By Dr Sarah Alexander
A far reaching and gutsy inquiry into childcare ECE for infants and toddlers has been completed by the Office of the Children's Commissioner.
The Office of the Children's Commissioner advocates for the best interests of all children. And the Commissioner, Dr John Angus, along with Dr Janis Carroll-Lind have kept the interests of children at the forefront of the inquiry. A central part of this is what seems to be a fairly honest (politically unbiased) and thorough appraisal of the empirical evidence around infant-toddler care and the effects of non-parental ECE.
"Policies that support parental care in the first 12 months of life
1. It is recommended that the Minister of Education and the Minister of Labour direct their officials, in consultation with other officials as appropriate to:
- review current policies for paid parental leave and funding of early childhood education and care to identify the balance of incentives provided for parental care and formal non-parental care
- provide advice on increasing the quantum and flexibility of support for parental care
- provide advice on the merits of having ECS funding attached to the individual child rather than tied to types of provision and paid to providers.
"Policies, regulatory settings and funding structures that allow for flexible use of formal non-parental early childhood education and care services by infants and toddlers
2. It is recommended that the Minister of Education direct her officials to:
- review policy, regulatory and funding settings for their impact on flexible provision of hours and days of attendance for infants and toddlers
- provide advice on changes that would improve access to part-time and flexible education and care for infants and toddlers
"Policies and regulatory settings that support quality services provision for infants and toddlers
3. It is recommended that the Minister of Education note the conclusion of this report, that several regulated minimum standards are set too low in aspects of service quality that are important for infants and toddlers.
4. It is recommended that the Minister of Education direct her officials to provide advice on:
- making a regulation that limits group size to no more than eight under two-year-olds for purposes of supporting responsive and stimulating interactions
- reducing the regulated minimum ratio of adults to children for under two-year-olds from 1:5 to 1:3 in ECEC centres and from 1:4 to 1:3 for home-based educators caring for children where two are aged less than two years
- increasing the regulated minimum space for under 2-year-olds from 2.5m square to 3m square
- supporting ECS to give effect to the inclusion of quiet spaces in the design and layout of their premises and the provision of acoustic absorption materials, if necessary, to reduce noise levels that may negatively affect young children's learning and well-being.
"Policies that support the provision of early childhood education and care services to infants and toddlers by a knowledgeable and skilled workforce
5. It is recommended that the Minister of Education direct her officials to:
- report on the extent to which services to infants and toddlers in licensed ECS are provided by qualified and registered teachers, and any trends that are occurring
- provide advice on the extent to which changes are a consequence of the recent regulatory and funding changes and on any remedial changes that are necessary
- provide advice on amending regulations in mixed age settings to apply the minimum of 50 percent of qualified, knowledgeable and skilled staff to service provision in the under-2 area.
"Practices that enhance responsive education and care
6. It is recommended that the Minister of Education:
- note that the issues about quality of service reported by ERO in 2010 are confirmed in this inquiry
- note that the relicensing process will not address these concerns for many infants and toddlers who will use services over the next three years
- direct officials in consultation with ERO, to advise how improvements to practice quality might be more quickly achieved.
"Education and professional learning
7. It is recommended that the Minister of Education:
- note the role of education and professional learning in addressing quality issues for the learning and development of infants and toddlers
- encourage a focus on current and up-to-date professional learning in areas where it could make a contribution to infants and toddlers
- reconsider the decision to cease practitioner research initiatives that help to improve the quality of provision to under-2s
- direct officials to provide advice on the merits of amending regulations to require qualified staff providing services to infants and toddlers to have obtained, or be obtaining specific professional learning on working with under-2s
- direct officials to review the regulations and funding settings of home-based educators with a view to enhancing the levels of knowledge and skills expected of carers and levels of support provided by their employers.
8. It is recommended that the Minister of Education direct her officials to provide advice, in consultation with the NZ Teachers Council, on how to:
- encourage teacher education providers to review their initial teacher education programmes to ensure they provide adequate content specific to infants and toddlers
- support teacher education providers to offer postgraduate papers and qualifications on infant-toddler specialisation
"Improved management of health interests of infants and toddlers in formal education and care
9. It is recommended that the Minister of Education and Minister of Health direct their officials, in consultation with other agencies as appropriate to:
- set up a process for health sector engagement in policy development, regulation and operational planning for formal non-parental ECS at national and regional levels
- provide advice on the merits of allowing health professionals with appropriate qualifications to count as additional qualified staff for the purposes of early childhood regulatory and funding requirements (Note from ChildForum: this used to be the case that Plunket Nurses and Karitane Nurses, and English Trained Nanny Nurses qualifications were recognised - but today only a teaching qualification and teacher registration counts for regulation and government funding purposes)
- provide advice on ways to increase the engagement of primary health professionals in early childhood services
- review the adequacy of the monitoring regimes for health standards in formal non-parental education and care
"Information to support parents' decision-making
10. It is recommended that the Minister of Education direct her officials to:
- review the information for parents on the Ministry of Education website
- improve parents access to information
Here is some general further information and analysis on infant ECE in NZ that we think you might find useful when considering the Children's Commission report.
While there has been growth in the number of under-two-year-olds enrolled in formal early childhood education over recent years, to some extent this has been due to factors such as a higher birth rate, more mothers working, and other family members e.g. grandparents not living in the same city or not being able to assist with childcare for other reasons. Another reason is the promotion in our society of non-parental early education as a means of helping children to get ahead - to get a head start academically. It's promoted that participation in non-parental ECE benefits all children equally but this can be questioned on a number of fronts (e.g. is the quality of ECE better than the quality of the home-learning environment and other environments the young child would otherwise participate in? do the cognitive benefits of not being cared for/taught by family outweigh any health, emotional and and social behaviour problem outcomes for the very young child?)
Let's look now at the number of under-one's (babies) in non-parental v parental ECE and the time that babies spend in non-parental care.
Under-1 yr Enrolments in Parental and Non-Parental ECE
The graph below shows that across the ECE sector, non-parental ECE services cater for the highest percentage of babies, and this percentage is growing - while the percentage share of baby enrolments is dropping in parent ECE licensed services. This trend is very concerning.
The data shows that even though the majority of babies are concentrated in non-parental ECE licensed services, Playcentre remains the preferred ECE service for families with babies. In 2010 this speciality continues to be evident with 14.6% of the playcentre roll for all enrollments (0 - 6 years) being under-1s enrolments. In non-parental ECE services (kindergartens, childcare, and home-based) the figure was 5.56% of all enrollments (0 - 6 years). The question may be asked then as to why so many babies are concentrated in non-parental ECE and why parental ECE is not politically prioritised for children under 1 years to give more families access to parental ECE?
The Average Length of time that Babies Spend Weekly in Non-Parental ECE
The graph below shows two things that are really important to note in any discussions about ECE and babies:
- Babies are spending more time in non-parental ECE (kindergartens, childcare centres, and home-based/family daycare homes) as opposed to playcentre where parents learn alongside their baby. This leads to a question of whether more should be done to make known the advantages of parental ECE for babies and for the development of parenting confidence and learning?
- The average number of hours babies spend weekly in non-parental ECE has increased quite a bit over the past 10 years. This leads to a question of why? Is it that mothers/fathers are working longer hours and therefore need longer hours of childcare? or is it more to do with what choices parents have around hours of enrolment and what hours they must enrol in as centre enrolment policies are more likely to be influenced by government funding rules today than they were 10 years ago.
In childcare centres (also called education and care centres) in 2010 the average number of hours a baby attended was 26.7 hours a week. This is the average number - meaning a good proportion of the 4,205 babies enrolled were in centres for more than 30 hours a week. The average number of hours weekly for home-based is high also. Some of the babies enrolled with licensed home-based agencies (1,693 in 2010) may be cared for in their own home, but the majority are more likely to be cared for in the home of someone else with that person's child or other children. In free kindergartens the number of babies (under 1s) is very small still. We are talking about only 19 babies in 2000 and 24 babies in 2010 across all kindergartens, however, note that the average number of hours of enrolment for babies has also increased dramatically in kindergartens.
Is this really a bad thing? It is not if for example:
- there is good parenting already in place and the use of childcare does not mean less opportunity for parents to develop skills and knowledge in parenting.
- the childcare centre environment and experiences provided is of a higher quality than the child would receive at home and with family (though no one can really replace belonging in a family and parental love).
- the centre encourages mums to continue with breastfeeding and provides supports in every way e.g. using the type of nappies that the family uses at home, providing comfy places in the centre for parents to stay with their baby, taking baby to mum at work for feeding, helping with baby bathing, taking baby for walks, letting baby kick around without a nappy on for fresh air when baby has nappy rash, etc, etc.
- the centre does not require a family to enrol for more hours of childcare than they need and do not charge for unused childcare.
Factors such as these above are commonly not included in lists of what defines quality ECE for infants. But if you look at ECE from the perspective of infant needs then these factors make the difference between whether the use of ECE is beneficial or harmful.