During the 2007 provincial election, the Ontario government promised to significantly reduce poverty and its effects. To deliver on this commitment, the government will have to adopt a multi-pronged approach in which education plays an important role. The government’s plan for full-day junior and senior kindergarten will benefit all children, but particularly children from disadvantaged families.
Poverty can limit student success
Research shows and teachers understand that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to succeed academically and ultimately are at greater risk of failing to graduate from high school. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted a comprehensive overview of national education programs, which found that children from families with low socioeconomic status are less likely to develop the same level of skills and “intellectual capital” as children from more advantaged backgrounds. The OECD has also reported that, based on the 2001 and 2004 PISA* reading, math, and science tests, lower educational outcomes are clearly linked to family poverty.1 Failure to succeed at school has significant implications for these students’ futures and for Ontario’s social and economic welfare.
The OECD found that Canada was one of the few member countries able to compensate to some degree for socioeconomic disadvantage through significant investment in public education: “The school systems in some countries, e.g. in Australia, Canada, Finland and Japan, manage to compensate for socioeconomic disadvantage and ensure that children from low-income families do not fall irretrievably behind in academic achievement.”2 While Canada’s public school system deserves high marks for its inclusiveness, much more needs to be done both nationally and provincially to narrow the gap in achievement for children from low-income families.
The benefits of universal early learning
A number of developed nations view universal early childhood education as an effective social policy to address these issues. “International research from a wide range of countries shows that early intervention contributes significantly to putting children from low-income families on the path to development and success in school.”3 Most European countries provide universal educational programs for children three to five years old and make them available to any child regardless of parental employment status or family income. The programs are delivered through a body equivalent to our ministry of education. In most cases they are taught by university-trained teachers.
Increasingly, European countries are going even further by offering programs for children younger than three. In Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, where the compulsory school age is seven, high-quality early childhood education programs are made universally accessible and afford able through significant public investment and a fee structure based on parental income. Programs for children three and under are also available in Belgium, Italy, and Portugal.