In a photo illustrating a Liberal press release, Premier Stephen McNeil paints egg cartons to demonstrate his commitment to early childhood education.

With election promises thicker than apple blossoms, one that sets the Liberals  apart is the promise of an expanded universal, pre-primary program for four-year-olds.

Eight Nova Scotia schools including Rockingstone Heights Elementary in Spryfield currently offer full day programs for four-year-olds taught by Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) in classrooms dubbed Early Learning Centres, once known as “Four Plus.”

Before the election was called, the budget introduced by the McNeil government included $3.7 million to expand Early Learning Centres to 30 new locations this September [see update below]. That budget has not yet been passed, and once the electioneering began the Liberals boosted that commitment to $49.7 million a year when the program is fully rolled out to include 9,000 pre-schoolers four years from now.

Stephen McNeil described the campaign announcement  as “a game-changer for early childhood education” and the Liberal news release said it had “the potential to save Nova Scotian families upwards of $10,000 in child care costs.”

So far, few child care educators nor the PCs and NDP have quarrelled publicly with that description, in part because the success of a similar program in Ontario (Toronto’s First Duty program) and one in New Brunswick which provide play-based programs in combination with family support services and childcare  before and after school.

YouTube video

The Margaret Norrie McCain Foundation supported both programs. Nova Scotia’s first four Early Years Centres were announced in 2013, by the Darrell Dexter’s NDP government, with the help of a $500,000 grant from the Foundation.

The day after the April 2017 budget committed to expand Early Years to 30 schools this fall, an op-ed article by McCain, a child-care advocate, philanthropist and former Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, was published on the Liberal Party’s website. Here’s part of what Margaret McCain Norrie wrote:

More than one in three children in Nova Scotia begin Grade Primary with big gaps in their health, vocabulary and self-confidence. Some find it difficult to get along with their classmates and teachers. Schools can’t compensate children for poor experiences in their earliest years. Affluent and middle class families know that the skills needed for success in school and life are established early. They fight to get their children into the best preschools they can find. Youngsters from disadvantaged homes have fewer options. Sadly the difficulties children experience at school entry are likely to grow, rather than lessen, over time. They are more likely to leave school before graduating and frequently become parents too soon to stop their own children from repeating the cycle. The good news is quality early education has been shown to break intergenerational legacies of disadvantage.

Good news indeed. The bad news is it’s sketchy whether the Liberals can deliver an integrated child care program in time for this fall.

Former education minister Karen Casey announced an extensive review of Early Childhood Education back in 2014. Early Childhood Educators are still waiting for the announcement of a promised new Funding Formula that was previously delayed and has again been put off by this election.

Liberal intentions may be pure but plenty of unanswered questions remain for parents and the daycare operators the government needs as partners to turn this policy into action..

The Department of Education says the 30 locations for new Early Years Centres have yet to be identified; the Department cannot provide a date by which parents could register  children for September.

Catherine Cross

Catherine Cross is the executive-director of the Nova Scotia Child Care Association. Her group represents about 500 workers who have at least two years of ECE training and who work in licensed daycares, both privately owned and not-for-profit. The Liberal plan calls for Early Years Centres to be staffed by ECEs who start at $15 to $19 an hour in licensed daycares. Cross describes her reaction to the Liberal promise as “mixed.”

“I don’t want to see any daycares put out of business and I want to see families and kids get the services they need,” says Cross. “I think some Early Childhood Educators will benefit by getting to work in classrooms — we know they provide a higher rate of pay than in licensed child-care centers. There could be some partnership opportunities between daycares and schools but the way the program was announced makes it sound as if Early Years is free, and it’s not. Parents will still have to pay for care before and after school and when there’s no school, the Centres will be closed.”

The Liberal news release announcing the expansion of Early Years said “daycares that currently serve four-year-olds will be assisted in a transition to provide before and after school care.” Asked if that assistance would be financial, David Jackson, media spokesman for the Liberal campaign, responded  that “financial support may be a possibility. That will be determined as the program is introduced.”

Tough to take that to the bank. The Department of Education says three schools currently provide after-school care in partnership with a family or not-for-profit daycare and two other schools are in discussions to set it up. Three other schools do not provide child care.

Cross also wants an explanation about why the staff-to-child ratios in schools are different than in daycares. She says while regulated childcare centers must have one Early Childhood Educator (ECE) for every eight four-year-olds in a group of 24, the Early Years model requires just one ECE instructor for 12 four-year-olds.

Cross says staff-to-student ratios are a measure of quality so she doesn’t understand why a school-based program would operate with fewer adults.

Heather Fairbairn, a spokesperson for the Department of Education, says the current average in the existing Early Years Centres is one ECE instructor for 10 children and the reason licensed daycares are required to have more staff (1:8) is because their programs may include younger children.

A 2015 Department of Education evaluation of the first four Early Years Centres found they were successful at giving kids a better start in Grade Primary but faced challenges “including a fear within the child-care private sector that the EYC would take away their business, as families would have access to a free program for their preschool children; and some of the provincial regulations pose challenges to offering onsite before- and after-school programs.”

Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB) chair David Wright says there may be difficulties in finding available classroom space in schools which could benefit the most from the Early Years program. Most school boards, including the Halifax board, currently have their hands full hiring an additional 139 junior and senior high school teachers funded in the same April budget to reduce class size and improve classroom conditions after a bitter two-year labour dispute with teachers.

None of the School Board Superintendents responded to a question asking whether they have been consulted by the Department of Education about the establishment of 30 new Early Years Centres.

School boards have been directed by the Department of Education to proceed as if the budget had been passed — and HRSB chair Wright says despite the political uncertainty, trustees will do everything they can to carry out whatever budget does gets passed.

Yet, their own future isn’t certain, with the Liberals promising to review “the administrative structure” of school boards.

The NDP and Liberals would put a moratorium on school reviews and closures for at least the next school year. The PCs and the NDP are promising to re-open negotiations with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, with salary payments making up 80-90 per cent of most Board budgets.

Neither the PCs nor the NDP are matching the Liberal campaign promise on Early Years — the NDP platform vaguely promises “to work in consultation with the child care community and make a substantial investment in early childhood education.”

In all the din and confusion around education, a promising program to help at-risk pre-schoolers is one giving all three political parties some trouble.

Update, 5:40pm: Brynn Langille, a spokesperson for the Liberal campaign, sends an email with the subject line “correction,” as follows:

In the email intro sent out for the story, Jennifer Henderson reports that we are expanding Early Learning Centres to 30 new locations. This is incorrect. We are introducing a pre-primary program, which will include 30 new classes. It’s also important to note that we have already spoken to school boards and if elected, we will continue to work with them to help determine which schools will house the new classes.

In preparing our proposal, the Liberal Party consulted with early childhood education experts who are in full support of this plan – and the Liberal Party has also committed to working with daycare operators who are concerned with the impact on their business models. This could include incentives to transition to before and after school care, or provide more spaces for children under four.

Jennifer Henderson responds:

I think the only “correction” may be the nuanced distinction between “classes” and “locations.” The Liberal party seems to be saying there could be more than one class of four-year-olds in the same location. I stand corrected on that point, noting that the eight Early Learning Centres that currently exist are in eight different locations. I made a wrongful assumption.

I don’t think anything else in the Liberal response contradicts what I said in the piece. Yes, the Department consulted “experts” but the people complaining about the lack of consultation to ramp up the program for this September are daycare operators and workers, both quoted in my piece.

When asked, neither the Department of Education nor any school board provided me with any indication as to “where” the 30 new groups would be. If they know, they aren’t telling.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. I’d much rather see more subsidized seats in quality, licensed, affordable child care around the province, so mums and dads can go to work, knowing their children are well cared for. A good day care can do a lot to prepare children for school.

    Approximately half of 4-year-olds are already in Grade Primary classrooms in our schools, now that the cut-off for starting Primary is December 31 (a child must have already turned 5, or must turn 5 by December 31 in order to start school in September).

    This announcement sounds like smoke and mirrors to me.

  2. There are so many issues with the pre-primary announcement. To suggest it has been successful in Ontario ignores all the issues they continue to struggle with in implementation. And for the Liberals to suggest pre-primary is fully supported by experts is false. The research does not support the institutionalization of child care for 4 year olds. I’m not sure where the NSCCA gets its numbers but ECE’s working in classroom settings are not paid more than those working in centres.

    For the past 2 years, the Department has been consulting with the child care sector and made recommendations in 2016 which are in the process of being implemented. The recommendations of the review do not include expansion of a pre-primary program. The Department has said that this is not in any of their plans and is counter to the recommendations of their Review.There seems to be two possible reasons for this seemingly ad-hoc plan for a province-wide pre-primary program:
    1. The Department of Education has for two years been acting in good faith, only to have a Liberal Party policy person convince the government to make this a key campaign plank, much to the surprise of the Department (seemingly likely) OR
    2. There is such blatant disrespect and contempt for the child care sector within the Department of Education, that they continued to string centres along on a promise of a new curriculum framework and quality standards knowing full well that they will take it away months later, using centres as a testing ground for new public school curriculum.

    Despite no answers from the Department on what this means for child care in NS – a Strategic Growth Plan and new Funding formula was due out months ago, but remains on hold until at least after the election – the Department is continuing to pilot a new curriculum with 42 centres without discussing if the long term plan is to actually remove 4+ children and them and place them in schools.
    The Liberals pre-primary plan is apparently based on the success of the 8 early years centres – however – the department is still evaluating these centres and findings are not expected for another 1.5 years. Based on the operation of the EYCs however, parents are also not being told that a pre-primary program likely means the following:
    – there will be more children per teacher;
    – it will be managed by the school board;
    – centres won’t actually be licensed centres and will play by a different set of rules;
    – ECEs (who just had wage floors introduced by the Department in October 2016) may be paid less than the wage floor and they are not under the same agreements, and may be laid off over summer months;
    – parents will still need to find care on snow days, pd days, summer months, creating an even more ad-hoc and likely more unlicensed spectrum of options;
    – a big issue is the number of transitions and travel times (and how they will get around) that this will introduced into the lives of children and families.

    The department hasn’t provided any research that backed up this approach and it has failed elsewhere. The Liberals offer only the advice of Margaret McCain. 10 years after introducing this program, it is not working well for everyone in Ontario. While there can be benefits to underserved areas, it creates a mess in the urban/suburban areas. There cost estimates provided by the Liberals do not align with the real costs of delivering such services. And while making schools a hub of the community is an excellent idea in theory, the plan has a major flaw – the school boards have been for many years replacing small neighbourhood schools with bigger district facilities, more detached from the communities that they serve.

    30 new Early Years Centres in underserved areas may be a good investment. A provincewide roll out of pre-primary program with no analysis or bigger vision for the integration of public schools and child care is not.