can prosper and bring up families of their own – is
very different than what it was in the 20th Century. Educational
curricula, systems such as schools and universities, have been
built on premises that appear to be no longer functioning the
same way. There will still be doctors, and lawyers, and engineers,
but most other jobs will require very flexible skills.
Magdalena Janus
Early childhood education is not simply an adjunct to the “real” education
system. It is the basis upon which all future learning rests.
The right to an education, beginning with access to high-quality early
learning opportunities, is entrenched in numerous international conventions
endorsed by the government in Canada. As People for Education notes in
its work on promoting a rights based approach to education in Canada, the
right to education including the right to early learning is entrenched in the
Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,
and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Early childhood education’s contributions to the long-term success of
learners are numerous and well-documented (McCain, 2020). Children
in preschool or quality childcare are better prepared for kindergarten,
elementary, and secondary school. They develop important skills for
the future, such as critical and creative thinking, curiosity, collaboration,
and communications skills – what employers call vital transferable skills
(Bertrand & McCuaig, 2019). Quality early learning and childcare programs
also foster children’s executive functioning skills, which can reduce
differences across socio demographic boundaries (the consequences
of racialization and poverty) in academic achievement and emotional
wellbeing (Galindo, 2018).
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What kind of future do we want to build?
A national, publicly-funded, high-quality system of early learning is
not only about achieving a particular international rank or position
of competitiveness in today’s global economy. It is about the kind of
future we wish to build – one which both recognizes and capitalizes on
technological and other innovations that help us make more efficient
use of natural resources, and develops a fully-engaged citizenry that is
capable and compassionate, each contributing to an equitable future.
This is often referred to as the promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution
(4IR). According to the World Economic Forum, the 4IR represents:
…a fundamental change in the way we live, work and relate to one
another. It is a new chapter in human development, enabled by
extraordinary technology advances commensurate with those of the
first, second and third industrial revolutions. These advances are
merging the physical, digital and biological worlds…
Many proponents of the 4IR emphasize the hope this next phase holds
for both green and equitable growth with the strategic use of technology
to lessen inequality, grow smarter and waste less. However, others
refer to the notion of the “Next Economy” to recognize that a transition
is necessary, but stop short of prescribing its character. The notion of
the “Next Economy” sees that the direction we choose as a planet and a
people must be defined and shaped by human intervention, rather than
some invisible, global economic force to which we must simply respond.
The Next Economy is characterized by values such as interdependence,
abundance, and regeneration; it emphasizes discovering, building, and
supporting what is feasible, scalable and replicable, while staying rooted in
the needs and interests of local communities.
The most effective way to acquire the skills demanded by the
changing nature of work is to start early. Early investments in
nutrition, health, social protection, and education lay strong
foundations for the future acquisition of cognitive and sociobehavioral skills. They also make future skills acquisition more
resilient to uncertainty. Prioritizing these investments could pay
off significantly for economies, as long as both access and quality
are highlighted.
World Bank 2019
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Regardless of what we call this next phase of human social and economic
development, Canada needs its population to possess the competencies,
knowledge and skills required to solve a host of complex problems, including:
eliminating social inequalities and advancing reconciliation between Canada
and Indigenous peoples; prioritizing and adopting sustainable methods of
producing, living, and consuming; decreasing polarization, all to ensure that
Canada can be a fair, prosperous, and sustainable society.
The current commitment to
early learning and childcare
The key competencies, knowledge, and skills associated with the next
phase of our social and economic development – the ability to communicate,
collaborate, self-advocate, self-regulate, and problem-solve – are set on a
trajectory early in life. In fact, several provincial and territorial systems have
developed their early education systems on the premise that play-based
learning (the precursor to “experiential learning”) provides rich learning
opportunities through child-led and open-ended activities. It nurtures
children’s social, numeracy, and literacy skills. Taking initiative, focused
attention, and curiosity are all part of learning and play. This bundle of
competencies, knowledge and skills – whether referred to as ‘global
competencies’ or ‘executive functions’ – are the building blocks of success.
The evolution required if Canada is to develop a true Continuum of
Learning begins with understanding the gaps and challenges with the
current policy approaches to early childhood education in Canada.
Although education systems across the country share an aspiration to
building a competency-based education system, the same does not exist
with regional systems of early learning. The Atkinson Centre’s 2020 Early
Childhood Education Report highlights significant disparities in funding
and access to early years services on a regional basis in Canada.
The Centre uses a number of indicators to represent access to daycare
opportunities and the value governments place on ECE (early childhood
education) in its funding levels. In Quebec, 73% of two- to four-year-old
children have a space in the system, and ECE workers receive a salary that
is 66% of the average teacher’s salary. In Saskatchewan, only 27% of the
same age group have access to a spot, and ECE workers receive 37% of
an average teacher’s salary (Atkinson, 2020). Childcare Canada notes that
parent fees for children 1.5 to 2.5 years old ranged from a low in Quebec
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City of $179 per month, to a high in Toronto of $1,774 per month. These
gaps in funding and access need to be eliminated if Canada is to better
prepare today’s children – all of its children – for tomorrow’s future.
Commitment to ECE must involve a public conversation about a more
elaborate, robust role for the federal government in coordinating and
funding a seamless continuum of learning..
The federal budget released in April 2021 suggests such a future is on the
horizon. Although all domains of education are in provincial purview as
prescribed in Section 93 of the 1867 British North America Act, the federal
government announced it will provide $30 billion over five years to support
expanded access to quality early learning opportunities and to reduce user
fees for families. Recent agreements with British Columbia and Nova Scotia
which focus on quality, non-profit childcare, and increased supports for
early childhood educators are a promising sign. According to the McCain
Foundation’s analysis, this represents a move “away from the current
market approach to a view of early learning and child care as a public good.”
A robust early learning and child care system that is aligned
with provincial/territorial public education would address
immediate needs of building back better after the pandemic,
including ensuring women’s return to work. Increased parental
labour participation now and in the future is essential to Canada’s
economy and productivity. Universal access to early learning and
child care that is part of public education is non-stigmatizing and
based on the rights of children, regardless of parents’ workforce
status. Long-term benefits are tied to the learning and well-being
benefits from quality ECE.
Jane Bertrand Adjunct Professor, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education,
University of Toronto
People for Education and
the Continuum of Learning Initiative
People for Education is leading a Canadian cross-sector dialogue, the
Future of Public Education Initiative, to support change in public education
— to enable all learners to graduate with the competencies, knowledge,
and skills they require regardless of their path in adulthood.
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A key component of this work is the Continuum of Learning Initiative – a
collaborative effort to examine the educational outcomes needed from
early childhood education through to K-12 (and beyond), and provide
policy recommendations to support a more seamless and strategic
approach to funding, and defining the goals for that continuum.
The initiative’s aim is to synthesize evidence to understand what policies
and practices will be required to prepare students to thrive; and what
is needed to support educators so that they can lead and respond to
changes in the education system that relate to cross-continuum skills
and competency development. Preliminary research has revealed that
a continuum of learning that starts with early learning and childcare and
continues into K-12 is currently broken (Pascal, 2009). Young people are
not adequately prepared for the future, in part, due to the barriers across
education systems and sectors.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed and exacerbated cracks in our education
systems, and now, more than ever, it is time to break down the barriers to
ensure that all children have the competencies, knowledge, and skills they
need to thrive, both in school and in life.
Investment in early learning pays dividends
Early childhood education is the necessary starting point for a Continuum
of Learning, with numerous benefits for children and families.
Researchers have tracked students from early childhood to adulthood
and found that students’ social-emotional and creativity competencies
at school entry were strong predictors of success up to 16 years later. Of
note, these competencies had a stronger relationship to student outcomes
at the age of 22 than their Grade 1 marks (Entwisle, Alexander, and Olson,
2005, p. 1467). Participation in early childhood education and learning
opportunities can also help improve learners’ long-term health outcomes
(Cleveland & Krashinsky, 1998).
Between two and five years old, children develop skills in language,
thinking, and well-being, which lead to developing creativity, complex
problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility (McCain, 2020). Participating in
early learning and childcare as early as age three can improve language,
literacy, and math skills for children from low-income homes (Ansari, Pianta,
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Whittaker, Vitiello & Ruzek, 2019). All of these skills can develop and
strengthen into the key skills for success in the 21st century.
Social benefits—Reducing inequities
While early childhood education has clear cognitive and developmental
benefits, it also has clear social benefits.
Early learning opportunities have been found to help eliminate the gaps
caused by poverty and inequality. Children who at age five are already
vulnerable due to socio-demographic factors, may struggle with developing
key skills and competencies as they continue through the education system.
Instead of starting off their education on equal footing with their peers, they
begin with a gap that continues to widen over the years (Galindo, 2018).
This does not have to be the case. Galindo’s (2018, p.1) study found that
“attendance in early childhood education programs can generate positive
outcomes, such as increases in school readiness and reading proficiency,
especially [in children] from disadvantaged backgrounds.” The study
revealed that children who did not attend center-based care performed
lower on math and reading assessments than those who did. Similarly,
Byrne (2016) found that participating in after-school childcare supports
children’s educational needs, particularly those with limited family support,
and is “strongly associated with maternal employment and high household
income” (p. 543).
Early learning and childcare provide a range of benefits to children and
to society, including allowing more caregivers, mostly women, to enter
the workforce and to participate fully in the economic and social lives of
their societies and eliminating poverty (Alexander, Beckman, MacDonald,
Renner & Stewart, Conference Board of Canada, 2017).
Whether the focus is on the need for a creative, inquiring and
resilient citizenry, equity of opportunity and poverty reduction, the
early identification and intervention of mental health issues or a
flexible all-hands on deck workforce, there is simply no better
nation-building investment than universal, non-profit, accessible
and developmentally rich early childhood education and care.
Charles Pascal, Professor of Applied Psychology & Human Development at
OISE/University of Toronto
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Despite the evidence in support of early learning, researchers have
identified that a lack of alignment between early learning and instruction
in the early primary grades means that “gains achieved in early childhood
are reduced or eliminated over time” (McCain, 2020, p.33). To prevent
the issue of “fade out,” elementary education needs to build on the skills
and competencies children learn in the early years, as there are long-term
implications for success into K-12 and early adulthood (McCain, 2020).
By looking at learning as a continuum from birth, we forge a continuous
path in education that begins in early childhood and continues seamlessly
through Kindergarten to Grade 12.
The Impact of COVID-19 on early learning
and childcare in Ontario schools
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020 and childcare centres
closed, parents and caregivers were often still required to either work
from home or perform essential frontline services. Children were pulled
away from their regular learning routines leading to uncertainty and stress
for everyone.
When childcare centres were eventually able to re-open, they continued to
face the same challenges as before (cost and availability), plus they had to
implement health and safety measures, limit groups of children to smaller
cohorts, and manage the impacts of sudden prolonged closures.
To capture the impact of the pandemic on early learning and childcare,
People for Education’s Annual Ontario School Survey asked principals about
the policies and processes in place for space-sharing between school and
childcare. More than 1,000 principals participated in the 2020-2021 Survey
and their responses reveal that the future needs of Ontario students will
not be met in the current system or with present-day policy thinking.
The biggest challenge for childcare in schools
Over the last decades, schools have played an increasingly major role in
providing access to childcare in their communities – offering a straightforward transition from school to childcare. In 2014-15, 70% of elementary
schools reported some form of childcare on school grounds. In 2019-20, that
number grew to 81% and dipped slightly to 77% in 2020-21 (during COVID).
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Childcare in schools comes with its own set of challenges – the biggest
of which is, and has always been, space. These challenges were
exacerbated by COVID-19, mainly due to the cleaning and disinfecting
requirements, especially where space is shared between childcare and
Kindergarten. In the Annual Ontario School Survey, of the schools that
reported childcare within the school facilities, 63% had a designated
separate space for childcare. In terms of space-sharing with other classes,
29% had a designated space inside a classroom only used by childcare.
Almost two-thirds of principals reported that additional time was needed
for disinfecting that shared space.
Schools have come up with creative solutions to collaborate with, and
incorporate, childcare into their schools, but the challenge of inequitable
access to childcare remains. In 2020-21, 84% of elementary schools with
the top 10% in average family incomes had childcare, compared to 66% of
schools with the lowest average family incomes. In 2020-2021, one in four
schools still report no access to childcare, and principals report that cost
and availability continue to pose limitations for some communities.
Canada’s shifting perspectives on early learning
Currently, early learning and care policies are often developed separately
from K-12 education policy in Canada. Responsibility lies with different
ministries (or different areas of the Ministry with no obligatory policy
development co-ordination) and various levels of government (i.e. federal,
provincial and municipal). Aside from the pandemic has affected early
learning and childcare services, the pre-existing policy architecture is an
enormous challenge to creating a seamless Continuum of Learning.
However, the announcement made in the federal government’s budget
speech in April 2021 was significant. It declared its investment as part
of a larger plan intended “to build a recovery [from COVID] that gives
all women in Canada the ability to fully participate in our economy”
(Budget 2021: A Recovery plan for jobs, growth and resilience, p. 96).
Also, the federal policy frames early childhood education as a necessity.
A variety of policy approaches have been undertaken across Canada and
internationally with respect to early learning and childcare:
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Canada’s Multilateral Early Learning and Child Care Framework (2017),
states, “the early years of life are critical in the development and future
well-being of the child and continuum of learning.” (n.p.) The framework
supports a commitment from governments to work towards investments to
enhance quality, accessibility, affordability, flexibility, and inclusivity in early
learning and childcare.
The Indigenous Early Learning and Child Care Framework (2018) focuses
on the provision of “high-quality, culturally rooted early learning and
childcare programming” (n.p.) for all Indigenous children in Canada.
Correspondingly, the key principles of this framework are:
• Indigenous knowledge, languages, and cultures
• First Nations, Inuit, and Métis determination
• Quality programs and services
• Child and family-centeredness
• Inclusivity
• Flexibility and adaptability
• Accessibility
• Transparency and accountability
• Respect, collaboration, and partnerships
To assure the acknowledgement of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples
across Canada, the framework declares its support for distinct frameworks
for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis visions, goals, and priorities. Collaboration
and relationship-building are key aspects of the Indigenous Early Learning
and Childcare Framework overall.
As the child grows and develops into a capable person, it is
critical that Indigenous education values, beliefs, and ways of
knowing have space in the early years dialogue. Educators need
to pay attention to and practice wakefulness in integrating
culturally relevant approaches as they relate to the early years.
Angela James, Becoming a Capable Child
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Other models — How a continuum
of learning can work
Models from across Canada and European countries provide examples of
how a continuum of learning starting in the early years can be established
with the policies and programs that bridge early learning and childcare
with K-12 (see Table 1).
Table 1
Examples from National and International Jurisdictions on the Continuum of Learning
Jurisdiction Policy/Program Description
• Under the national Ministry of Education and Research, Norwegian Early
Learning and Childcare is overseen by the Directorate of Education
and Training, which also holds responsibility for primary, secondary, and
vocational education.
• The Kindergarten Act regulates the Norwegian Early Learning and Childcare
sector as a whole for children between the ages of 0-5 and mandates the
transition between kindergarten and primary school.
• Curricula between Kindergarten and primary school are linked in content,
pedagogy, and values.
Finland Finnish
national policy
• Early learning and childcare is part of the provision of holistic care, education, and family support in Finland.
• Early learning and childcare is a parental choice (as in Canada), and is funded through government allowances—regardless of choice—with possible
additional local governmental supplemental funding for parents/families.
• Early learning and childcare provision, programmatic design, and funding is
written into national policy.
Sweden Swedish
Education Act
• In 1996, the Swedish Ministry of Education and Science gained responsibility
for Early Learning and Childcare, with the purpose of building on “the close
pedagogical links between the pre-school, school and leisure-time centres”.
• Since then, the National Agency for Education has taken over responsibility
for Early Learning and Childcare and the Early Learning and Childcare has
been included in the Swedish Education Act, which contains legislation for
the continuum of learning from preschool through to adult education.
Program (QEP)
• The QEP starts in preschool (ages 4 to 5) and extends to elementary and
secondary school.
• The QEP comprises a set of competencies that students are expected to
gain as they progress through their learning.
• There is an emphasis on “learnings specific to early childhood development” which includes communication, performing sensorimotor actions and
completing a project/activity.
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Preparing for our future now —
Creating a seamless continuum of learning for all
All young people in Canada need to develop the skills and competencies
that will equip them to succeed and thrive in a rapidly-changing world. This
is the route to long sought after equitable outcomes in education, and it
begins in the early years.
Early childhood education is the basis upon which all future learning rests.
However, policy and practices that are the focus of early learning in most
Canadian jurisdictions often “fade out” when children enter elementary
school due to a lack of continuity and common goals through all the
stages of our education systems. The lack of alignment between early
years education and K-12 is mirrored further down the continuum where
post-secondary institutions have different goals and outcome measures
than K-12. Similarly, organizations working on future-ready skills have not
been able to cross the chasm between adult needs and childhood policy
and programs.
To bridge these gaps, Canada needs to ‘connect the dots’ across
education systems to promote a continuum of learning starting in the
early years to K-12, and beyond. Early learning and childcare must be
publicly funded, publicly governed, and embedded in our public education
systems. People for Education’s Continuum of Learning initiative will
begin a dialogue on the numerous benefits of early learning and childcare
so that all students are set up to both succeed and engage fully in our
unchartered social and economic futures