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The lessons of full-day kindergarten

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Thousands of parents, practitioners, experts and policy people contributed to the report, With Our Best Future in Mind, tabled four years ago, laying out how Ontario should move to full-day kindergarten. Even the most optimistic among us could not have anticipated the remarkable results of the McMaster and Queen's universities' research released a few days ago.

Before full-day kindergarten was on offer, 27 per cent of Ontario children entering Grade 1 were vulnerable, at risk at failing before their first day in school begins. Research also shows that too many of these children never catch up. The families whose children are dealing with language, social competence or emotional maturity issues know the human costs of these consequences. And the fiscal and economic consequences of inattention to these children who are left behind are a fiscal and economic catastrophe.

That is why these research results are off-the-charts encouraging. When looking at the evidence, the number of children with risk factors who have had two years of full-day kindergarten has dropped from 27 per cent to 20 per cent. Even after one year of Ontario's world-class play-based learning program led by our highly competent early learning educators, risk in the area of language and cognitive development has plummeted a stunning 75 per cent. Equally remarkable is that after two years, risk in the areas of social competence and communication skills has been reduced by half.

These results are especially surprising given the complexity of implementing a brand new program in such a short time -- from the tabling of our report in 2009 to the onset of implementation in September 2010.

Naturally, there have been some bumps. Our report recommended that child-care reforms begin in tandem with the introduction of full-day learning. Our current non-system of child care remains too painful for too many families. Until we build a high-quality, affordable and publicly managed system of child care, ridding the province of the often horrific consequences of unregulated child care will remain a challenge.

Our Best Future was also clear about the need for a seamless extended day with school boards providing a consistent high-quality program provided by a single team of early-learning educators. Short-sighted school boards and high-powered lobbying allow boards to use third-party operators to continue the before-and-after child care. We wanted to ensure that the benefits of full-day kindergarten weren't undone by the fragmented offerings of third parties. The school boards that are getting the seamless-day job done properly have created a better program and tons of new child-care spaces without waiting lists.

The results of this new research regarding the benefits of full-day kindergarten are worthy of some domestic cork-popping and global attention.

Naturally, there will be naysayers.

To those who say "my kids aren't ready," who isn't ready for a play-based program with nutrition and rest breaks as necessary? To date, 96 per cent of kids who have access to full-day kindergarten are participating in this voluntary program.

To those who say "this is a huge amount to spend," the economic evidence notes that the return on investment will be huge and the program is already paying back the initial investment.

To those who use irrelevant American research based on a country that does not have full-day kindergarten for 4- and 5-year-olds or a consistent, high-quality curriculum, to discredit these results I say do some real research.

And to those who say we should only target poor children, it's important to understand that 60 per cent of the 27 per cent of kids who were vulnerable going into Grade 1 at the beginning of implementation do not come from low-income homes. A universal approach with special initiatives for low-income families is the winning combination.

All governments are good at making policy. Some are even good at making good policy. But taking ideas off the page of a report and putting them in motion on the ground is rarely a pretty sight. In this case, there is so much to celebrate as more and more kids reap the benefits of improved health, communication and social skills that not only better prepare them for formal school but for life.


Charles Pascal is a professor at OISE, University of Toronto and former early learning adviser to the premier of Ontario.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 7, 2013 A15

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