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Establishing Early Childhood Education as a 'Social Obligation' for Parents

 pdfclick here for a copy of the paper shown below

Also you may be interested in a news article reporting the Government's decision and inviting discussion on how different people and groups may choose to adjust, click here to go to this article.

 

Call for Debate on Forcing Children to be in Childcare, ECE Services Bracing Themselves

ChildForum Early Childhood Network
April 2nd, 2013

A child is brought into the centre kicking and screaming, mum is crying and needs tissues.  The other children are beginning to get unsettled and other parents dropping off their children hesitate to leave due to concern about what they are seeing.  This is the start for everyone of what will be another long day.  Several children haven’t been in for a couple weeks so the centre is worried about a loss in funding.  Early childhood services are bracing themselves for the consequences of the Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill should it be passed.

Many in the early childhood sector see difficulties ahead if childcare and education before age-5 years is made compulsory for any children and if any group of parents, such as beneficiaries, are financially penalised for full-time caring for their own child.  However, it may be of some relief to know that the impact of the proposed amendments could be lessened as awareness grows that proposals have not yet been properly thought-out.    

This article describes the key proposals, informs of select committee recommendations and reports on ECE sector reactions to making ECE compulsory and/or financially penalising parents for not having their child in an ECE service. The article also presents little known information on a proposal that could see the Ministry of Education allocating a National Student Number (NSN) to the children of beneficiary and non-beneficiary families who are not enrolled in ECE for the very purpose of making sure families place their children in ECE and regularly attend ECE.

Proposal - Mandatory 15hrs ECE a week

The initial proposal was that children aged 3 and over, not in school and with beneficiaries as parents, will be required to attend any recognised ECE programme for a minimum of 15 hours a week. 

These parents, it is argued, need to be available for paid work and have a ‘social obligation’ to put their children into ECE. It is believed that participation in ECE is a silver bullet capable of breaking intergenerational cycles of disadvantage by raising children’s future academic achievement which in turn lifts these children’s future standard of living. At the same time this change in social policy will assist the government’s self-imposed education policy target of 98% of children in ECE by 2016. 

Proposal – Enforce by withholding benefit payments

A case of three strikes and you’re out! – well, almost!  Benefit payments will be cut by 50% if after three meetings with the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) parents are found to have not taken ‘reasonable steps’ to have their child attend ECE. What might constitute the ‘reasonable steps’ is undefined. Parents may have a ‘good and sufficient reason’ not to comply with the social obligation but this is also not spelled out in the Act. This means that the definition of these terms in everyday administration of the Act will depend on the MSD’s discretion. 

Should parents continue to fail to fulfil social obligations after the sanction has been set, they will be subject to “intensified case management support”, and may be reported to CYF or even investigated for fraud. During parliamentary debates, a number of opposing members raised concerns that the MSD has given no assurance that any parents needing help to enrol their child would be helped.

Proposal – Monitor adults who have children not attending ECE

The Education Amendment Bill includes provision for a national student number (NSN) to be assigned to any child less than six years old who the Ministry of Education believes will likely benefit from attending an ECE service and who is unlikely to attend such a service. 

All adults who have children will be none the wiser that their information is being shared between the Education Ministry and various other government departments such as Inland Revenue to identify if their children are not attending ECE so that they may be contacted and followed up.

It is not spelled out how it will be predicted with accuracy that a child under 6 years of age is not likely to attend ECE and would benefit if he/she did so. This is to be decided. There is however no indication yet that the Education Ministry plans to make an informed decision of a child’s need for ECE by, for example, assessing the standard of care and early learning opportunities parents provide. The basis for deciding to award an NSN to a child not enrolled in ECE for the purpose of encouraging the child’s attendance could well default to whether a family falls into a target group category such as being Maori, Pacific, a low- and middle-income family receiving Working for Families Tax Credits, or the child has come to the notice of CYF.  Perhaps the Ministry may decide that a child whose parents have decided not to start preschool until the child is 4 years are putting their child at risk of later educational failure and assign the child an NSN for the purpose of encouraging earlier enrolment. Though the Ministry of Education and its contractors may decide that a family has an acceptable reason for not placing their child in ECE the stigma attached to not fulfilling what is defined to be a ‘social obligation’ will quite possibly be felt by, and attached to, the family.

A Regulatory Impact Statement prepared by the Ministry of Education gives some insight into how the proposal has potential to affect any NZ child under the age of 6 years and their family should it go ahead. The proposed first step is information sharing between the Education Ministry and MSD to assign student numbers (NSN) to children of beneficiaries. This in itself does not provide the numbers of children needed to reach the government’s 98% participation in ECE target thus further information sharing with other government departments is suggested.

Insufficient transparency and debate

Both proposals have largely gone through under cover without much debate.

First, there is no strong evidence that the MSD needs to be doing this for children of beneficiaries. The Ministry of Education says that it does not have data on how many children of beneficiaries are not enrolled in ECE. There appears to have been no risk assessment done to ascertain the various risks and costs associated with making parents use ECE. There is a lack of NZ research showing 15 hours of childcare will enable parents to participate in paid work.

Second, there could be a backlash from non-beneficiary parents who find that they are considered to be bad parents by the Ministry of Education since the Ministry has given their child an NSN although not enrolled at a childcare or education service or school. One of the Education Ministry’s interventions to promote ECE participation has been paying contracted providers $4000 for every child whose parents they convince to use ECE. Such intervention is likely to continue and compliment the information sharing as a way for the Ministry to achieve the government’s ECE participation target.

Preceding these proposals debate should have taken place regarding the use of early childhood education as childcare, particularly with children spending longer hours and from a younger age than ever before. This was a point made by Paula Bennett as she started out as Social Development Minister when she called for national debate on whether mothers are being pushed to go back to work too soon after having children.

The NZ Herald reported that “Ms Bennett, a solo mother herself, went back on the domestic purposes benefit (DPB) when she "fell apart" with exhaustion trying to do two jobs in about 1989 when her then 2-year-old daughter was in childcare”.

Reaction – A report on ECE sector survey responses

Mandatory attendance and enforcement will ensure every child receives ECE and will improve their academic outcomes; this is according to the 6% - 17% of ECE Sector survey respondents representing around 2,000 ECE services and supporting the proposals in some shape or form.  Other reasons for supporting the proposals included:

  • Making parents who receive government funding accountable.
  • Curbing parent irresponsibility by not letting them have a choice (including Māori, Pacific, single parent and low income families who do not always make the right choices).
  • Providing another set of eyes to help curb child abuse and providing a safe place for children to be away from home for at least part of the day.
  • Creating more employment opportunities in ECE and filling empty child spaces to help ECE services remain profitable.

Some of these reasons were supported by the 30% of fence sitters who professed they weren’t sure. A common theme in the ‘maybe’ responses was the undesirability of a blanket approach and a preference to consider on a case by case basis. Most of the reasons given for uncertainty tended to oppose mandatory and enforced attendance. Thus it is fair to say almost all respondents surveyed oppose the proposals as they currently stand.

Select Committee Recommendations

While there was strong opposition to the proposals from “an overwhelming number” of the submissions according to Select Committee members, the Committee, however, endorsed ECE use by parents becoming a social obligation and a legal requirement. The Committee’s view was that 15 hours a week should be aspirational and it suggested that a weekly minimum of hours of attendance be regulated.  Here’s why many ECE sector survey respondents considered such proposals to not be in the best interests of the ECE sector, children and families.

Families and children benefit only from participating in ECE that is of high quality

Supporters of the proposals are correct that ECE can contribute to children’s academic achievement. However, the benefits of a child attending an ECE service that is not better than what parents and the home-learning environment provide can be negligible and the effects can also be disturbing and harmful. 

Government can give no assurance that every ECE service is operating at a high quality level. The Education Review Office does not visit each licensed ECE home but only 10% of homes within any one Home-Based ECE agency. Many in the ECE sector would like to see the Ministry of Education and Education Review Office step up its monitoring of standards and reviews of quality for both centres and home-based services and be tougher on those that breach regulations. When a child is harmed in an ECE service the Ministry of Education and Government do not accept responsibility because ECE services, with the exception of a few, are viewed as private operations.

Funding cuts to the ECE sector are seeing more centres reducing qualified staff hours, operating only at government minimum regulated ratios instead of bettering them, reducing staff wages and wage growth, making do with less educational resources and cutting professional development. Such work conditions result in diminishing staff morale and the ability of services to provide an adequate standard of provision and care for children.  

The proposals risk a further loss of funding to ECE services which will need to keep child places open even when children are absent for more than 3 weeks. It may become even more difficult for ECE services than it is already to encourage some children’s regular attendance by parents who are not motivated and committed and are dealing with other issues such as drug use, if they forced rather than willing to have their child in ECE.

Integrity of ECE in New Zealand is under threat

A partnership approach with parents means children have a chance to thrive in an ECE service. The New Zealand ECE sector, rich in diversity and philosophies, strives to meet the needs and choices of a rich and diverse society. This freedom of choice and working in partnership with families is the basis of the ECE curriculum agreed to and used by all services. The proposals, to put it simply, threaten the integrity of all that is ECE in New Zealand.

High-quality ECE services understand the impacts on a child whose parents are ‘willing’, knowledgeable, supportive and encouraging of their child’s endeavours.  It is easy to see why many in the ECE sector are worried about the disturbing impact on a child and on the other children in their care if a family has been forced to enrol in their service.

Parents as first teachers

It is the home that holds sway over a child’s development. 

Participation in ECE as a prediction of school success comes only from what difference it makes to children’s experience at home and their home learning environments. Academic progress throughout school life comes due to parents’ greater knowledge of their child’s needs and a better understanding of their essential role in their child’s learning. The home-learning environment, parenting, and family background have a powerful influence on a child’s outcomes. Access to an ECE service that a family is comfortable with and enjoys has the potential to get parents off to a flying start for their children.

But this brings up a notion that seems to have become forgotten or unfashionable, recognising parents and guardians as suitable carers and educators of their own children. Again, this is the basis from which the New Zealand ECE sector and its curriculum operate from. Most cultures value teachings and customs passed from the elders in their family.  ECE centres with many children to each adult cannot get anywhere close to the holistic development a child gains from going with mum or dad to the shops, riding the bus, visiting friends or hanging out in pop’s garden.  A partnership with ECE services extends learning and helps children thrive by relating to their experiences at home.

Children in toxic home environments benefit little from ECE

Society benefits from the State intervening in a toxic home environment where a child is not thriving. A child may be experiencing neglect, abuse and a lack of role modelling amongst other things. The adults in this home must be supported to change and provide nurturing care and warm relationships, or the child removed to a new home environment where they can thrive.  ECE services are not child abuse agencies and staff do not have training to provide such intervention.

A child in a toxic home environment cannot thrive regardless of attending a high-quality ECE service. However, an ECE service can provide a child with a certain amount of stability and consistency in care during intervention, if the child remains in the same ECE service.  Also, 15 hours a week ECE may provide a child with temporary relief from their home environment. However, it is the toxic home environment to which that child will return and spend all their other hours. So, the question therefore is whether funding an ECE service to have the child is the best solution or whether putting this money first toward addressing problems in the home environment and in parenting would be a wiser spend.

Many in the ECE sector are concerned about whether a child will remain in their home if family income is slashed and the additional stresses this will create for the child. If things are getting to the point where the family’s financial lifeline is cut then at what stage would the child be removed to ensure their wellbeing?

Cost of attending ECE cancels out income from benefit

The costs of ECE could be the tipping point for some families.

There are not many ECE services that provide free ECE for children without optional charges or requiring parents to enrol and pay for hours outside of the 6 hour daily or 20 hour ECE funding scheme limit. Those that do may be found by parents to have no vacancies and waiting lists.   As well parents can be asked to pay an enrolment fee, purchase and supply lunch-boxes, certain clothing, stationery, and very often cover the cost of transport.

The rate of sickness can be much higher for children cared for in group settings and there will be costs associated with this for parents in medical bills and when other family members including themselves become exposed. The impact of family sickness on paid work responsibilities can be a close second behind cost as to why parents decide they cannot continue to use childcare. Employers know this, thus making it more challenging for parents with young children to find paid work.

If stress mounts for parents made to use an ECE service that may not be of their choosing as they consider the costs and face making their benefit money stretch to pay more bills, forced to leave their child with strangers, and worrying if their child’s special needs will be met (e.g. disability, health or psychological issues, cultural differences) - this could all lead to some already on edge parents resenting their child and causing them to become less attached.

Perhaps some parents will resign themselves to poverty but save themselves and their children emotionally by simply accepting a cut in their benefit.

An exercise of much to do about nothing

It might not take long for parents to find loop holes.

Licensed home-based carers will come under the umbrella of a ‘recognised’ programme. This means grandparents, relatives or friends can simply sign up to care for their own and each other’s children.  Families may become more mobile as they feel forced to move out of the area they are living in to be released from the obligation of taking their child to an ECE service they find unsatisfactory, or they may keep moving around the country a few weeks here and there to avoid having their benefit cut and avoid being compelled to put their child into ECE.

A child whose parent is a home-based educator and is recognised as being competent to educate other parents’ children is currently not counted as being in ECE by the Ministry of Education for statistical and funding purposes. If the Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Billdoes notallow for beneficiaries who are educators with a licensed home-based agency to have the ECE they provide for their child recognised as ECE, then the child will need to go to another home-based ECE educator or to a centre.  This may mean a loss of some home-based ECE educators whose reason for signing up with a licensed ECE provider is to work from home and care for and educate their own child while doing the same for other children.

There will need to be a considerable increase in funding and resources for the Ministry of Education and rigorous training for WINZ staff to minimise risks to children and effectively support parents while assisting ECE services with additional costs and problems as they arise. 

Debate needs to occur and other approaches should be considered too

The ECE sector is keen for the voluntary nature of participation to remain.  Parents having the choice as to whether and when ECE participation is in their child’s and family interests is important for child and family wellbeing.  

There is no desire to see children suffer by cutting family income for non-participation in ECE or making families pay for ECE when this will increase child poverty. There is also no desire to see parents being told to take their children screaming and kicking to ECE.  The impact of a parent and their child being forced to attend an ECE service will be felt by all those involved at the service, the other parents, children and staff.   

Other approaches or alternatives to the current proposals suggested by ECE sector members might be:

  • Fully fund high quality ECE intervention services in each geographical area to at least the same standard and with family wrap around services like ECE intervention programmes in the USA that have shown success in breaking intergenerational cycles of disadvantage (e.g. the Abecedarian project) and target children of specific risk of educational failure whatever their family income or beneficiary status.
  • A focus on improving home environments and giving parents resources and guidance to assist their child’s early learning.
  • Promotional campaigns and educating parents about what ECE services can offer.
  • Positively rewarding in some way parents who use ECE as opposed to the punitive approach of withholding money from families, which is essentially a fine.
  • Use of agencies such as Plunket could help empower parents.  This could be achieved by more frequent home visits (including visits from ECE services) to advise parents on their ECE options and guidance on what the ECE curriculum (Te Whāriki) is all about. Beneficiaries, like everyone, need to know their children are in care they consider to be safe and good for their child, and be empowered to make good decisions for their family.
  • At-risk children come from all income groups and ethnicity and if a child is not having its needs met then each should be look at individually. 

Would it be reasonable to turn the proposals on their head and say that the right kind of home environment will help many children cope during their time spent in lesser quality ECE services or thrive in high quality services? ECE has a lot to offer children and families but only in the right circumstances.

Opportunity and time for healthy and frank debate certainly needs to be created and embraced before legislation is passed on the proposals.

Without debate, we may look back in 10 or so years and strongly regret making such changes as they impact on the very fundamental nature of what early childcare and education is, the quality of parenting, children’s wellbeing and happiness, our economy, health and social costs, and cultural cohesiveness and national pride.

 

Further Reading

For insight into opinions in the ECE Sector see the results of the latest national survey by clicking on the following link: http://www.childforum.com/policy-issues/surveys-and-ece-sector-a-family-data/988-state-of-early-childcare-education-sector-2012-outlook-for-2013.html  (Quote: This year’s survey also asked for feedback on whether child attendance in early childhood education ought to be made compulsory and if a financial penalty should be applied to parents who do not put their child into ECE. While those working in ECE, in general, believed that ECE can be good for children the majority did not want ECE to be made compulsory and they did not want families to be financially penalised for not using ECE. Their comments highlight potential pitfalls in the government’s current idea to require people receiving a benefit to put their three and four-year-old children into an ECE service for a minimum of 15 hours a week. The feedback received also shows that requiring a group of parents to use ECE in this way is expected to create a number of difficulties and make the job of teachers and ECE service providers a lot harder. 

NZ Kindergartens submission to the Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill.   http://www.parliament.nz/en-NZ/PB/SC/Documents/Evidence/e/b/0/50SCSS_EVI_00DBHOH_BILL11634_1_A298342-New-Zealand-Kindergartens.htm (Quote:  “We question whether this is the most equitable and effective way to increase participation in early childhood education, and have concerns about the implications of making participation in ECE compulsory for children, families, communities and ECE services. We believe that of the families impacted by this proposed obligation, most will already be engaged in an ECE service. It will be a smaller group of families, with possibly complex and multiple needs, that will be required to meet this obligation. Whether this proposal brings about a positive change for those children and families is unknown, and in some cases it may not. Where families do not meet the obligation, it will be the children who will be greatly impacted when the income into the family household is cut. We are concerned for those children”)

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