Only 70.4 percent of kids entering kindergarten in B.C. in 2008 were considered “ready to learn”. That figure, which was reported in a B.C. budget document earlier this year, was down from 72.1 percent in 2004.
UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership compiled this data with the help of kindergarten teachers across the province. So what does this really mean? According to a HELP report presented at a Business Council of B.C. summit in September, it suggests that these kids are “vulnerable to less than optimal physical, socio-economic, and cognitive development”.
In late October, HELP released data from across the province that showed higher vulnerability rates in regions like Kitimat, Prince Rupert, and parts of Vancouver. The data was prepared with the help of the Early Development Instrument, which is a questionnaire developed by McMaster University researchers Magdalena Janus and Don Offord. Using the EDI, kindergarten teachers evaluated children by answering 104 questions distributed among five categories: physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and communications skills and general knowledge.
The EDI doesn’t identify individual children but seeks to evaluate learning readiness for a population of kindergarten kids in different neighbourhoods. Researchers seek kindergarten teachers’ feedback on their pupils’ interest in books, their ability to understand others in English, and their level of aggression, among other topics.
“Optimal development does not imply children must be rocket scientists or the next Mozart in kindergarten,” HELP researchers Paul Kershaw, Lynell Anderson, Bill Warburton, and Clyde Hertzman wrote in their report to the Business Council of B.C. “Rather it implies children come to school appropriately dressed, nourished, and rested; able to hold a pen, climb stairs, and use the washroom independently; they get along with peers and are able to follow instructions; and they come able to tell a story, know at least 10 letters of the alphabet, and write simple words.”
In Vancouver, 21 percent of kindergarten pupils were deemed to be vulnerable in “communications skills and general knowledge”. Only 10.6 percent were vulnerable in “language and cognitive development”.
West Side neighbourhoods posted better results than those on the East Side. In South Cambie, for instance, only 13.6 percent of kindergarten pupils were deemed to be vulnerable in one or more of the five categories. West Point Grey ranked second, at 18.5 percent, followed by Shaughnessy at 19.4 percent, and Dunbar-Southlands at 22.9 percent. Rounding out the top 10 were Kerrisdale (23.5 percent), Kitsilano (24.6 percent), Riley Park (26.7 percent), Arbutus-Ridge (27.4 percent), Fairview (29.3 percent), and Marpole (34.6 percent).
Kindergarten teachers in the lowest-ranking neighbourhood in the city, Strathcona, reported that 66.1 percent of their pupils were vulnerable in one or more category. More than 40 percent of kindergarten students in Kensington–Cedar Cottage, downtown Vancouver, Victoria-Fraserview, Hastings-Sunrise, Grandview-Woodlands, Oakridge, Renfrew-Collingwood, Sunset, the West End, Mount Pleasant, and Killarney were vulnerable in one or more category.
In the September 1 budget, Finance Minister Colin Hansen allocated $151 million to fund full-day kindergarten for 50 percent of students next year and for all students in 2011. In one budget document, the province stated its goal to have 85 percent of kindergarten kids ready to learn by 2015-2016.
The HELP researchers’ report to the Business Council of B.C., called 15 by 15: A Comprehensive Policy Framework for Early Human Capital Investment in B.C., notes that a vulnerability rate above 10 percent is “biologically unnecessary”. The report states that the majority of vulnerable kids are in the middle class, and it cited economic analyses suggesting that this “loss of human capital” could cause the province to forgo 20 percent of its economic growth during the next 60 years.
“Some may hold out hope that we can compensate for high early vulnerability by increasing investments in the final years of school, in expanding post-secondary education, or in job skills training for adults,” the HELP researchers write. “However, human development research warns against this hope because it ignores the genetic and biological reality of the human species: the early years represent the unique window in the human life course during which citizens’ physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive potential are especially malleable to the positive effects of strategic human capital investments.”
The report offers several solutions, including extending parental leave from 12 months to 18 months, and reserving some of this additional time for fathers. This would cost the provincial government approximately $585 million annually.
Another recommendation calls for an $820-million annual provincial investment to enhance income-support programs to reduce poverty among families with children. There are now “significant disincentives” for a second parent to work in a two-parent household with a toddler, according to the report, because of the high cost of childcare, employment-insurance and pension-plan contributions, and taxes. Under the present tax system, a gross wage of $11 per hour for the second parent would translate into a net wage of just over $5 per hour, which reduces the likelihood of that second parent seeking employment.
In addition, the report urges another $1.6 billion in annual provincial expenditures on community supports, including early childhood education, women’s health, pregnancy and parenting support, and special-needs services. Over a 60-year period, it anticipates that the benefits of all these expenditures would outweigh the costs by a six-to-one margin. The report also states that reducing childhood vulnerability from 29 percent to 10 percent would be associated with 31-percent reduction in crime.