Canadian Early Childhood Education and Care Monitoring Tool Provides Valuable Lessons for Australia

Access to high quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) promotes immediate and long-term benefits to the learning and wellbeing of children. It also delivers clear economic value, with evidence revealing that investment in early learning can return up to $16 for every dollar spent, with greater returns for vulnerable children.[1] However, despite these benefits many children from disadvantaged families continue to miss out on participating in quality ECEC services.

While schools provide care for children, allowing parents to engage in the workforce, the central focus has always remained on the education and development of children, not on labour force participation. The same principle should be applied to childhood education and care.

A unique report by Canadian researchers has helped drive substantial change to the access and qualify of ECEC across Canada and provides important lessons for Australian jurisdictions. This report marks a shift away from the traditional focus on counting care spaces and per capita funding levels, to a broader focus on evaluating the policy frameworks that influence the ECEC environments in which children learn. The report considers the primary goal of ECEC to be improving the educational outcomes and development of children.

The Early Childhood Education Report 2014[2], is the second of the early childhood reports released by the Atkinson Centre (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) at the University of Toronto, which measures and benchmarks government policy and investment in ECEC across five categories including integrated governance, funding, access, the provision of high-quality learning environments and accountability. The report provides a status update on each of the Canadian provinces and territories, as well as comparing Canada’s results to other developed economies.

Professor Jane Bertrand, spoke with a Melbourne audience in late May, to discuss the report and the process used by researchers to develop the benchmarks, at an event co-hosted by ARACY, Goodstart Early Learning and the Victorian Department of Education and Training. The nineteen benchmarks were developed in response to the findings of the 2006 OECD Starting Strong analysis report[3], which identified key elements of successful policy as part of its 20-country review of early education and care systems. The OECD analysis identified Canada as lagging behind other developed nations across a number of areas including investment, quality and access of ECEC, as we as a lack of appropriate monitoring measures.

The Report seeks to address these OECD recommendations and improve Canada’s ECEC system. It is based on the premise that a strong policy framework will produce the best results for children and their families, will use public investments more effectively and will help make the system more accountable.

Since the implementation of the benchmarking tool, significant change has occurred in Canada. For example:

  • Spending on early childhood has increased from 0.25 per cent of GDP in 2006, to 0.6 per cent of Canada’s GDP;
  • the ECEC system has moved from being highly a fragmented governance system with a lack of integration in all jurisdictions, to more than half of the provinces merging their early education, child care and family support services in 2014;
  • Curriculum frameworks and now in place, or in development, in every province and the Northwest Territories, an increase from only two provinces in 2006; and
  • More than 50 per cent of children aged 2–4 years regularly attended an early childhood education program in 2014, an increase from only 20 per cent in 2006; and
  • Seven out of the 13 provinces now offer full day kindergarten in the year before school, with one more province expected to roll this out in 2016. In 2007, only 3 provinces provided full-day kindergarten as well as a limited number of full-day programs targeted to at-risk children in other provinces.[4]

While there has been some good progress, the report notes that further work is required to meet the OECD benchmarks and to reduce the disparities across the provinces.

There is scope for Victoria and other Australian jurisdictions to learn from Canada’s example and to introduce a tailored version of the monitoring tool here to help drive improvements to the ECEC system. Similar to Canada, the OECD analysis identified a number of areas for improvement in Australia, including the relatively low investment in ECEC, the comparatively low pay and low status for ECEC workers and the complexity of the system and lack of system coherence. [5] Despite some progress, recent figures estimate that the investment spent on pre-primary education in Australia remain significantly below the OECD average spending only 0.1% of GDP compared with the OECD average of 0.6% of GDP.[6]

school expenditure - OECD

While the Australian Government’s proposed Child Care Assistance package [7] increases the overall investment in ECEC and reduces the complexity of the system, it doesn’t strike the right balance between the education of children and workforce participation.

The central goal of Australia’s early childhood education and care (ECEC) system needs to be supporting the learning and development of children, regardless of the working hours of parents. We know that children do better when they have regular and consistent access to quality education and care. This is particularly important for children from disadvantaged families who benefit the most from this support. Vulnerable children are more likely to be exposed to a number developmental risk factors and participation in high quality ECEC services can help negate the impact of these risk factors and deliver lifelong benefits, including higher levels of school performance, reduced need for special education and higher school completion rates.[8]

The best interests of children should remain at the centre of Australia’s ECEC system to ensure that all children have the opportunity to reach their potential while also meeting the needs of families. The Early Childhood Education Report 2014 could provide a useful mechanism for Australian jurisdictions to help monitor and achieve this important goal.

[1] Committee for Economic Development, The economic promise of investing in high-quality preschool: Using early education to improve economic growth and the fiscal sustainability of states and the nation, Washington, US, 2006.
[2] Akbari E, McCuaig K, Early Childhood Education Report 2014, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronoto, 2014.
[3] OCED, Starting Strong II: Early childhood education and care, OECD, 2006.
[4] Akbari E, McCuaig K, Early Childhood Education Report 2014, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, Toronto,  2014.
[5] OCED, Starting Strong II: Early childhood education and care, OECD, 2006.
[6]OCED,  ‘Indicator C2: How do early childhood education systems differ around the world?’ in Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, p. 323
[7] Regulation Impact Statement Child Care Assistance Package, June 2015http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/RIS-for-the-Child-Care-Assistance-Package.pdf
[8] J Currie,‘Early childhood education programs’ Journal of Economic Perspectives, 15(2), 2001, p. 213.

 

Originally published via Victorian Council of Social Services, 23 July 2015.

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Carly Nowell

Carly Nowell is a VCOSS Policy Advisor.

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