Why quality is central to the issue of early childhood education and care

Where Canada stands

Based on these consensus aspects of quality and evidence about how they are linked, Canada does not fare well in comparative analyses of quality. In the sole cross-Canada study of quality conducted, You Bet I Care! (2000), a study of process quality in centres and regulated home child care, found that “only about a third of centres and a third of [regulated] family child care homes provide experiences that support and encourage children’s social, language and cognitive development”. In a 2008 UNICEF (Innocenti Research Centre) report card on child care in 25 countries, Canada achieved only one of 10 minimum benchmarks for quality and access, tied with Ireland for lowest ranked.7

Comparing the evidence from research and consensus about the role of aspects child care programs such as wages, working conditions and staff training in ECE, physical environments, staff: child ratios/groups size and governance, there is general agreement that, overall, Canada’s child care quality is weak though there are many excellent programs.  At different times, a number of provinces have introduced various quality improvements and initiatives but these usually have not been evaluated and may not be sustained.

Nationally, it is noteworthy that in the 2000s, both the Multilateral Framework Agreement on Early Learning and Child (2003) and the bilateral federal/provincial/territorial agreements that made up the Foundations program (2004) (eliminated by the subsequent government)  included commitments to federal/provincial/territorial collaboration on “a national quality framework”.

1OECD (2011), Starting Strong III: A Quality Toolbox for Early Childhood Education and Care. https://www.unicef.org/lac/spbarbados/Implementation/ECD/StartingStrongII_OECD_2006.pdf-accessed July 24, 2017.
2Early childhood education and care: a new direction for European policy cooperation. Children in Europe Issue. © Children in Scotland, Issue 21, September 2011 pp 29, 30. http://childcarecanada.org/sites/default/files/Children%20in%20Europe%202011_21.pdf-accessed July 25, 2017.
3National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development; Shonkoff JP, Phillips DA, editors. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2000. 11, Growing Up in Child Care. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK225555/-accessed July 27, 2017.
4OECD Directorate for Education Review Team.  Early Childhood Education and Care Policy Canada Country Note. September/October 2003.  http://www.oecd.org/edu/school/33850725.pdf-accessed July 24, 2017.
5 Doherty, G., Friendly, M., & Beach, J. (2003). OECD Thematic Review of Early Childhood Education and Care: Canada background report. Ottawa: Government of Canada. http://www.oecd.org/education/school/33852192.pdf-accessed July 28, 2017.
6Friendly, M. , Doherty, G. and Beach. J.  Quality by design: What do we know about quality in early learning and child care, and what do we think?  A literature review. Childcare Resource and Research Unit, University of Toronto. Toronto ON. No date. http://childcarecanada.org/sites/default/files/QbD_LiteratureReview.pdf-accessed July 24, 2017.
7 UNICEF, The child care transition, Innocenti Report Card 8, 2008 UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence. © The United Nations Children’s Fund, 2008.
http://www.unicef.or.jp/library/pdf/labo_rc8.pdf– accessed July 24, 2017.

Expanding access to services without attention to quality will not deliver good outcomes for children or the long term productivity benefits for society. Furthermore, research has shown that if quality is low, it can have long-lasting detrimental effects on child development, instead of bringing positive effects1.

Why quality is central to the issue of early childhood education and care
by Martha Friendly, Executive Director, Childcare Resource and Research Unit

The term “quality” has long been central in the discourse on child care. However, despite the substantial literature about how much quality matters, what determines how it is defined, and the evidence about what factors are likely to make child care quality better or poorer,  discussion about “quality” in Canadian child care is sometimes more rhetorical than substantive.

Quality very much matters
A key conclusion from three decades of research is that quality matters; studies from multiple countries tell us that the importance of child care quality cannot be overstated.  Early childhood education and care (ECEC) programs can have beneficial developmental effects if quality is high while poor quality programs may have a negative effect, especially for very young or disadvantaged children.1

A 2011 European Commission statement observed that: “It is increasingly clear that access [to child care] without quality is of little merit”. This statement cited research to support the idea that “more child care places are not enough: services have to be high quality and go beyond labour market considerations to consider children and their families’ wellbeing both in the present and the future”. 2This is consistent with other evidence-based conclusions that quality is of paramount importance in ECEC such as “The positive relation between child care quality and virtually every facet of children’s development that has been studied is one of the most consistent findings in developmental science.”3

Defining quality
When comparing ECEC in different societies, it is obvious that there are many different traditions, conceptions and approaches. Thus, perceptions of what ECEC quality means may vary across cultures, reflecting different values, social contexts, conceptions of childhood and views of the purposes of ECEC.

Canada does not have a clearly articulated pan‐Canadian ECEC vision.  Canadian rationales for ECEC have swung between school readiness to children’s rights, from reducing poverty to women’s equality to workforce productivity. Developing an articulated vision of ECEC is considered to be a precursor to an operational definition of quality. In 2004, the OECD’s review of Canadian ECEC recommended   “discussion among governments, policy makers, researchers and other stakeholders…as a first task…to sit down together to conceptualize a coherent, long ‐term vision, based on the best available evidence and prioritized into defined steps and time frames.”4,5

However, although there is no single universal definition of quality, ECEC, experts observe that,
there are some values so critical to the well being of children that they are widely perceived to be the foundation of any definition of quality. There is general consensus that children need to feel loved, respected and listened to; that they are sociable and enjoy the company of other children and adults besides their immediate family; and that through affection, through social intercourse and with a stimulating environment, they mature, learn and develop a remarkably wide range of skills and competencies in the first five or six years.6

The European Commission statement observed that there is “a strong consensus that staffing, curriculum and the content of programmes are central elements in quality, along with the governance of systems”2 and that examining and strengthening these can improve quality and accessibility. The OECD’s Starting Strong has emphasized the importance of a “participatory approach to quality improvement and assurance” and that defining, ensuring, and monitoring quality should be a participatory and democratic process that engages staff, parents, and children.1