Paid parental leave has been extended from 16 weeks to 18 weeks (from 1 April 2016).
This is not the only improvement in NZ's paid parental leave policy. Other improvements include:
- The definition of a parent is broadened to anyone who has the primary and permanent responsibility of the care of the child. This can include people such as grandparents, cousins, and foster parents who have taken on permanent responsibility.
- Stay-at-home dads can qualify.
- Parents can now resign from their job if they have no intention of returning and still get paid leave. This is good for employers too because they no longer have to hold open a position for a worker who does not intend returning after the period of paid leave.
- Paid 'keeping in touch' days are now possible, allowing parents on leave to keep in touch with what's happening in the workplace and professional development.
The benefits for the child are obvious – stronger attachment with a less stressed parent and a better chance to breastfeed for longer especially in cases when breastfeeding is not well supported by employers and the ECE service the infant is placed in.
The benefits for business and the economy are clear – employee turnover rate is reduced when parents can take the time they need to establish early bonds with their child.
A clash between parental leave policy and increasing child participation in ECE policy
The costs of bringing in extended leave and the changes will be partly offset by less government spending on ECE subsidies.
In other words there is potential for a negative impact on enrolments in early childhood education at the very time when (a) there is huge market pressure and competition between ECE providers (b) when there is pressure by the Ministry of Education on service providers to increase the duration of children's stay in ECE.
Pressure is now on the government to extend paid parental leave to 6 months. This may help to force an evaluation of the Government's focus on increasing participation in ECE while at the same time showing a disinterest in calls, as shown in surveys carried out by ChildForum, for policy and funding which is desperately needed to make ECE better quality for infants.
The outlook for all children might not always be great when considering the bigger picture.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner rightly argues that first and foremost the best interests of all children need to be considered and any additional funding should target that purpose, including addressing issues of poverty, violence and health.
Also important is supporting employers to support their employees to parent, e.g. job sharing, planning for sick leave cover, etc. Important too is getting the right information and advice to people thinking to have children and new parents to plan ahead.
A pause and step back is needed to consider the whole of all children’s first year of life. What about greater investment in early childhood services for new parents with infants, such as the SPACE programme for example, to increase parental involvement and get all families involved in early childhood education before parents return to work? What about better utilising the qualifications, knowledge and skills of early childhood teachers to support parents raising children?
For example, after 18 weeks a child has formed a strong attachment to their parent/ caregiver who then suddenly returns to full-time work and the child begins full day childcare. A child would benefit from a more consistent approach where the centre or home-based educator is involved earlier on. Also massive opportunity exists to utilise the teachers for parent support and mentoring – not just purely child care and education - and help parents to develop confidence and competence in their parenting but this is currently not supported in education policy as a key role of the early childhood teacher.
The case for an extension to paid parental leave to more than 18 weeks is strong. But missing is a focus on capturing and maximising benefits for all children and the role and place of early childhood education and care.
A holistic systems approach is needed to develop well connected policies that serve all children well throughout their early childhood.
It is time for people involved in early childhood education and care to enter discussions. What are your thoughts on whether the changes have gone for enough and issues?