The Early Years Study at 25

April 20, 2024, marks the 25th anniversary of the first Early Years Study: Reversing the Real Brain Drain by Margaret Norrie McCain and Dr. Fraser Mustard.

Reversing the Real Brain Drain. We could not have composed a better line to capture the angst of that time. At the press launch for the first Early Years Study (EYS), we challenged officials to do the math: “What costs more? The emigration of a handful of the top talent, or the wasted potential of millions of young minds?”

The EYS wasn’t a fancy looking, but it was powerful, punching against the mindset that was shaping policy-making. I was able to open doors to board rooms, government offices, and international bodies. Once inside Fraser would often literally punch the table to tell seasoned legislators and CEOs, they “got it all wrong”. I became known as the clean-up girl, the one who smoothed ruffled egos so they could absorb the message.

Our contrasting styles obviously worked as the column below shows. The Early Years Study provided the scientific rationale for investing in young children. It altered the way children, their educators, and even scientists are taught. It spawned a myriad of resources. Most significantly, its evidence -- establishing early childhood as the foundational stage of human development -- led to policy changes that are transforming the lives and outcomes of millions of young children.

The EYS anchors the mission of my family’s foundation. Over the years, our grants have demonstrated the possible. They continue to bring the child development story, and its call for action to new generations of community partners, researchers, policy makers, and corporate thinkers.

In 2001, just two years after the EYS release, the then finance minister phoned to tell me he was introducing a “Children’s Budget”. He wasn’t exaggerating. Budget 2001 expanded parental leave, family payments, health care for moms and babies, and targeted funding for child care and family supports. Exactly, 20 years later, on the eve of Budget 2021, I got another call -- this time from the then minister for families. He told me to listen for my name in the finance minister’s address to parliament. It was there, but more importantly was the multibillion investment in early learning and child care that we had recommended in Early Years Study 4.

Canada’s early learning plan is now growing every day, providing children with the foundational learning that will give them the skills they need to thrive in the world of tomorrow.

Hon. Margaret Norrie McCain, Chair Emerita


Reprinted from the Atkinson Centre

The Early Years Study at 25 just keeps on giving

This April marks the 25th anniversary of the first Early Years Study (EYS). Subtitled “Reversing the Real Brain Drain,” it addressed concerns about Canadian talent fleeing for bigger opportunities and paycheques in the United States. The report’s authors gathered multiple lines of evidence from across disciplines to argue that our biggest intellectual losses occur when untapped potential in early childhood is squandered by public policy neglect.

The modestly produced document has had an enormous legacy, much of it due to its creators. Fraser Mustard and Margaret McCain were not prepared to let the EYS become another warmly received, then quietly shelved treatise. They took its messaging into cabinet offices and corporate board rooms, to world bodies, and onto every available lectern.

The Atkinson Centre is one of its products. The EYS recommended universities develop a reciprocal relationship with practitioners to link research to best practices, and ultimately influence policy. The call resonated with the Atkinson Foundation, which endowed an academic chair at the University of Toronto, and established an enduring partnership with the School of Early Childhood at George Brown College.

Other actions flooded out of the study. The EYS advocated for early human development to become mandatory learning in every post-secondary discipline. The Science of Early Childhood Development at Red River College produces curriculum that is employed across different fields of study, and world-wide.

The need for a population level assessment of child well-being led to the Offord Centre’s Early Development Instrument, a tool that supports government policy-making across Canada and internationally.

The EYS dismissed the notion that the economy was the only reflection of a nation’s status. As a result, the Human Development Index, adopted by the United Nations, was created as an alternative to the GDP.. The index considers the environment, and access to health care, educational opportunities, and a decent standard of living as key to democratic preservation.

The EYS’s findings were integrated into the World Health Organization’s 2008 report on the social determinants of health, "Closing the Gap in a Generation". Mustard was on the dais driving home how early experiences get under the skin to affect neurobiological pathways that influence physical and mental health, learning, and behaviour throughout the life cycle.

Perhaps the study’s most significant message was the need for substantial investment in young children. Two years after its release came the "Children’s Budget”, the federal government’s first financial foray back into children’s policy. It produced the Early Childhood Development Agreement, and included funding for child care, maternal/infant health, and parenting supports. That Budget also increased paid parental leave to 50 weeks, and added to the Child Tax Benefit.

The authors redefined early childhood programs as “not babysitting services for working parents but the first tier of education and development that sets the foundation for future success.” The message was echoed 20 years later in Ottawa's announcement of the Canada-Wide Early Learning and Child Care plan, which credited McCain and Mustard with showing “that early learning is at least as important to lifelong development as elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education.”

Along the way, many acted on McCain and Mustard’s call including this Centre, which together with community child care providers, the Toronto school board and the City of Toronto, created Toronto First Duty, an amalgamation of children’s services. The EYS has since encouraged universal school-based programming for children in five Canadian jurisdictions, and the model continues to spread.

The Early Years’ simple but compelling assumption that it is only through public policy that permanent and sustainable change takes place has been widely recognized. Even the World Bank now advises governments that “investing in the early years is one of the smartest things a country can do.”

Kerry McCuaig
Atkinson Centre Fellow in Early Childhood Policy

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