Liberal plan for new pre-primary sites a go, but details lacking

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'Schools are free:' Daycares worried about impact of new pre-primary program

'Schools are free:' Daycares worried about impact of new pre-primary program

Premier Stephen McNeil says his government's promise to open 30 new pre-primary centres for four-year-olds in September remains on track, despite there still being next to no details.

The commitment was one of the central planks of the Liberal campaign platform and something that was first announced in the budget the Grits introduced in April, but did not pass, before the May election.

The plan would see the new sites join eight that already exist, with the intent of making the free program accessible to all four-year-olds in Nova Scotia by the end of the next four years.

The Liberals estimate the cost of the initial expansion would be $3.7 million, with that figure increasing each year for four years until reaching an annual cost of $49.4 million.

New sites not determined yet

But details beyond that, including where the new sites will be and how and when people can register their children, have not been released.

On Friday, McNeil told reporters the schools that will host the new sites have not been determined. Although the government won't pass its budget until sometime in September, McNeil said the program is a policy matter and the necessary funding is in place to get things going.

He deferred to Education Minister Zach Churchill, who was sworn in on Thursday, for more information. An Education Department spokesperson said they would provide more information once Churchill has been briefed on the file.

The Liberals have touted the program as a way to give parents a break on the cost of child care, while also boosting kids' chances for success in school. And while the program has been favourably received, there are concerns.

An evaluation of the initial years of the program, which was mostly favourable, noted potential problems echoed during the campaign, such as possibly affecting the business model of existing daycare operators if all four-year-olds are eventually doing the pre-primary, or, as it's also known, early years program.

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie said another concern is there are other pressing issues with the education system that should be addressed before an expansion of pre-primary.

"It was reckless to promise it in the first year [of their mandate] when there are so many issues around inclusion, around the existing state of our P-12 schools," he said.

What about other ages?

Baillie said the government is still trying to deal with the fallout of imposing a contract on teachers and the related workplace concerns. That, along with waiting for the result of an ongoing review of inclusive education, is reason to put a temporary hold on rolling out more pre-primary sites, he said.

"That would be a logical way, but that's not what they're doing."

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said it's critical that there be consultation with daycare operators before the Grits expand pre-primary.

"If this consultation has been taking place, that's really good. But I have seen no evidence of this and I've heard of no evidence of this," he said.

'A tough learning curve,' but 'well worth it'

The program is already offered at sites in Sydney Mines, Monastery, Halifax, Yarmouth, Amherst, Cornwallis, Arichat and New Germany.

Richard Gosling's son, Patrick, went through the program the first year it was offered at Yarmouth Central School. It's run there in association with the Boys and Girls Club, which operates a regulated child care program.

Gosling, a member of Central's school advisory council, said the program helps get kids prepared for their first year of school by familiarizing them with the people and space, while also levelling the playing field for families who might not be able to otherwise shoulder the cost of child care.

"If this expansion by the government is anything remotely close to what's going on now, then I see nothing but good things," he said.

"It's a tough learning curve, but getting there it's well worth it."