May 20, 2016

Early childhood report a distraction from what really needs to be done


The long-awaited report on the consultations by the Provincial Office for the Early Years (POEY) about early childhood planning in BC was released on Wednesday. This review, nearly a year in the making, looked at the meager early years community planning dollars allocated by the Ministry for Children and Family Development through the Children First and Success By 6 funding streams over the past 15 years.

The total of about $7 million annually currently supports over 140 early childhood planning tables around the province to raise public awareness of the importance of the early years, build community capacity and leverage resources to support services for families, reach out to vulnerable families, and achieve other goals.

In the report’s conclusion the POEY promises to build on the strengths of the existing planning model, offer more provincial guidance and direction, and create a single, streamlined structure that brings together senior decision makers from community and public systems.

The report notes as a strength that a number of early years tables have effectively demonstrated responsiveness to emerging community needs, pointing to the example of efforts to develop comprehensive child care needs assessments. However, this telling statement in the opening section of the report signals that the POEY does not anticipate a mandate or action from the provincial government to make the substantial early years investments that are needed to respond to the burning challenges families with young children are facing for more time, income and services:

“The Provincial Office for the Early Years will continue to work across government and with community partners to measure the impact of government investments, to improve program coordination, avoid duplication, and to leverage existing resources [my emphasis] so that parents have access to high-quality, accessible supports and services for their children, from birth onwards.”

Existing resources in many areas of BC’s early years services and supports have clearly been insufficient for a long time.

As the report also notes, data collected through the Early Development Instrument (EDI) has highlighted that young children have become more vulnerable on one or more developmental scales over the past 8 years, with the most recent provincial data showing one third of BC’s children are vulnerable upon Kindergarten entry.

By under-investing in this crucial developmental period, the BC government failed to meet its own goal of reaching a 15% 0-5 vulnerability rate by 2015. BC invests a mere 0.29% of its GDP in young children’s care and education, far below the minimum 1% benchmark set by UNICEF.

The report also acknowledges that this growing vulnerability is impacted by a number of systemic issues, though it fails to name them.  

Top of the list would be issues such as high child and family poverty rates, the child care crisis facing families, an out-of-control housing market with no corresponding relief through social or other affordable housing solutions, cuts to programs for children with special needs, and many others.

Looking at the growing population of young children of First Nations, Métis and Aboriginal identity, a population known to be over-represented in vulnerability statistics, particularly high poverty rates, this report has little to offer.  While ensuring partnerships with First Nations, Métis and Aboriginal communities is listed as a key theme from the consultations, its two “key take-aways” are:

  • More work is required to understand the role of early years planning as it relates to First Nations/Métis/Aboriginal communities.
  • First Nations/Métis/Aboriginal people are legally, culturally and historically unlike any other constituents in the early years planning process.

All the time and effort spent conducting this review of meagerly-funded early years planning efforts at the community level has produced predictable conclusions and commitments to streamline government-funding of this work, reduce duplication, “leverage” existing resources, etc.  This is, in effect, rearranging the insufficient deck chairs on a fragile boatload of early years services and supports that are already stretched to the limit.

The POEY needs a mandate to turn its attention to the big system changes and investments that are called for by the evidence of young children’s rising vulnerability rates and parents’ struggles to find basic services such as affordable quality child care, adequate housing and timely developmental supports for their children, while looking for jobs that offer living wages.