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  • Photograph by Roni Greenwood

Tangible Steps for Canadian Childcare Policy

A blog by Dave McGrane

When we first saw that positive symbol on the pregnancy test, letting us know we were expecting our first child, there was no doubt in our minds who would be the first to know. Who was that first call? Our prospective childcare centre, where we were successfully placed on the waiting list. Our joyful news wasn’t shared with parents, family or friends until weeks later.

Obviously, this begs the question, why would a stranger at the childcare centre be the first to know we were expecting?

 The reality is that for many parents, childcare is one of the first things they need to think about when they know a baby is on the way. Unfortunately for Canadian parents, Canada’s childcare system is considered by many to be an international embarrassment. In 2009, Canada’s public spending for early childcare and education programs (i.e. childcare and kindergarten) was the second lowest among the 28 OECD countries, behind countries like Mexico, Cyprus, and Bulgaria. Canada as a whole spent only 0.5 % of GDP compared to more than 1.5 % of GDP for the highest spenders.

Canada’s public spending for early childcare and education programs was the second lowest among the 28 OECD countries, behind countries like Mexico, Cyprus, and Bulgaria

Canada’s doctors are becoming increasingly concerned with the situation. In a recent report, the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada call for the Canadian government to spend 1% of GDP on childcare to bring us in line with the OECD average. Why? The report points out that early childhood is the “most important developmental phase of life in which crucial advancements in physical, social, cognitive, emotional and language domains take place.” Applying upstream thinking, they argue that the benefits from increased funding in early childhood development interventions are worth many times the original investment.

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Photo by Werner Luders

If governments were to make this commitment, there are thousands of possibilities of where they could spend the money. As a childcare policy researcher, I would suggest four priorities that are in need of the most attention. Ranked in order of importance, they are:

1) Universal Pre-K Programs for Four Year-olds. The most promising way to make progress on childcare in Canada is to integrate it with the public school system. It has to become a public good, like education for children aged 5 to 18. Similar to how the federal government led the creation of Medicare in the 1960s, it must now encourage the expansion of the public school system to become inclusive of four year olds.  Where this had been applied (like Ontario’s implementation with “junior kindergarten” programs), we are seeing positive results, particularly for children of low-income families.

2) Subsidize not-for-profit childcare centres to lower their fees, increase spaces, and provide after-hours care. For the foreseeable future, Canada’s network of not-for-profit childcare centres that are parent-controlled and founded by community-based organizations will continue to play an important role in providing care for 0-3 year-olds.  While they still allow for-profit care, Quebec’s network of centres de la petite enfance and PEI’s early years centres could serve as models. In these provinces,

Providing subsidies only to not-for-profit centres and funneling four year olds into the public system would help reduce the number of for-profit childcare providers in Canada

regulated childcare centres are mandated to keep fees at a standard rate set by the government in exchange for receiving public subsidies.  I would envision a similar system where only not-for-profit centres could qualify for a generous subsidy program. Subsidies would be paid directly to the centres themselves and be targeted to improve affordability, encourage the creation of new spaces (particularly for infants), and then increase the provision of after-hours care. After-hours care is an important piece because low-income parents, especially single mothers, are more likely to have jobs with irregular hours. Providing subsidies only to not-for-profit centres and funneling four year olds into the public system would help reduce the number of for-profit childcare providers in Canada. Since for-profit childcare has been proven to be more expensive and lower quality, this would be a good thing.

3) Transform childcare workers into childcare professionals. High school and elementary school teachers are considered professionals with four-year university degrees, regulatory bodies, and unions to protect their interests. Conversely, in many Canadian childcare centres, childcare workers have little or no training and, subsequently, are not paid that much. We need to have four-year degrees in early childhood education at universities around the country. Regulatory bodies and childcare provider unions should be set up in every province to allow for the establishment of professional standards and collective bargaining for those employed in the sector. These changes would necessitate a public program of wage enhancements to ensure that childcare centres could pay their employees salaries that commensurate with their qualifications and the gap between the salaries of elementary school teachers and childcare professionals would be gradually eliminated.

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Photo by Mats Eriksson

4) Fathers-only parental leave. The three priorities above concentrate on care in regulated childcare centres, but what about the childcare and education that happens at home? For the first two years of child’s life particularly, governments should give support for parents who provide early childhood education to their own children. Dutch economist Heleen Mees suggests that achieving women’s full equality in society depends on men taking over a larger share of caring for their children. She argues that the present situation, in which women take almost all state-sponsored parental leave, entrenches women’s position as primary caregivers in

We can use childcare policy to foster greater gender equality in society, as well as helping our children’s development

their families. The result is that women are more likely to work part-time or put their career ambitions on hold for family reasons after parental leave than men.  Further, a recent study found that fathers who take parental leave are more involved in children’s lives afterward and children with highly involved fathers have better cognitive test scores. To address this, Quebec has developed a program allowing for five weeks of  parental leave to be used only by fathers. I conceive of father-designated parental leave as being addition to existing maternity leave; it could also be taken anytime during the first two years of the child’s life. In this way, we can use childcare policy to foster greater gender equality in society, as well as helping our children’s development.

Though childcare advocates have excelled at decrying the lack of government funding for early childhood care and education in Canada, they have been less concerned with proposing what could be done with more public dollars. Even with 1% of the GDP being dedicated to childcare, choices would inevitably have to be made about what the immediate priorities would be and what programs would have to wait for later. There is some evidence that childcare spending in provinces is starting to creep up, so now is the time to start the conversation about the priorities for increased public spending on childcare in Canada. These four tangible measures could be a great first step to giving Canadian kids a head start on long and healthy lives.

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Dave McGrane with his two children (photo courtesy of Dave McGrane)

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David McGrane is an Associate Professor of Political Studies at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of our Upstream Think Tank. His most recent research on childcare can be found in the International Journal of Childcare and Education and Policy.  He is also the Vice-President of the Board of Directors of the Centre éducatif Félix le Chat, a Francophone childcare centre in Saskatoon attended by his children.

 

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