If you could do it over, would you want to start school at age two?

While many two-year-olds already spend their days in child care out of necessity, a new report recommends putting them in public school
the editors
Children take a nap at a day care centre in Montreal on Friday, August 18, 2006. As strange as it might sound to many Canadians, some Quebec parents are prepared to hit the streets in protest to demand the choice of paying more for their childrenís day care. (CP PHOTO/Ian Barrett)
If you could do it over, would you want to start school at age two?
Ian Barrett/CP

One of the biggest obstacles to the child care debate is that it’s rarely about kids. More often than not, it’s about the politics and ideology of adults. So it is with a controversial new report arguing all Canadian children should be in school from age two.

While many two-year-olds already spend their days in child care out of necessity, “Early Years Study 3,” by former New Brunswick lieutenant governor Margaret Norrie McCain, the late Dr. Fraser Mustard and daycare advocate Kerry McCuaig, asserts a national imperative to expand existing kindergarten programs so every child has a place in a public school by age two. Quebec’s heavily subsidized $7-a-day child care system is presented as a template and aspiration for all provinces.

Universal child care is always a hot topic, with strongly held views on either side. It’s also been a key platform issue in recent federal elections. (Voters rejected it.) Any reasoned effort to open the school system to much younger children, and at much greater cost to taxpayers, thus has a responsibility to consider both the pros and cons of this idea. The Early Years report has no trouble finding support for its preferred outcome, citing “an avalanche of evidence showing how a public commitment to improving child development can have transformative effects,” particularly for disadvantaged children. But it betrays its biases by ignoring a long list of equally notable disadvantages.

In July, for example, Maclean’s reported on a Quebec think tank study examining the effect of Quebec’s popular daycare program on student performance. It found reading test scores for the province’s five-year-olds decreased in comparison with their peers in other provinces following the program’s introduction. “The picture is not quite what it should be for a policy that seeks to increase early literacy skills,” the study noted. Similarly, a large international evaluation of high school students in 2009 found Quebec performed at or below the national average in reading and science. Alberta was the highest-ranked province and one of the best-performing jurisdictions in the entire world. Yet the Early Years study gives Alberta a failing grade in terms of early childhood education. Some failure.

With respect to social development, a 2008 study of Quebec’s daycare system observed “striking evidence that children are worse off in a variety of behavioural and health dimensions, ranging from aggressive to motor-social skills to illness.” Extended time spent in Quebec’s daycare system appears to make kids sick and angry.

All this evidence is not meant to argue against the use of daycare for parents who find it a requirement. It remains an important option for many families. But the broader advantages and disadvantages of institutional care tend to be small and at the margins. Plus, the public costs are very large. Any study that seeks to further this debate has a responsibility to acknowledge both sides of the coin. And in the absence of a preponderance of proof favouring school for very young children, there’s no good reason to abandon the status quo and transfer sweeping new parenting powers to the state.

Finally, if the child care debate was really about children, we would be wondering how they might decide for themselves, if they could. So ask yourself: if you happened to be reborn as an infant tomorrow, would you choose to leave home for school when you turned two.