Full-day kindergarten back in the spotlight

Anxious and rambunctious B.C. five-year-olds will march off to kindergarten for the first time Tuesday, but their school day will be much shorter than their parents may once have expected.

VICTORIA, B.C. - Anxious and rambunctious B.C. five-year-olds will march off to kindergarten for the first time Tuesday, but their school day will be much shorter than their parents may once have expected.

The B.C. government promised last year that five-year-olds would have the option of attending kindergarten for a full day starting this fall, but the promise was quietly shelved. Now it's back after the pledge was renewed in last week's budget to begin the full-day program next year.

Better late than never, says an education expert. But Opposition NDP members maintain they'll believe it when they see it.

The logistics of such a venture are huge.

Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid said the work of locating classroom space, finding and training teachers and getting the word out to parents contributed to the one-year delay.

"What we don't have is we don't have enough teachers right off the bat," said MacDiarmid. "We have to build that in. Not all the schools have classroom space ready."

She said she expected many of the teachers will be pulled from the current kindergarten and primary school ranks to teach kindergarten for full days.

Schools may have to renovate classrooms, build new ones, or even put up outside portables to make room for the kindergarten students, who now attend only half-days.

MacDiarmid said about 650,000 students attend B.C. schools. But enrolment has declined by 53,000 students since 2001 when the Liberals were first elected, and it will drop by another 7,000 students this year.

But others, including the B.C. Teachers' Federation and the Opposition New Democrats, say money issues delayed all-day kindergarten this year, and next year doesn't look much better.

"We support the concept, but we are very concerned they are adding another level of service to a system already chronically underfunded," said Susan Lambert, BCTF vice president.

"They're not adequately funding the current system."

The teachers are already concerned about what they say are increased class sizes, reduced maintenance at schools and frozen funding, she said.

The government announced in its budget last week that it would spend $151 million to start up the all-day program next year. The spending was somewhat of a surprise given the record deficit the Liberals will be running next year - $2.8 billion.

But MacDiarmid called the measure an "investment in the next generation."

"We really believe in this," she said.

New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec offer all-day kindergarten for five-year-olds. Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec offer some programs for four-year-olds.

Ontario has part-day kindergarten for four-year-olds and is planning all-day kindergarten for four-and five-year-olds for next year.

In B.C., only 50 per cent of five-year-olds will have the option of an all-day program next year. The government wants it available to all kindergarten students by 2011.

Deciding who will be first in line will depend on who is prepared, said MacDiarmid.

"We'll work with the districts," she said. "We'll look at where are our most vulnerable students because that's part of the early education piece."'

The minister said more details about the program next year won't be available for months.

"We'll do it as soon as we can," she said. "It won't be tomorrow. It's going to take a few months to get this planned."

New Democrat education critic Robin Austin said he can't see how the all-day program will be ready next year because the government hasn't provided money this year to make the preparations.

"This is now, I think, the third year they have talked about this but haven't actually brought it to reality," he said. "What I suspect is we'll be having the same conversation next year. Another promise, another failure to deliver it."

The Liberals first floated the idea of all-day kindergarten in their throne speech in February 2008.

A public consultation process received 3,000 responses, and education experts and parent groups applauded all-day kindergarten, saying there are huge benefits to early education.

Canadian education expert Charles Ungerleider said British Columbia is moving in the right direction with all-day kindergarten, but he understands tough economic times have contributed to the delay in getting started.

High-school drop-outs, criminal activities, early pregnancies and health issues can all be linked somewhat to a lack of early childhood education, Ungerleider said.

"Earlier is better and more is better," he said. "But I'm not surprised that under the present circumstances it was delayed and it will have to be introduced more slowly."

MacDiarmid said the government hasn't given up on its additional plans to offer some form of early education for children who are three and four years old.