By Sarah Alexander
On 1 July 2007 the Government introduces up to 20 hours free early childhood education a week for three and four-year-old children in teacher-led services.
Playcentre parents can only access the Free ECE funding if they change to a childcare or kindergarten centre or use one of these centres in addition to playcentre. This devalues the parents' role in children's learning .
The 20 hour funding levels are designed to make services increase the number of hours children attend to over four hours a day. It has been argued (within numerous political press releases) that quality ECE (to regulatable level with qualified teachers) is better for children than other choices parents might make for their child's care and learning.
The government is also telling services it is okay to charge for extras ordinarily provided as part of looking after children, such as food and outings, and to ask parents to agree to pay for these extras. Once agreed parents have to pay (services can ask a debt collector to collect). Enrolment policy is up to individual centres, and therefore children whose parents do not agree to pay the extra or top-up charges may perpetually stay on the waiting list.
The early childhood sector is arguing that setting the funding rate to cover the average cost of providing care and education to basic regulation level will mean that standards in many centres will fall dangerously (below regulation level) unless parents can be persuaded to pay top-up charges.
Is this in the best interests of children?
The interests of children are being pushed to one side in the argument over money. Kindergartens and childcare centres are in danger of becoming battlegrounds as teachers have to explain to parents wanting “free” early childhood education that they have to pay extra charges. Yet, positive parent-teacher relationships are vitally important for children to feel relaxed in, and to benefit from, being in the early childhood centre setting.
Teachers are in the difficult position of having to tell parents they must pay for something the government repeatedly tells them is free or their centre will have to withdraw from the scheme or lower standards. The amount parents will have to pay will continue to increase to reflect increased staffing and other costs but the amount the government pays will only increase when the government decides.
Parents who can least afford to pay the top-up charge will not be able to get access to the "free ECE". It will create a two-tier early childhood system of centres catering for families barely able to pay top-up charges and those with financially well-off families (in the same way that low decile schools struggle with getting parental financial support as compared to high decile schools).
The early childhood sector is set to become more like the school sector. Parents are being told that to start their child's learning they must enrol in an early childhood education service, for 20 hours and with registered teachers. There is no evidence to support an earlier start to education being better for children's long-term learning outcomes. Evidence points to parents and home background being a more powerful influence on children than either ECE or the quality of ECE, and so it is a puzzle why playcentre as a service that involves parents in learning is being discredited by Government Policy. More hours of ECE is associated with increased behaviour and emotional problems for young children and so it is also a puzzle why the government wants children attending more than the traditional three hour five day a week sessions at kindergartens.
The policy and associated advertising is sending a strong message to parents that they are not teachers and that children's education from age 3 is now the responsibility of the State. NZ already rates poorly amongst developed countries for our record in children's health and safety. Parenting and opportunity for parents to learn to parent well seems to be the key. This key will be lost if parents continue to get the message that they are no good because they are untrained.
There are no benefits of the policy the way it is for children
It is reducing flexibility for parents to determine the hours they want to use.
It is going to result in the extension of kindergarten into childcare by changing from sessional to all-day licenses, and
We are likely to see a decline in the availability of part-day/sessional (less than 4 hours) preschool options.
The policy needs to be urgently modified with more thought on how the money going into this could be better spent to make a difference for the children and families who would most benefit.
The constant focus on funding levels has covered up the Government’s intention to institutionalise children’s early education.
The Education Minister Steve Maharey says this move is about making early childhood services more like the compulsory education sector.
Parents are not told about the motivation behind this new policy. The policy is not really about making ECE more affordable to families, though it is advertised as such and it certainly will at least, temporarily reduce the costs quite substantially for parents of 3 & 4 year olds. The policy is being brought in to make early childhood services more homogeneous in funding, hours of operation and quality.
Contrary to what the Government has claimed the 20-hour policy won’t lead to higher quality services or better learning. In other words it won't make kids wiser because its simply reducing the cost of ECE for parents already using teacher-led services. It may result in a reduction of places in kindergartens as kindergartens will move to provide 4 hour plus days meaning a reduction in the number of children they can cater for in a day.
It seems even with the introduction of the Free ECE policy some kindergartens, at least, continue to struggle to pay for basics. For example, in early Sept 2007 a kindergarten in the Wellington Region Free Kindergarten Association held a display at a shopping mall of children's paintings with a listing of children's full names alongside which their parents and shoppers could write a bid, with the minimum bid being set at $10.00 for each child's work. The kindergarten needed money to purchase a replacement water play structure for the children's play.
Playcentre Federation President, Marion Pilkington, notes that "in advertising the Free ECE policy the government has equated quality with teacher-led services. By doing so it ignores Playcentre, an innovative, high quality form of early childhood education indigenous to New Zealand which provides education for parents as well as children ... Having parents and children learn together produces a quality environment that research has shown has very positive outcomes - for both the parent and the children ... [parents bring] a wide range of experience and qualifications to their teaching". (press release 24 August 2007).
Montessori co-president Jan Gaffney described the design of the 20hour Free-ECE policy as "morally wrong" and said it would undermine the quality of service offered. (1 May 07, The Dominion Post)
Parliament's own creche is reported to have dropped its fees by only 25% for parents signing up to Free ECE . Parliament's crèche operates rent-free, but the level of Free ECE funding meant that to cover costs it would also have to charge more for hours parents used beyond 20 hours. "Being a Government crèche we thought ... it wouldn't be a good look if that particular creche didn't implement [the 20 hour Free ECE policy]", said licensee Chris Banks. And the Kids Reserve crèche which operates from the second floor of the Reserve bank building and is a not-for-profit centre looks likely not to sign up because its costs and charges were high and the Free ECE fee rate was too low. Also committee member Rosemary McLaren added that "the rules not been easy to work within". (July 12, 2007, The Dominion Post)
A Dominion Post Editorial (3 July 2007) suggests "Education Minister Steve Maharey would better serve his party and the public by acknowledging the considerable hurdles still to be overcome and ensuring government funding does not, over time, become a subsidy for early childhood centres rather than for parents and children.