Child-care quality doesn’t depend on arbitrary numbers

Ontario's new standards have raised the hackles of activists. They should look hard at the systems they mistakenly believe are better

It’s been called shocking and disgusting. The Ontario government is moving to change how many children independent child-care providers can care for.

The new rules allow three children under two instead of two (not counting the provider’s own children over age four). An independent care provider can look after no more than five children at a time with no more than three under 24 months.

Child-care activists claim these changes will mean a severe drop in quality. This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. If these are bad ratios, why haven’t they drawn attention to inadequate ratios and poor quality before?

Their enemy is not poor ratios but rather anything that detracts from a so-called universal, state-funded child-care system. Were the ratios identical, their formula would remain – funded government system: good; market or independent providers: bad.

Two examples help us understand how this is the case. Child-care activists have long heralded Quebec and Sweden as the nirvanas of child-care systems. Martha Friendly, towering figure on the child-care research and activism scene, even wrote as recently as 2017 that she was sorry Canada couldn’t become Sweden with regards to child care. Both are “universal” and “free” systems (quotation marks duly warranted).

So what are the ratios in Quebec?

In centres, five babies under 18 months can be in the care of one worker, as contrasted with three or four per worker in other provinces. Unlike other provinces, Quebec doesn’t have limits on group size and it’s not comforting when a government website indicates: “A maximum of 80 children may be present in a [centre de la petite enfance] or daycare centre, whether subsidized or not.”

Home-care ratios in Quebec are different. They allow no more than four children under 18 months of age when there’s assistance from another adult. In any event, these are poor ratios. In the case of home care, depending on what ‘assistance’ means by the law, they’re licensed to have a worse ratio than the new Ontario ratio.

Research on Quebec finds poor quality fairly consistently: 73 per cent of its daycare service is “minimal to mediocre” quality and poor ratios are one reason for this.

Sweden, by contrast, doesn’t really adhere to any ratios. The country had rules for group sizes and adult-to-child ratios until an economic crisis in the 1990s. Standards were then removed and punted to municipalities. Group sizes and ratios grew, in some cases leaving up to 30 children of all ages in one group. At this point, standards were re-introduced.

However, some Swedes, like Jonas Himmelstrand, faculty member at the Canadian Neufeld Institute, highlight that the new recommendations are simply not followed today.

These systems with poor legal ratios (Quebec) and lack of adherence to any ratios (Sweden) have earned the loud praise of Canadian child-care activists. At home, it’s under-publicized that research shows most licensed care is of low quality, with for-profit care being slightly lower quality than not-for-profit. Importantly, a 2004 study suggested, “it is evident that quality is insufficiently high in both non-profit and for-profit centres.”

This should cause governments to favour funding for families rather than funding that follows spaces. After all, 76 per cent of Canadians think the best place for a child under six is at home with a parent. After that, a relative or a neighbourhood home daycare are the preferred options.

Data about the independent sector is thin on the ground. However, Heidi Higgins of the Coalition of Independent Childcare Providers of Ontario has provided some data revealing that incidents of serious injury and death are lower in independent unlicensed care than in licensed care. Given the independent sector cares for many more kids than the licensed sector, the fact that there are fewer problems is telling.

If child-care activists were truly concerned about Ontario’s new standards in the independent sector, they would need to show at least some concern about the circumstances in places like Sweden and Quebec. Instead, they’ve wholeheartedly embraced those flawed systems.

Parents: remain vigilant about child-care quality in every sector.

Andrea Mrozek is family program director at Cardus, a think-tank dedicated to promoting a flourishing society through independent research, robust public dialogue, and thought-provoking commentary.

child-care quality

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