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The Application Of Human Capital Theory In Canadian Early Childhood Education Policy

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The general aim of the present study is to explore the policy paradigms that support public investment in early childhood education (ECE). Some scholars have made the case that paradigms regarding public investment in ECE have shifted within liberal welfare states to reflect “social investment” policy thinking (see for example Moss and Dahlberg, 2008; Tan, 2014). The argument suggests that policy makers, interest groups, and other education stakeholders legitimize expenditures on early learning programs, largely to generate a financial return in the form of human capital. Policies thought to be emblematic of the social investment strategy include: promoting maternal employment in order to make use of capable and lower paid citizens within the labor force; public investment in ECE and care infrastructure, that will in turn bolster academic success and eventually human capital; and early education curriculum that emphasizes cognitive develop (as opposed to socio-emotional development) to improve later academic outcomes (reference; Brown, 2012; Moss, Dahlberg, and Pence, 2000). Conversely, some academics challenge this idea and contend that while funding and governance in liberal welfare states has improved, programs and policies relating to ECE vary widely in their goals, settings, and instruments making it hard to discern if their approach is informed by a “social investment” paradigm (White, 2012; Pasolli, 2015).

Past researchers in this area have employed quantitative, critical discourse analysis, or a comparative case study approach to clarify the human capital phenomenon in ECE policy (see for example reference; Bundy, 2012; reference), while few studies attempt to explore its alleged influence from the perspective of the policy actors with real adjudicative power. Accordingly, the present research project attempts to use a qualitative, systematic grounded theory approach to answer: how do provincial Canadian policy actors perceive value, relating to the provision of full day kindergarten (FDK)? By examining the roll out of FDK, using qualitative approaches and involving provincial policy actors with direct experience, we can better understand the underlying values and beliefs that justify reform and compare these with the archetypical policies associated with “social investment” thinking. With this knowledge, researchers, policy actors, and other education stakeholders are better equipped to determine the influence of the social investment paradigm and make conclusions about its impact on ECE policy, infrastructure, and design.

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Across the last twenty years, discourses regarding early education and its importance have changed. As a result, many liberal welfare states have placed further emphasis on government intervention through social policy to bolster support for young children (White, 2012). The concept of the liberal welfare state was coined by sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen and denotes a method of social policy (services and benefits) delivery characterized by specific norms concerning the proper roles of the states, social services and entitlement to benefits, markets, economic and social outcomes, and the formation of social welfare state institutions targeted at families (Esping-Anderson, 1990). The responsibility of childcare in these regimes have historically been delegated to the private market and families; while state intervention/assistance is limited to high-risk or lower socio-economic families. Liberal welfare policies typically do not emphasize labor force participation and may provide some tax benefits for child care fees, provided that parents are employed (White, 2009; Prentice, 2009). With this in mind, have countries with a traditionally liberal welfare policy ethos (e.g., Canada, Australia, England) strayed from its definitional model, and further, are these changes the result of a contemporary social investment policy paradigm?

A policy paradigm can be understood as an “overarching set of ideas that specify how the problems facing policy makers are to be perceived, which goals might be attained through policy and what sorts of techniques can be used to reach those goals. Ideas about each of these matters interlock to form a relatively coherent whole” (Hall, 1992, p. 92). In Canada, there is evidence to suggest that policy paradigms have deviated from fundamental liberal welfarism. For example, in 1997 Quebec ratified a series of family policy initiatives that limited parent fees for regulated children to $5 per day and began directly funding child care programs for children 0-12; a policy decision motivated in large part by the desire to increase mother’s participation in the labour force (Tougas, 2002). As of 2019, seven of the ten provinces and two of the three territories offer FDK to five-year-old children, compared to only four provinces/territories in 2009 (Akbari and McCuaig, 2017; Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development, 2014). Federal and provincial funding to ECE has increased by almost $1 billion since 2014 (Akbari and McCuaig, 2017).

Concurrently, rhetoric around these changes have led some to believe that public investments in ECE are too frequently substantiated by the economic returns they may generate for a nation-state; another sign of the “burgeoning” social investment strategy. To demonstrate this paradigmatic shift, scholars look to examine the prevalence of human capital discourse, and by extent, social investment discourse embedded with government, policy, and education literature. Bundy (2012) argues that With Our Best Future in Mind: Implementing Early Learning in Ontario, an action plan commissioned by the province of Ontario to support the implementation of full day kindergarten programs (Pascal, 2009), reinforces a view that governments should be required to invest in human capital, so long as it generates a monetary return. White and Prentice (2016) analysis of the commission processes that led to the delivery of FDK across five provinces revealed that every jurisdiction used human capital as reason for investments in ECE, each citing later socioeconomic returns as an advantage. Pashby, Ingram, and Joshee (2014) contend that K-12 policy/curriculum in Alberta and Ontario use individualism as a guiding philosophy to frame citizenship and character education; in this model, outcomes are discussed explicitly in reference to the individual as opposed to the social collective. The authors argue that this framing is consistent with neoliberal agendas that look to minimize social justice, culture, and socio-emotional education, and maximize cognitive education (e.g., science, technology, math), because these skills can be commodified in future modes of work and/or wealth accumulation.


  1. Akbari, E., McCuaig, K. (2017). Early childhood education report 2017. Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
  2. Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development. (2019). Full day kindergarten in Canada. Retrieved from
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  4. Bundy, J. (2012). Rendering (gender) invisible: Early childhood education and care in ontario as a biopolitical social investment apparatus. Discourse: Studies In The Cultural Politics Of Education, 33(4), 591-605.
  5. Hall, P. A. (1992). The movement from Keynesianism to monetarism: Institutional analysis and British economic policy in the 1970s. Structuring politics: Historical institutionalism in comparative analysis, 90-113.
  6. Moss, P., Dahlberg, G., Stockholms universitet, & Lärarhögskolan i Stockholm (LHS). (2008). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care - Languages of evaluation. New Zealand Journal of Teachers' Work, 5(1), 3.
  7. Moss, P., Dahlberg, G., & Pence, A. (2000). Getting beyond the problem with quality. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 8(2), 103-115. doi:10.1080/13502930085208601
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  9. Pasolli, K. E. (2015). Comparing Child Care Policy in the Canadian Provinces. Canadian Political Science Review, 9(2), 63.
  10. Prentice, S. (2009). High Stakes: The “Investable” Child and the Economic Reframing of Childcare. Signs, 34(3), 687-710. doi:10.1086/593711
  11. Tan, E. (2014). Human Capital Theory: A Holistic Criticism. Review Of Educational Research, 84(3), 411-445.
  12. Tougas, J. (2002). Reforming Quebec’s Early Childhood Care and Education: The First Five Years. Toronto: Childcare Resource and Research Unit.
  13. White, L. A. (2012). Must we all be paradigmatic? Social investment policies and liberal welfare states. Canadian Journal Of Political Science, (3), 65
  14. White, L. A., & Prentice, S. (2016). Early childhood education and care reform in Canadian provinces: understanding the role of experts and evidence in policy change. Canadian Public Administration, (1), 26.
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