Dalton McGuinty, Ontario's Premier, is so convinced that early childhood education and “sure start” is critical to the fight against illiteracy, poverty and a failing economy, that he has pledged substantial amounts of money to the expansion of kindergarten to every four- and five-year-old in the province. Ultimately, the idea is to create a “seamless” merger of child care and early childhood education, with elementary schools acting as year-round hubs for children from birth to age 12.
On the face of it, this may appear sound. After all, there would appear to be compelling evidence that children can be taught basic reading and writing and math skills early and that their lifelong social and intellectual development is shaped by learning that occurs before the age of five.
But the so-called compelling evidence is in fact more complex. Early childhood education appears to be of marginal value, in educational and social development terms, to middle and upper class children. Their home environment, parental support and level of education and the presence of books and nutrition in the home all aid their effective intellectual and social development, even when both parents work.
Where early intervention is most needed is amongst the poor, especially aboriginal children whose parents are unable to support their social and intellectual development in the same way as their middle class counterparts and where nutrition and health are also problematic. Basic and standardized interventions, like all day kindergarten, have little sustaining value. What appears to be needed are customized interventions over a considerable period of time on a per family basis. While such interventions may include all day kindergarten, this in itself is not likely to produce the results which McGuinty and his advisors anticipate.
The evidence of Head Start in the US, which is only a partial comparison to what McGuinty is proposing, is that the benefits of early childhood educational interventions dissipate over time – the effects don’t last long. SureStart, a scheme being adopted in the UK, begins a randomized control trial this month in Derbyshire and it will be interesting to review a longitudinal study of these children over the next fifteen years. But right now, the evidence appears thin that this kind of intervention can make a significant difference to a generation of children.
At the same time, McGuinty is committed to a substantial poverty elimination strategy, to hiring 8,000 nurses to new positions and spending a significant stimulus fund to boost the Ontario economy and provide support to a failing manufacturing sector. Ontario – a “have not Province” receiving transfer payments from the Federal government – is big on ideas. Now they have to find the cash to pay for this, which means both higher taxes and cuts in other services.
So the all day kindergarten becomes a question of trade off’s. Is this more important than, say, the 8,000 nurses or the continued investment in university research? Will it produce such strong social benefits – lower crime rates, higher levels of literacy, more employable individuals in 2030 than in 2010? – to justify the costs? These economic and social benefit assumptions have not been made available for review, but it doubtful that they will show a compelling case for action. Also not available is a full and detailed life-time costing of the all day kindergarten scheme in its entirety, nor is there a risk assessment of the impact of such a scheme on other services, such as health and social services.