Recently there has been a great deal of discussion about the high illiteracy rates in New Brunswick. According to Statistics Canada more than 50% of New Brunswickers between the ages of 15 and 65 do not have the necessary literacy levels to compete in the workplace. This data has prompted a round of well-meaning and well-intentioned solutions including more community-based literacy programs, establishing literacy champions, empowering families and expanding the public education system to four and then three year olds.
When I moved to New Brunswick in 1983, I recall hearing and reading about the province’s high illiteracy rates. At the time, many solutions were being proposed including developing community-based literacy programs, establishing literacy champions, empowering families and expanding the public education system to include five year olds.
A generation later, with five year olds now part of the education system and millions of dollars in program spending, why does New Brunswick persist in having high illiteracy rates?
Much has been made about replicating the educational model in Finland where daycare or early learning is part of the public education system. Advocating for only one aspect of the Finnish education system while ignoring their many other key public policy programs that contribute to high literacy rates is to court failure.
Finland has a high literacy rate because its citizen and government deeply value social equity which provides practical strong support for children and families. Their Family Policy Plan offers a wide range of benefits to families that allow working parents a chance to reconcile paid work and childcare responsibilities. Working parents are entitled to work shorter hours from the end of the parental leave period until the end of the child’s second year of school. A ‘flexible care allowance’ encourages parents of children under the age of three to combine part-time work with part-time care.
At 3.4% of Finnish GDP in 2013,financial benefits for children and families represent a high share of government spending compared to the European Union average of 2.4%. Post-secondary education is free in polytechnics institutions or in universities. Access to public day care is guaranteed to all children under seven and a generous system of family leave and allowances helps parents cope with their child-raising duties, while keeping their jobs secure.
In case anyone thinks that Finland’s success in improving literacy and the lives of its citizens depends solely on the availability of a country’s economic resources, think about Cuba which, like Finland, has the highest literacy rates in the world.
As in Finland, Cubans and their government deeply value social equity. In just two generations since the revolution in 1959, Cuba is now held up as a model for social development by the United Nations. Health and education at all levels is free and 99.8% of the population is literate. The Cuban preschool education system encompasses children from birth to their entry into school. Rather than cut back on social programs during the period of the country’s acute economic crisis which included the implementation and tightening of the US embargo (1989-1993), the Cuban government increased the percentage of GDP allocated to health and education, expanded disease prevention and health care programs and established universal preschool education with the launch of their Educate Your Child Program.
Two very different countries with the same ideology – deeply embracing social equality and translating that ideology into practical on-the-ground social policies and programs. High literacy rates are a by-product of those programs.
Improving literacy in New Brunswick will take more than tinkering with programs. The fact that for two generations we have tried to improve literacy and failed suggests that we are not asking the right questions. Do we collectively hold deeply anchored unconscious beliefs about the worth of education in our lives that prevents us from developing the skills we need to create a more just and equitable society? Being literate and seeing the value of education isn’t just a public policy challenge, it needs to be part of our collective state of mind.
Inka Milewski is the former science advisor for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick.