The election is over, and National has secured another three years in government. The National Party increased its share of the vote while Labour and the Greens both lost ground.
Despite the drama of the past few weeks, with the Internet-Mana Party grabbing the spotlight and the Conservative Party looking to increase its profile, the results were perhaps predictable given that polling prior to voting suggested John Key and National were well ahead. It appears that Labour’s policies did not offer enough to swing the country away from a National-led government once again.
For the early childhood education sector, the result leaves little hope of positive change in the near future.
Once again, ECE was not high on the priority list during the election campaign. There was the usual talk of reinstating funding for 100% teacher-led services and some parties, including Labour, promised to extend the 20 hours scheme but, in general, ECE did not feature prominently.
National went into this election with just one main ECE policy. It said if it were to be re-elected, it would provide an extra $156 million to help early childhood education services remain affordable and to meet demand pressures. It also vowed to continue with its pledge of having 98% participation target.
While the promise of extra money always sounds good, in this case it is likely that the amount will be too little to really make any noticeable difference. Much will probably be spent simply on adjusting funding rates to keep pace with inflation.
The Government also seems set on increasing participation across the board, and targeting areas with generally low participation such as low decile areas and Maori and Pacific Island communities. Therefore, it is a fair guess that some of the promised cash will be used to fund services in those areas or to fund schemes to get more parents to place their child earlier than they planned in ECE.
This would appear to leave little for the average early childhood service to use to improve quality, reduce teacher/child ratios by employing more staff or keep fee rates low for parents.
Instead, we may see more measures restricting the sector, or measures focused on producing the same outcome for less money. One result of this is the belief that the current Level 7 Diploma or Degree qualification may be downgraded possibly even to Level 5. It also makes it unlikely that we will see National revive any of its previous promises such as improving teacher/child ratios for infants.
National’s direction for ECE would seem at odds with what the sector itself wants. According to the results of a recent ChildForum survey, those involved in ECE want to see:
- The Government make good on the National party’s 2008 election promise to regulate a better teacher-child ratio for infants
- A restoration of the funding rate for ECE services that employ 100% registered teachers which was cut in 2010
- The introduction of maximum class sizes following National’s change to regulations in 2011 that tripled the number of children a service could have on the premises without specification of class sizes.
- A review of government support of community-based ECE services since service growth over the past six years has been almost entirely driven by growth in the number of for-profit centres and home-based services while there was a dramatic fall in the availability of sessional ECE centres, which were mainly community-based services.
It remains to be seen how the sector will react to another three years of National-led government.
So far, the sector has been relatively quiet in the face of funding cuts, staffing and quality issues but faced with three more years with little likelihood of any significant changes, it may be that unrest grows and the sector becomes more vocal in its criticism of the Government and its policies.
If costs to parents continue to increase, or choices are reduced even further, then parents may also increase pressure on the Government to improve the quality of childcare and education and make changes to the ECE industry, especially as it continues to encourage families to use ECE as part of its participation drive.
This drive to increase participation may yet cause the Government problems. On current predictions, the target of 98% participation by 2016 could well be missed, something that could lead to unrest, if ECE services or families feel that the Government has focused too much on something that was ultimately unrealistic at the expense of children’s needs and best interests.
John Key and Bill English have spoken previously of a focus on returning the country’s finances to an even keel and increasing surplus, so maybe once that has been achieved there will be more incentives offered to industries such as ECE perhaps with some carrots offered closer to the next election in 2017.
Until then it seems the ECE sector must continue to survive on roughly the same funding, with little in the way of quality improvements on the horizon.
It is true that the minor parties may have some sway with the Government and could suggest or influence legislation, but in the main, it will be National that leads the way.
We may also see yet more working groups or taskforces, but whether anything comes from these discussions is another matter. This may be enough to keep the sector on the whole happy for the next three years, but the Government must be wary of pushing too hard to reduce costs or increasing the burden on ECE services -- it may find itself then, with a rebellion on its hands.