Ontario is second to last for investment in early learning and care. We must

Ontario has the opportunity to address the most urgent needs of children – to provide high-quality early learning and care in a financially sustainable way, writes Sarah Cook.

We need more people working: Ontario is a powerhouse, with more than one million people in the workforce – the equivalent of 70% of the global population of South Asia. Yet, too many of our children are being left behind, and have neither the resources nor the opportunity to reach their full potential. That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Taken together, Ontario’s child care system is the poorest in the industrialized world. In fact, it’s the worst of any G7 country, based on indicators including child care services’ investment in staff, children’s social needs, and the timeliness of the system’s response to long wait times and delays in accessing services.

The current system must change, and the debate on how to do it must take account of the reality of this crisis. Ontario’s kindergarten-aged children are the group that can both benefit most from better access to high-quality care, and, ironically, those who are saddled with the longest wait lists.

In fact, one-third of Ontario’s kindergarten-aged children (65,000) wait more than a year for full-time childcare services. That’s not simply about economic efficiency: these are our very young children who are missing out on learning and socialising opportunities.

But at present, simply adding more family- or early learning-focused education into our schools will do little to address these pressing need. Sure, new affordable options will grow in the short term, but these are also a sign of the current system’s lack of competitiveness.

The investments our public systems need go beyond the bricks and mortar of facilities.

Policy needs to address the fact that many provinces are at the very bottom of the G7 list for ratios of public school teachers to children: fewer than one in 10 children will get the best possible education from the education system. This is not just about money: doing nothing means we’re putting the future of education at risk.

We must not reduce the investment in early childhood education and care to placate the reluctance of the Ontario Liberals to increase taxes – particularly on the middle class and seniors. To do so would mean abandoning the promised changes to the basic personal exemption, which have resulted in a substantially larger benefit for Ontario seniors, and are benefitting half of our generation.

But we will not believe that the government is serious about addressing children’s needs if it does not prioritize full-day kindergarten, as recommended by our recent Ombudsman report. Since 2008, early learning and care in Ontario has grown 27%, yet the ranks of educators in those fields has grown only 2%.

We’ve now reached the point where there are insufficient teachers available for new students. Our focus must shift toward improving the experience of the ones who already work there.

Ontario is “second to last” when it comes to the per-day amount that is invested in early childhood education and care. Consider that Canada spends on average $31.85 per day on early childhood education and care, whereas Ontario spends just $25.57 per day. This one-year difference is enough to provide childcare for an entire year for a middle-class family of four.

Most of all, we need a frank discussion around what children need for success.

For Ontario to become a country that allows every child to reach their full potential, we must start by meeting their developmental and social needs for every hour they spend in a care setting, at least until they’re 18.

The numbers speak for themselves: to take just three examples, 75% of Canadian parents were able to get childcare for their children before they were ready to attend school. And 81% of parents could get childcare for their children before they had to move to a new district. Parents and teachers simply do not have the time, or understanding of children’s developmental needs, that is required.

That’s why we must urgently and comprehensively assess the current system to determine what we know and don’t know about children and how to provide the highest level of child care in Canada. We need to improve the quality of child care and early education, and ensure that every child has access to it – because children are no longer just numbers on a report card.

• Sarah Cook is a researcher in the Learning and Innovation Working Group at the Ontario Public Policy Institute

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