Zach Churchill is at it again, it seems.
About a week ago, the new minister of education announced that the province would be rolling out Nova Scotia’s new pre-primary program at 43 sites across the province this September. The rollout will see the opening of the first 50 of what will eventually be 250 programs over the next four years, with the initial cost estimates from the government coming in at about $4.1 million for Year 1, and with an ultimate price tag of about $50 million.
The program will see early childhood educators (ECEs) hired at a ratio of one for every 10 children where there is a class of 20 children. If there are more than 20 children, three will be hired. The program is available to all children who will be at least four years old by Dec. 31 and comes at no cost to the families. It includes all the necessary supplies, and students will be provided snacks. Parents will still need to provide transportation for their children, but the program will essentially be free.
The idea has, not surprisingly, garnered some criticism from current early child-care professionals. The implementation of a brand new program, (instead of increasing support for existing ones) may very well be the death knell for any number of centres.
One critic of the program, Joanne Hussey, questioned the Liberals’ “announce first, ask questions later” tendencies, wondering, among other things, what contingencies were in place for wraparound services for parents who could not come to get their kids at the end of the school day.
Bobbi-Lynn Keating, an executive director of a child-care centre in Halifax, described the Liberals’ approach to the issue as placing a “stranglehold” on early childhood education, and wondered why such things as child-adult ratios had been loosened for the new centres.
Now, I am a fan of government funding for child care. Not having access to affordable child care is a tremendous challenge for many families, and places an undue burden on cash-strapped households, particularly the working poor and single parents.
I know that some primary teachers might be happy about the change as well. Since the age of entry into school was lowered to admit four-year-olds, many have told me tales of trying to work with children who were simply “not ready” to begin school. In a fair number of cases, students arrived without even the basics, like toilet training, mastered. There is some hope that the pre-primary program will allow students (and parents) time to bridge into a more structured environment.
However, as with many government decisions recently, it is not the idea itself that has given me cause for concern. It is the lack of forethought before implementation that has me questioning the logic.
Let’s start off with something simple like staffing, which Mr. Churchill has noted will be one of the contingencies under which the centres will be opened.
Each site will need to hire one ECE for every 10 children who sign up, and will also need an early childhood lead, who will basically be the contact person at the school for parents, and will oversee the program. According to CUPE documents, leads can make upwards of $44,000 per year, at least in the Halifax regional school board. However, ECE support professionals cap out at just shy of $27,000. Considering this government’s approach to collective bargaining, that number is unlikely to increase any time soon. Once these programs get up and running, enticing enough people to work for ECE wages may prove challenging indeed.
Assuming that these positions do get staffed, there is then the issue of supervision.
The lead ECEs are to be responsible for dealing with parents, but there is still some question as to who deals with the ECEs themselves. In this age of accountability, who within the building will supervise these programs? More importantly, if the ECEs have issues, to whom do they turn for support? That duty will most likely fall on the shoulders of already overburdened school principals, many of whom have neither the training nor the support themselves at this point to effectively navigate these waters.
Next, what happens if one of the ECEs gets sick? Will the lead ECE be responsible for calling in a substitute? If so, where, precisely, will those substitutes be found? Considering the current challenges facing schools to find substitute teachers, let alone EPAs and other support staff, finding replacement ECEs will not simply be a matter of picking up the phone.
The issue of staffing gets more complex if, as I suspect, there will be days when one or, heaven forbid, both ECEs are unable to work and replacements cannot be found. Will programs be permitted to run if there is only one ECE available for a class of 20 students, or will parents be told to keep their children home?
The responsibility for alerting parents in such instances will undoubtedly fall on the schools, and considering the amount of angst snow days cause, one can only imagine how those calls will pan out. At least with storm days, parents get some sense of impending interruptions to their schedules on the 5 o’clock news. If an ECE gets sick and is unable to report to work, who within the building will be responsible for picking up the slack?
So, when it comes to this plan, it seems that even the details of something as simple as staffing have the potential to cause tremendous consternation. And that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Another area that I see as particularly problematic is the notion that the sites will be inclusive of special-needs children. Not that I believe these students should be excluded from the programs, but it must be recognized that their inclusion does complicate matters. Without a strategic plan in place to provide supports, there are, again, more questions than answers. The government’s FAQ page promises that special-needs students will have access to supports and that extra staff will be hired as needed. It is, however, rather short on details as to how such support will be determined, or even by whom.
Then there is the impact on current child-care infrastructure. The exodus of three-year-olds from their client base may cause some sites to no longer be financially viable, and force them to close. Once this happens, how will that affect parents in that area who may either not wish to or not be able to utilize the new pre-primary program? If I can’t leave work to pick up my three-year-old when the school day ends, and the only child-care facility in my area has been forced to close, what are my options?
The devil in all this is that I find myself applauding the intent of the idea. Trying to find ways to help Nova Scotians with child care is a laudable goal. However, I remain concerned that this program has received such limited forethought that it is doomed to failure before it even gets started. No system is going to work for everyone, certainly, but there is a huge practicality piece missing from all of this. This government might not have a particularly good track record of considering the practical impacts of any decision, but this announcement seems to have “boondoggle” written all over it.
So far, upwards of 500 families have registered their children for the pre-primary program, which shows that there certainly may be a need to be filled. However, with this many question marks, how much confidence we should have in the program being successful remains a matter of some debate.
If it were my child, I am not sure I would be rushing to place all my child-care eggs in what appears to be a very shaky basket.
Originally published in a slightly edited form in Localxpress, July 24th, 2017.