Four Is the Magic Number

Illustrations Graeme Shorten Adams

Throughout the strikes, protests and general commotion of last spring, access to education was the concern du jour among all those who donned red squares to protest tuition hikes.

The fee increase, the argument went, would mean that students of limited means would be less able to obtain a university education.

But access to education depends on more than what’s in a 19-year-old’s bank account. With the hikes cancelled and post-secondary students back in class, the accessibility question is now being asked about a new cohort of Quebecers—preschoolers.

The Quebec government has a history of investing in children before they start school. Since 1997, the province’s daycare subsidy program ensures a certain number of spaces for children to learn and be cared for during the day, either in family daycare centres, privately run facilities, or state-run centres de la petite enfance.

Quebec’s school boards also operate a small number of pre-kindergarten programs, and a handful of other early childhood initiatives like the Passe-partout program—which aims to implicate parents in their children’s development—try to bridge the gap.

But with funding shortages leading to a lack of spaces in these programs, some are falling through the cracks. This is especially true of those living in poverty, who experts say are also less likely to receive educational attention at home.

Still, one classic study, Michigan’s 1962 Perry Preschool Project, found that children from low-income backgrounds who attended high-quality preschool at ages three and four were more likely to do well in class, graduate high school and go on to post-secondary education than students who started school later.

With this in mind, the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation, an independent advisory body within the Quebec government, released a report in late October highlighting the need for more early childhood education in Quebec, focusing specifically on four-year-olds.

The CSE’s recommendations included the creation of more spaces for four-year-olds in the centres de la petite enfance, with priority given to low-income communities. It also recommended a series of measures to improve daycare quality, as well as the allotment of extra funds to support community-based early childhood initiatives.

“We found out that for children four years of age, about two-thirds of them had access to some form of service,” said Claude Lessard, president of the CSE. “We know that that’s not enough.”

The CSE’s target is to give 90 per cent of four-year-olds in Quebec access to some form of regulated, educational childcare within five years’ time.

Lessard explained that in low-income areas, many families don’t utilize daycare services, attributing this to a lack of available spaces, and to the perception that “if you don’t work, you don’t send [your children] to a daycare centre.”

To deal with this inequity, the CSE recommends that more pre-kindergartens—currently offered to less than 10 per cent of four-year-olds province-wide—be put in place in schools in  low-income areas. They also want daycare to be free of charge for all four-year-olds, regardless of parental income.

A Question of Funding

In a press release, newly appointed Education Minister Marie Malavoy has said she supports the CSE’s recommendations, adding that expanding the pre-kindergarten system will be a priority for her ministry.

For Josée Bouchard, president of the Fédération des commissions scolaires du Québec, this is good news.

“In acting very early in the life of a child, we better the chances of success for those children,” said Bouchard, who represents Quebec’s francophone school boards.

“We know that children who repeat Grade One have a very high risk of not receiving their high school diploma. So [early interventions] can have a major effect on student success.”

So why have so few pre-kindergartens have been put in place so far? According to Bouchard, it’s a question of funding.

“After the cuts we’ve experienced, we would absolutely need new funds. We would have to hire more teachers, and have more space for children. […] That would mean building onto existing schools or even creating new schools,” said Bouchard.

Although the FCSQ does not keep statistics on the effects of pre-kindergarten on student success, Bouchard pointed to the strides made by other programs for underprivileged children as reason for increased investment.

“In places where we put programs in place for these children, we see higher graduation rates, higher student success,” she said.

For this reason, Bouchard thinks that low-income areas should get pre-kindergarten first, and supports the CSE’s suggestion to democratize daycare for all four-year-olds.

“If the government did this, it would send a clear message to the population of Quebec that education is a real priority.”

Quebec’s Approach- a “Mixed Message”

Nina Howe, a research chair in Concordia’s Education department, studies children’s social and emotional development in childcare and classroom settings. She says that parental income is a very important factor in determining the kind of educational experiences children have access to in early childhood.

“For children growing up in poverty, there’s quite a large body of work now that suggests that having enriched early childhood experiences helps those children function better in school,” said Howe.  

She sees the province’s commitment to early childhood as a “mixed message.”

“In some ways Quebec has been a leader, in terms of providing daycare,” she said. But she worries that not all children who attend daycare are receiving educational experiences of the same quality.

Her concern lies with daycare centres that, while still subsidized by the government, operate outside the state-run system. These for-profit centres “tend to hire the minimum number of trained teachers they need to do to meet provincial regulations, and that’s because they’re businesses,” she explained.

But teacher training, in Howe’s opinion, is key to quality.

“We don’t let teachers teach in the public schools without a teaching degree. Early childhood is a very vulnerable and a very important stage of development. Everyone who works with young children should also have—to my mind—high-quality training,” she said.

Howe thinks that Quebec has been slow to develop programs for four-year-olds, and points to Ontario, where there is pre-kindergarten for all children of this age, as an example.

What quality early childhood education gives, she explained, is a chance for children to gain important life skills—like self-discipline, cooperation and an eagerness to learn—before they begin school.

“All of these issues are really of prime importance in the early childhood years, and they are the kinds of things that carry on into how you’re going to grow up, and what individual you’re going to be.”