In this issue of dialogue, Rob discusses the Healthy Child Manitoba Strategy along with insight into government policies relating to language and literacy for children.
In Part II, which we will feature in the next issue of dialogue, Rob will discuss his insights about how Network partners play a pivotal role in children's language and literacy success.
Rob Santos serves as Senior Policy Advisor for the Healthy Child Manitoba Office. HCMO is the staff of the Government of Manitoba's Healthy Child Committee of Cabinet . Rob is a member of The Network's Partners Committee.
"How can you effectively communicate with the public if there isn't a sufficient level of literacy and language development in that population?"
Q: What is Healthy Child Manitoba and how did the strategy begin?
A: The Healthy Child Manitoba Strategy is a unique approach to serving the best interests of children. It is the Government of Manitoba's long-term, cross-departmental prevention strategy for putting children and families first. Healthy Child was established by the Premier as a committee of Manitoba's provincial cabinet in March 2000, as one of only three standing committees of cabinet (Treasury Board, Community and Economic Development, and Healthy Child). This sends a clear message from the highest level of government that children are a top priority, for investment, for working with the public, with Manitobans, and for Canada.
The Healthy Child Manitoba Strategy emerged from a remarkable convergence of research, political will, policy innovation, community development, and public understanding in our province over the last decade. In 2000, as the National Children's Agenda and the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Early Childhood Development Agreement were emerging, it became clear that a model was needed that had the potential to influence other communities and jurisdictions in organizing policies and programs for children and working together in new ways.
Q: Why has the government made the support of children's language and literacy such an important priority?
A: Since 2000, Canada has had a difficult few years, in terms of major crises like BSE and SARS, not to mention rising concerns around national security. The fact that children have been maintained as a top policy priority in Manitoba, and across Canada, I think really provides some optimism for the public, in that governments are taking a longer-term view from a policy perspective.
It's very hard for governments to look beyond three to four years into the future, but when you're talking about children, it's inherently a longitudinal agenda, so these kinds of investments that you've been seeing on the government side, and then broadly, in terms of research, training, knowledge exchange, and the kinds of mandates that fall under the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network, I think are promising developments. We need to do all that we can, in all of our roles, to encourage that, because I think those are essential structures for how we organize ourselves in the province and in our country, for contemporary life 21st century life.
Based on the latest research, it's clear that the language and literacy area really cuts across all of the goals of the National Children's Agenda. So in addition to children's learning success, you're also talking about children's physical and emotional health, their safety and security, and their social engagement and responsibility. There's research linking illiteracy and physical aggression, for example, and linking literacy with health later in life. And more fundamentally, just in terms of social engagement, given the overall literacy levels in Canada, you start wondering about the capacity of citizens and future citizens (our children), for participating in a country like Canada, in a democracy. How can you effectively communicate with the public if there isn't a sufficient level of literacy and language development in that population? I think there are implications at the front line for communities working to build good services for children. At the highest levels of government, where considerations are focused broadly on social and economic development, it becomes very clear that the future of our province, of our country, the quality of its population and its resilience, that all these things come back to this crucial area of early development.
Q: Were you interested in language and literacy/early childhood development before you got involved with Healthy Child Manitoba?
A: Yes. I'd actually started in this office of government as a student. I have a personal interest in human development, in prevention and early intervention, and also from the mental health side. My background is in clinical psychology and community psychology, so the interest pre-dated the job. My personal interest comes from really loving what I do, professionally and academically, and now in government.
Q: When did you first become aware of the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network?
A: The Government of Manitoba was involved in submissions to the Networks of Centres of Excellence Canada (NCE) 2001 competition, so we were actively following, as an office, the results of the competition. It was notable that Industry Canada, and the Tri-Council (CIHR, NSERC, SSHRC), had identified Early Childhood Development as a priority for investment. I guess that grew out of the growing recognition that future industrial innovation and economic prospects in Canada have everything to do with what's happening in the early years, particularly in terms of literacy and language. We were happy to see the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network established through the NCE process. From our perspective, The Network should become an institutionalized centre of scientific excellence around early childhood language and literacy development.
So, in a country like Canada, it seems that this is such a core area of investment. And it has been, at all levels of government, but the need for that to be driven by the highest quality research in the area has been only recently recognized, and one good exemplar is the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network.
Q: Are other provinces set up like Manitoba in terms of early childhood language and literacy policy?
A: We have a fairly unique structure in Manitoba. Over the last decade, each province has had its own unique history, with different attempts to organize government and community around children. Manitoba, to our knowledge, is the only government in the country that has a standing committee of the cabinet dedicated to children. I think what makes it work is its partnership with child-centred structures in the community. The Government of Manitoba is dedicated to the basic process of community development, recognizing that, because each community is different, policies are going to vary to meet the needs of each population.
Q: This is a longitudinal exercise. How are you measuring the process in terms of baselines, outcomes and time-frames?
A: Measurement, that's core to the agenda. There's a real commitment in terms of exactly that, a long-term research, evaluation, accountability, and public reporting agenda that is inherently longitudinal. At the outset, it was really about what the vision was for kids in Manitoba, and the vision for Healthy Child was a simple one. It was the best possible outcomes for all of Manitoba's children. Manitoba wants all children to be physically and emotionally healthy, safe and secure, successful learners, socially engaged and responsible, to their fullest potential. Government understood that what was needed was a child-centred framework within which management, evaluation, data collection and the broader accountability structures could begin to be built in the province.
Manitoba benefited enormously at the time from major new work being done by the Government of Canada, namely the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY). It became a real landmark for governments committed to looking at children's development over time. It provided provincial and national data to give us a sense of what the issues were, like gradients of children's development, and inequalities in their outcomes, such as the distribution of where children in need of effective services were. It showed that they were not just located in the poor, but throughout the income gradient, with the majority being in the middle class. All of those things really contributed to our agenda, so we really credit the NLSCY and the things that grew out of that, like the Understanding the Early Years initiative. Given the limited resources that every government has, we need to determine the best places to make investments.
With that, we started slowly building additional components at the provincial and community level. In September 2001, the Healthy Child Committee of Cabinet approved the phased-in, province-wide implementation of the Early Development Instrument (EDI). Pretty much every province has lots of good data about children's births, birth weights and infant mortality, those kinds of things in the prenatal and postnatal period. Then our data is kind of silent until children are in Grade Three when there is typically some kind of standardized testing. Research shows that the transition from the early childhood phase to school entry is an important opportunity for intervention. It became apparent that there was a need to fill that information gap between birth and school entry. The EDI, developed by Dr. Dan Offord and Dr. Magdalena Janus at McMaster University, measures children's development at that pivotal preschool to school transition for the whole population of children. Government began working with the community to find an approach that would make sense to them to implement that measurement process. We set it up as a phased and voluntary approach, because the school divisions, who would be collecting the EDI data, were also under the process of amalgamating some 58 school divisions to 38. Notwithstanding that huge process of reorganization and amalgamation, two-thirds of the divisions volunteered in the first year, which demonstrates how important measuring children's outcomes is to Manitoba's communities. We're anticipating that, on a voluntary basis, next year or the year after, we may have province-wide coverage. That is, every community in Manitoba will have data on the five outcomes that the EDI looks at in kindergarten children, which includes language and cognitive development, and the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network's perspective is an area of interest.
Children move in and out of vulnerability, and they'll move in and out of public programs over their life course, so that starts us thinking more horizontally and longitudinally about what these impacts might be from an outcomes perspective. The challenge for government is to find a balance between (a) investing in new programs, which the public sees immediate benefit from, and (b) what more and more of the public is beginning to understand that we really need as well, which is a parallel system of monitoring, evaluation, research and data collection that helps us maximize investments in programs.
Q: It's great to start a new program, but it's also great to say it works. How do you find that balance?
A: There's a worry that the public may regard investments in research and evaluation as less important than investments in programs. But if you talk to the public, there's also an assumption that government is investing only in programs that work. But if you talk to most governments and ask, on what basis did you make these investments, most would probably say that some, but not all, were based on the best available research on what works. About 10 years ago, that would have probably have been even less common, and currently I think there's far more attention on whether there's a strong evidence base for where we put our limited resources, especially regarding children. Even so, the challenge from a scientific perspective is that although there are lots of excellent model programs out there, the real challenges involve scale-up or replication and dissemination, and finding some balance between retaining some integrity to the program's original model, which demonstrated outcomes, and making sure that it fits the new population in which it's implemented. That really is the ongoing research agenda, which is just growing: how do you implement these programs in different communities; how do you make sure that they're embedded and integrated in current structures and programs; and how do you make sure that they're sustained and then institutionalized, if they are in fact working. That itself is a long-term agenda. This process opens up interesting partnership opportunities for everybody interested in these areas, from researchers, to community agencies, to governments, to the private sector, and so on.