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How we’re setting a generation up to fail

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December 4, 2018   2 mins

Wouldn’t it be great if the state subsidised universal all-day childcare for pre-school children? The Canadian province of Quebec has had such a programme in place since 1997. That’s plenty of time in which to assess the long-term impacts.

There’s a broad consensus that the earliest years are the most important in a child’s development. Thus as well as enabling more women to (re)enter the workforce, childcare programmes provide a channel for state support to children long before they get to school.

So how did the Quebec programme work out? Not so well, according to an eye-opening article by Jenet Erickson for the Institute for Family Studies article:

“Comparisons between children ages 2 to 4 who had been exposed to the program, with older children (and siblings) who had not, revealed significant increases in anxiety, hyperactivity, and aggression in those exposed to the program. And the analyses found more hostile, inconsistent parenting, and lower-quality parental relationships among parents of children exposed to the program.”

A more recent study provides even more cause for concern:

“Twenty years after the Quebec program’s implementation, a second set of comprehensive analyses were conducted by Michael Baker, Jonathan Gruber, and Kevin Milligan (forthcoming, in the American Economic Journal). After replicating the previous results for children ages 0 to 4, the authors explored whether the negative outcomes associated with exposure to Quebec’s early, extensive day care program persisted into ages 5 to 9, the pre-teen years, adolescence, and young adulthood.

Their research confirmed that the negative effects did continue, and in some cases became stronger across development. “

Nor do these negative outcomes appear to be particular to Quebec:

“…the findings from the Quebec program are largely consistent with findings from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s comprehensive evaluation of day care in the United States.”

Worrying stuff, but does it mean that childcare is necessarily a bad thing? No:

“As with the persistence of negative effects across development, there is also evidence for the persistence of positive effects when children are exposed to the highest quality daycare. Higher adult-child ratios and more sensitive and positive caregiving in day care have consistently been associated with better cognitive performance and fewer behavioral problems in children.”

Unsurprisingly, most of the facilities in the Quebec study were not of the highest quality, in fact “60% of the universal daycare program sites in Quebec were judged to be of ‘minimal quality’”.

Of course, quality has to be paid for – and if that isn’t to mean exclusive access for the wealthiest parents, some form of government support is required. In many countries where government has intervened, the emphasis appears to be on quantity not quality; which suggests that the priority is to increase supply to the labour market and not giving children the best possible start in life – especially the most vulnerable children.

Looking at a wider set of education policy priorities one has to ask why so many governments have put the expansion of higher education before investment in the best quality early years education and support. We should have begun at the beginning – and by channeling help to the families where it would have made the biggest difference – but we didn’t. For some reason it was thought more important to expand the range of degree-only professions.

I suspect that 20 years from now we will look back on the big choices that were made 20 years ago, and wonder how we could have got it so wrong.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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