Pre-primary roll-out putting child care at risk

On July 18, the Liberal government unveiled the first phase of the pre-primary program they announced during the provincial election campaign.

While it’s true that this province is in dire need of quality, affordable early childhood education options, that need extends from six-months-old to five-years-old.

For many parents, pre-primary may sound like a good opportunity and a welcome reprieve from the high cost of childcare, but is it really? This plan only scratches the surface of the need, and in a way that is not of much use to most of us.

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The new pre-primary program will run during standard school hours. As far as allowing parents to participate in the workforce, there are very few of us with six-hour workdays. So, for those of us with full-time or full-time plus jobs and four-year-olds, we are faced with the need to find appropriate wraparound care before and after school. For my older children, there are options such as Excel and other community programs. Not so for four-year-olds.

But the concern isn’t just for after the program. What will happen in these new sites? Will all of these schools be retrofitted to accommodate 3.5-and-four-year-olds? With 20 students and two Early Childhood Educators (ECEs) in a classroom, what happens when a child needs to go to the bathroom, or someone needs a break? Why is this ratio different from the provincially-regulated ratio of one teacher per eight students in licensed childcare centres? Will my child be safe?

What about inclusion? We were assured by education minister Zack Churchill that this would be an inclusive program, but how is that possible? The Commission on Inclusion just told us in its preliminary report that the inclusion system in the schools is not working and needs a complete overhaul.

The reality is that most child care centres are not currently inclusive environments. Many parents of special needs children are already deeply frustrated with the lack of supports both in child care centres and in schools. What evidence is there this will be any different? These children require specially trained workers who are already hard to find in the existing systems.

The most striking thing about this week’s press conference, though, was the number of times Minister Churchill told us that he was “going to consult” with Early Childhood Educators, with existing daycare centres, and with parents. As far as we know, none of these groups have yet been consulted in any meaningful way. The time to consult is before a program is launched, not after the details have already been established.

In particular, the details of this new system make it clear that the Liberal government is putting existing child care providers in a needlessly perilous situation.

For example, although registration opens immediately, we do not know when parents will receive confirmation of their child’s enrolment. The government has specifically advised parents not to give their existing daycare providers notice that their children will not be returning in the fall until they have this confirmation. If an entire cohort of kids withdraws from a child care centre, even with a month’s notice, it will certainly be a struggle for many of those providers to stay in business. The result could mean the loss of some of our existing high quality, regulated child care for children aged six months to 3.5 years.

With consultation and transitional support from the government, it’s possible some providers could have adapted programming and business models, creating more before- and after-school opportunities, but they were not given any lead time to do this. Perhaps such a consultation would have led to a very different outcome, such as stable core funding for existing sites, the ones that are designed, regulated and staffed to accommodate children under five.

Even prior to this decision, our existing child care providers were being slowly strangled out of business by the patchwork funding model currently in place. With a mandated wage floor, a ceiling on charges to parents, and insufficient increases in provincial funding, many simply can’t make ends meet.

Once again, we’re faced with a situation where this government has made a hasty decision in the heat of an election, not only without consultation but without a larger view of how it will impact the rest of our child care landscape. It’s an infuriating pattern.

We need an affordable, universal childcare system in Nova Scotia, and pre-primary is certainly a part of that. But it’s not the whole picture by a long shot, and rolling it out in this way only sets us back in the larger project of ensuring the best outcomes for children and supporting families.

Would I put my four-year-old in one of these programs this year? Not a chance.

Claudia Chender

NDP MLA

Dartmouth South