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More than 50 children permitted - why and what this means for group sizes

By Dr S Alexander
© ChildForum 2011

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Licence size is the total of the number of children a centre can have on the premises for the purposes of care and education at any one time. 
Group size (also called class size) is the specific number of children grouped together within a facility who interact together with the same teacher/s in a specially assigned space or classroom.

 

A Controversial and Highly Problematic Regulation Change

The change in early childhood regulations from 1 July 2011 to allow early childhood centres and hospital-based early education programmes to have up to 150 children (0 - 6 years) or 75 infants/toddlers (under 2 yrs) is controversial.  Why? 

Here are some reasons:

  • 150 children of any age (up from 50 children) or 75 infants (up from 25) becomes the new maximum number of children together in an early childhood programme. 
    • Within the early childhood profession such a number of children is considered way too many. 
    • Any increase in number flies in the face of clear understandings within the large body of research on quality in early childhood education that small group size is important for: (a) supporting responsive and stimulating interactions, (b) children's health, (c) children's learning outcomes, (d) and infants developing secure attachments.
    • Earlier parent and sector consultation by the Ministry of Education as part of revising the early childhood regulations in 2004 and 2008 did not indicate widespread support for an increase in licence size.  Moreover, the announcement of the regulation amendment change in early 2011 was a surprise to all in the early childhood sector with the exception of one political lobby group acting on behalf of mostly commercial childcare financial interests.
  • The political reason for increasing the licence size maximum and not introducing regulation for class size/group size to counter potential negative effects for children and adults was to reduce compliance and staffing costs for ECE operators with multiple services on the same site (thereby reducing the potential for criticism of its freeze on funding rates) and to encourage operators to expand capacity and create more places for children to support government goals for increasing participation. 

In the video below the former Minister of Education outlines the rationale behind the decision to increase the maximum number of children a centre can be licensed for.

(Click on the arrow play button to listen)

The Minister explains the change in regulation as being good to allow centres that currently hold multiple licences on the same physical site to reduce costs and paper-work by moving to a single licence. What she does not note is that (a) there are no rules limiting the size of groups within the new licence number, and (b) services with more than 150 children on the same site will still need to apply for an extra licence/s.  

Fifty to 150 children and from 25 to 75 under-two-year olds is a huge leap in child numbers, not to mention the many more adults a child will have to get to know as part of being of part of a much larger group.  For as long as there has been childcare/daycare regulations the maximum licence size has been set at 50 children (0 - 6 yrs) and up to 25 infants and toddlers in New Zealand.  Even so, 50 children has been considered to be too many to be cared for in a group.  For example, Kindergartens which primarily cater for preschoolers have historically limited their numbers to 30 and up to 45 children.

Staff child ratio and group size indicators—two of the best indicators for determining the quality of a child care program.  These two indicators significantly effect many other health and safety issues, such as the transmission of disease being greater when there are more children and adults present.  These two indicators improve the caregiving behaviors of staff and the safety of children.  And on the mental health and school readiness side, more secure attachments occur with higher staff child ratios and smaller group sizes (Fiene, 2002).

 

A Centre's Maximum Licence Size Sets the Limit on the Size of the Group 

Licence size has acted as a substitute regulation for group size in NZ because we do not regulate for group sizes within centres unlike many other countries.  Explained in another way - having a regulation for licence size has meant that NZ education officials have probably not felt a need to recommend to Government that our country should regulate for group size. 

Overseas, regulation for group size is more common than regulation for centre or licence size and its not uncommon for centres to have 100 children but with children grouped into smaller classes or centres within the main service facility.

 

Results of a Survey about the Size Increase

The results of independent online survey of 450 people about the centre/licence size increase showed substantial opposition against the regulation change.  One important finding in particular to note is that the majority of people involved in services with more than one licence whose service would likely financially and/or administratively benefit, were also opposed to the regulation change mainly for reasons that it did not appear to be in the best interests of children (and of staff).   For more about the survey and to read the report click here ...

 

What's Happened Since the Survey

The Minister of Education's office initially at least, did not show awareness that while this change might help to reduce some bureaucracy and trim costs for larger services, it also had a downside.  The downside included possible negative implications for children's health and learning outcomes and also possibly for the financial sustainability of smaller and locally owned services.  

For the Minister's information ChildForum prepared a paper with a summary of the main survey findings and outline of the issues.

 click here for a copy of the paper provided for the Minister's information 

And we have received a reply which the Minister is happy for us to share with you.

click here for the Minister's response

The Minister acknowledges a desire to alleviate the potential problems or negative implications of the regulation change and has "directed ministry officials to provide strengthened guidance to the sector to support high quality in larger sizes, including information on group size".

There is plenty of guidance available in the international literature on the vital necessity of limiting group sizes within the larger centre population and on the optimal sizes, physical space for, and staffing arrangements for groups.

See the article by journalist Rachel Grunwell in the NZ Herald newspaper, click here ...

 

Contents

1. Regulations for maximum group sizes in different countries overseas

2. How  the results of earlier consultation on maximum group size in NZ conflicted with the regulation change to increase it and went against parent views

3. How large centres differ from small centres even if small group sizes are implemented

4. Advice and tips for ECE centre providers and teachers on how to implement small group sizes voluntarily 

5. Comments and discussion

 

1. Regulations for Group-Size  Overseas 


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