When the province of Ontario, Canada, introduced its Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK) initiative in 2010, it followed a comprehensive review of the early education sector led by Charles E Pascal, Professor Emeritus in Applied Psychology and Human Development at the University of Toronto. Pascal had been selected as Early Years Special Advisor on Early Learning to then-Premier of Ontario Dalton McGuinty, which culminated in the report With Our Best Future in Mind.
In the report, Pascal describes a scenario of concern: “Canada consistently scores low on international assessments of early learning and care. While we have some great programs with talented, dedicated people providing them, too often, services are disconnected from each other. We leave it to families to bridge the gaps, avoid the overlaps, and negotiate their way, if they can. The current fragmented patchwork of early childhood services too often fails the best interests of our children, frustrates families and educators, and wastes resources.
“The result? More than one in four children enter Grade 1 significantly behind their peers. Too many never entirely close the gap and go on to be disruptive in school, fail to graduate, and are unable to fully participate in and contribute to society.”1
The province introduced FDK as a universal pre-kindergarten program to better pave the way between childcare and school. The free program is offered to four- and five-year-old children in public schools. Officially, FDK involves five hours of an educational program per day for 194 days of the year.2
FDK is a two-year process that blends what the Australian education system considers preschool and kindergarten together. The curriculum is flexible, encompasses child-initiated learning activities and play-based education, and the program is optional. Participation is high, with over 95% of children attending.
School boards are now required to offer before- and after-school programming for children in FDK to grade 6, where there is parent demand. School boards may directly operate the before- or after-school program or enter into third-party agreements with either licensed childcare centres eligible to receive subsidy payments or authorised recreational and skills-building programs.
A smoother transition to school
Ontario’s FDK model aims to bridge the historical gap between preschool and elementary school (referred to as primary school in Australia) to make children’s transition to school smoother.
FDK relies on team teaching, where a degree-qualified teacher and a qualified early childhood educator (who may have a 2-year diploma or a 4-year degree) work together. Teachers must be certified by and registered with the provincial College of Teachers, and educators must be registered with the College of Early Childhood Educators.
While most tasks are shared, the Ontario Ministry of Education indicates that kindergarten teachers are primarily responsible for “student learning, effective instruction and evaluation, and formal reporting to parents”. At the same time, early educators "focus on age-appropriate planning that promotes each child’s physical, cognitive, language, emotional, social and creative development and well-being".3
According to a report by the University of Toronto, “the effective merger of these two distinct professionals, working collaboratively to co-teach and deliver a single curriculum, connects high-quality early childhood practices and strong educational foundations in Ontario’s kindergarten classrooms for all students”.4 However, much hinges on the working relationship between the two individual educators, according to research by Rose Walton of Brock University.5
The Ontario Ministry of Education’s Parent’s Guide to Play-Based Learning in Full-Day Kindergarten states that the program is organised into four broad areas that reflect how children naturally learn through exploration, play and enquiry.
These four areas are listed as:
Belonging and contributing
Self-regulation and well-being
Demonstrating literacy and mathematics behaviours
Problem-solving and innovating
More than ten years on, what has been the impact?
Full-Day Kindergarten is more than ten years old in Ontario. The initial rollout began in 2010 and was fully implemented by 2014.
A 2021 report titled Ontario’s Kindergarten Program: A Success Story concludes that “there is good evidence that the current Ontario full-Day Kindergarten model is working well for children and families, and that it contributes to reducing both educational inequalities and the need for special educational services”.6
Hours of attendance seem to play a part in the extent of the success. For example, a longitudinal study by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education7 compared children attending FDK with half-day students and found that “children in [the FDK] program scored higher on reading, writing and number knowledge than those in a half-day program and remained ahead until the end of Grade 2” and “also scored higher on self-regulation”.
Part of Ontario’s FDK program was the implementation of a new curriculum with a play-based approach to learning. The study found that FDK children reported more often that play is important, while half-day kindergarten children reported that learning activities are most important. Yet, FDK children actually performed better in those activities.
One of the criticisms against investing in high-quality early learning is that the cognitive advantages (the higher academic scores in early primary school of children who attend high-quality early learning compared to those who don’t) fade over time.
However, research conducted by Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that students who attended high-quality kindergarten programs were more likely to attend a higher quality college, have higher earnings at age 25-27 and rank higher on a score that summarises other effects such as home ownership, relationship status and other indicators.8
In other words, high-quality kindergarten programs have been shown to influence attainment and achievement in the early years of schooling. Although these advantages can fade over time, they set students on learning paths with benefits that can last for 20 years or more.
Another piece of research referred to in Ontario’s Kindergarten Program: A Success Story concerns the importance of emotionally supportive relationships between the teacher and child, particularly for children from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. These factors are vital in reducing behaviours of concern, diminishing social withdrawal, promoting learning engagement and building emergent literacy skills.9
That’s not to say the FDK program is consistently implemented. Sue Parker from the Association of Early Childhood Educators Ontario (AECEO) notes that the program looks different according to where families are located in the province. “It varies depending on the school board—there are 72 school boards in Ontario, and they don't all use the same model. The recommended model of a ‘seamless day’ was only implemented in some,” she says.
That fragmentation highlights the inherent inequality in a supposedly equitable system: the school boards that already have the capacity to introduce FDK—according to space requirements and existing childcare services and programs—are more likely to run the recommended model. And while a portion of the schools in the initial stages of the program served low-income neighbourhoods, research has not yet compared this disparity across different districts in the province.
What the educators say
Academics have declared the FDK program a success for children so far, but how has its introduction affected the ECEC workforce in Ontario?
Four years after the FDK initiative began, a report called Schools at the centre: Findings from case studies exploring seamless early learning in Ontario found that most Ontario early childhood educators “saw their wages either increase or remain the same”.10
The biggest challenges were at the working relationship level, particularly when teachers and early educators held different views about their roles. Both agreed, however, that “limited access to joint planning time and joint professional development contributes to weak professional partnerships”.
This bore out in more recent research by Brock University11, published in 2021, which identified four broad themes contributing to the relationship challenges:
1. Communication barriers between partners.
2. Marginalised status of the early educator within the school hierarchy.
3. Differential valuing of roles and responsibilities of the partners.
4. Limited professional learning opportunities.
“An examination of full-day kindergarten ten years later suggests [early educators] continue to experience systemic and structural inequities due to policies, roles and responsibilities, hierarchies, and professional inequities in the full-day kindergarten partnership,” wrote author Rose Walton.
In May 2022, the AECEO conducted a Kindergarten Roundtable. The Roundtable was the culmination of a series of Kindergarten Conversations between members about their FDK program experiences. In addition to the issues already mentioned, members highlighted how the pandemic had exacerbated some challenges, including complexities arising from schools’ inconsistent policies and procedures, increased cleaning responsibilities, and a decrease in play-based learning. This led to greater levels of burnout in the sector from which it has not yet recovered.
CELA CEO Michele Carnegie notes that as the NSW Government moves towards developing a program inspired by the Ontario model, there will be many elements to consider, including:
the suitability of venues when scaling up to the five-day model,
how to ensure that existing services are not adversely impacted,
how to address the systemic workforce retention and recruitment issues that we are currently experiencing; and
how to ensure that community-managed committees are suitably supported to sustain significant change.
Hear more from Ontario early educators about their FDK experiences.
1 Pascal, C (2009), With our best future in mind.
2 Cleveland, G (2021), Ontario’s Kindergarten Program: a success story, p 5.
3 Ontario Ministry for Education, Kindergarten: The teacher and early childhood educator team.
4 Pelletier et.al (2019), A team approach makes full-day kindergarten a success, The Conversation.
5 Walton, R (Spring 2021), ECE’s early experiences in Full-Day Kindergarten: “They just weren’t ready for us!” eceLINK via AECEO.
6 Cleveland, G (2021), Ontario's Kindergarten Program a Success Story, p (i).
7 Pelletier, J (2017), Children gain learning boost from two-year, full-day kindergarten, The Conversation.
8 Cleveland, G (2021), Ontario's Kindergarten Program a Success Story, p11.
9 Ibid, p11.
10 Janmohamed et.al. (2015), Schools at the centre: Findings from case studies exploring seamless early learning in Ontario.
11 Walton, Rose (Spring 2021), ECE’s early experiences in Full-Day Kindergarten: “They just weren’t ready for us!”, eceLINK via AECEO.