Skeletal Staffing (Minimum Ratios) at Kindergartens Leads to Problems

Opinion article
Dr Sarah Alexander
21 November 2017


overworked teachers and kindergarten staffing issuesStaff burnout is what happens when you don’t have enough resources to do the job at hand, and this is the path that some centres are on.

And it’s not just burnout which is the issue here, children are also missing out.

The resources I’m referring to are not digital devices, books or even crayons – it is teachers.

Parents don’t send their child to kindergarten to be taught by teachers who are not qualified.

Parents don’t send their child to kindergarten to be cared for by adults who change often and where teachers are struggling under minimum ratios and many demands on their time to provide an adequate curriculum and meet the learning needs of each child.  

When parents receive a note such as the one below saying that they have to be out the door with their child by the time they are booked in till and will be fined a late fee if they stay and chat with a teacher or play with their child, under-resourcing is clearly an issue.

parent notice about urgency of collection of children

And when a kindergarten association is no longer an employer of choice, when qualified teachers are leaving, other early childhood teachers are no longer scrambling to win vacant positions, and kindergartens are relying on relievers and unqualified people to continue operating from day to day - then you know there is indeed a serious resourcing problem. The newly appointed interim CEO of the Auckland Kindergarten Association recognises this:  

“I want educators to come to AKA because it fulfils them, I want us to be an employer of choice, I want us to be an exemplar of good practice.”


Staffing practices 

Earlier this year the AKA announced a plan to change all kindergartens to 7 hour day, year-round operations and the plan has been implemented at 30 of its 107 kindergartens so far. 

Both the 6-hour kindergartens and the 7-hour day kindergartens are staffed at minimum ratios of 1 adult to 10 children, and all, as far as is known, have an unqualified teacher that is counted within the minimum staffing ratio.  (Note that at some kindergartens, teacher aides are employed for around 10 hours a week to clean and prepare materials. Ministry of Education funded support workers can be present for some of the time to support specific children with learning needs).

Below is an example of a staffing schedule for an AKA kindergarten that operates a 7 hour day.

 Staffing on the floor, licensed for 40 children, hours 8.30am – 3.30pm

8.30 – 9.30

4 qualified teachers

9.30 – 9.45

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers
(1st qualified teacher taking a break)

9.45 – 10.00

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(2nd qualified teacher taking a break)

10.00 – 10.15

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers  
(3rd qualified teacher taking a break)

10.15 – 10.30

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(4th qualified teacher taking a break)

10.30 – 10.45

4 qualified teachers

10.45 – 11.30

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(1 qualified teacher taking lunch)

11.30 – 12.15

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(2nd qualified teacher taking lunch)

12.15 – 1.00

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(3rd qualified teacher taking lunch)

1.00 – 1.45

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(4th qualified teacher taking lunch)

1.45 – 2.15

4 qualified teachers                               

2.15 – 2.30

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(1st qualified teacher taking a break)

2.30 – 2.45

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(2nd qualified teacher taking a break)

2.45 – 3.00

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(3rd qualified teacher taking a break)

3.00 – 3.15

3 qualified, 1 unqualified teachers 
(4th qualified teacher taking a break)

3.15 – 3.30

4 qualified teachers

For most of the time that children attend kindergarten the percentage of qualified and certificated teachers is actually 75% (i.e. one out of 4 teachers are unqualified).

The unqualified teacher is employed within the minimum staffing ratio for 5 out of the 7 hours that children attend. These kindergartens operate right on the edge of the Ministry of Education’s 80%+ funding band at a percentage of 82% with a total of certificated teacher child-contact hours of 23 with 5 unqualified hours. 

Because the staff hour count calculation is based across four months at a time, the Ministry of Education allows for particular days where the teacher percentage is below 80%.  If that occurs too often, then any kindergarten can risk falling into the lower 50-79% funding band.

Tremendous and unfair pressure is placed on qualified teachers when centres operate on the edge of the 80%+ funding band, for example to work when sick.  In the case of the AKA, teachers can be pressured to work through the day without lunch and breaks when their kindergarten is down a teacher.

“When there is not enough trained staff on the floor because of reliever shortages managers suggest ‘just work through your lunch break and go home early, leave straight after session’.”

And, it is not as if teachers have it easy in other respects, such as finding time to do documentation, when the head teacher is counted within the teaching ratio and there is skeletal staffing.

“Management knows that if they increase child contact time by an hour a day by extending the kindergarten day to 7 hours, we will work extra hours to get the documentation done – in the evenings and weekends - because we already do.”  

Skeletal staffing can result in understaffing and staff working without breaks in different situations

Head teachers are both the most senior person at their kindergarten with daily management responsibilities and members of the full-time teaching staff. So when a head teacher needs to talk say with a visiting specialist during kindergarten hours, then his or her kindergarten can be a teacher short on the floor.

Operating at skeletal staffing levels with an untrained teacher appointed to provide cover for qualified teacher breaks can create significant problems when one person on the staff is absent or needs to leave early. Some examples that have happened at more than kindergarten include:

  • A qualified teacher becomes ill and needs to go home early, the remaining 2 qualified teachers are unable to get their lunch breaks.
  • A qualified teacher and the untrained teacher are both away. Only one reliever who was unqualified can be found to fill in.
  • The unqualified teacher needs to leave early so the qualified teachers then have no choice but to take short lunch breaks.

When there are added challenges such as the following then the minimum teaching ratios are not safe for anyone:

  • Children who are runners (children teachers need to keep a very attentive eye on).
  • Caring for children with learning needs who are in kindergarten for longer hours than they are funded for special assistance.
  • High needs children struggling to cope with the longer 7 hour day.
  • When there are acting head teachers and qualified teachers newly appointed who are not given time to be up to speed with the needs of the children, etc. before being included in the minimum staffing ratio.
  • Children are being enrolled who are too young to manage kindergarten playground equipment, etc., independently and safely.
  • More than a few children who are not toilet-trained children and a teacher finds him/ herself on nappy duty for most of the day.
  • Meeting the education requirement to assess children’s learning – teachers should not be counted within the ratio even if on the floor when they are observing and writing up assessments or Learning Stories.


Rigid scheduling of teacher hours

The staffing schedules are tight and must be strictly adhered to at kindergartens because of skeletal staffing and to ensure everyone gets their break. But for teachers supporting children’s learning it can make little sense.

“At 10.45am when the unqualified come to take over from me for my allocated lunch-break, I find that this is not a good time to be taking lunch because this is when often deep learning and play is going on.  It breaks what you are achieving for the children in supporting their investigation and learning.  Good ideas get thrown out when you walk off because of the staffing schedule and when you leave the children in the hands of someone who is not trained.”

“You can’t do anything as teachers are made to have 15 minute breaks because the children are staying till 3.30pm.  It’s so disruptive of learning.  It makes it difficult if you are involved or want to support children with a project or say cooking.  One of the teachers said to me ‘you do …  now, I can’t, you have the time because you are on the second break’.”

 .. ENDS


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