NZ early childhood education has a proud tradition of putting value on play, children’s natural learning processes, teacher-child caring relationships and parental involvement but this is about to change.
Before they are out of nappies and learning how to walk many children could soon find that their ability to pass educational tests is the thing that matters most to the people caring for them in early childhood education (ECE) services.
The Education (Update) Amendment Bill presented to Parliament makes changes to the current Education Act (1989) and, among other things, will give the Government the power to make it “clearer to our educators what success for students looks like”.
Early childhood education and schooling will for the first time work under a shared set of objectives and medium-term priorities to guide their actions.
“This is a once in a generation opportunity to create an education system fit for the future, focussed on lifting the achievement of all young New Zealanders,” Minister of Education Hekia Parata said.
However, most parents do not look to early childhood education as entry to formal education. They look to ECE services for partnership and help in the care of their child (which includes learning experiences supporting children's development) while they are at work or for other reasons such as for their child and family to make social-connections.
Already teachers are communicating with parents about children's care and learning and sharing assessments both formally (for example by use of online platforms such as Storypark) and informally through conversations, child notebooks and personal charts. In addition teachers work with a range of agencies and specialists including special education services and completing the ECE assessment part of Plunket Well-Child Health Checks.
The Education (Update) Amendment Bill states that the Minister of Education can issue a statement of National Education and Learning Priorities (NELP) for early childhood education services and schools. This is to run for five-year periods and any current or new Government can withdraw or rewrite the NELP to reflect its policy priorities by placing a notice in the Gazette.
The NELP will include indicators of success, reflect objectives for education set by the Government and, according to the Ministry of Education, the NELP statement will be linked to (new) regulations setting out planning and reporting so that early childhood services and schools understand what the government's policy priorities mean for them and how they are expected to put them into action.
“The purpose of the NELP is to move to a system that is not just about delivering education, but about student achievement, with clear accountabilities for ECEs,” Ms Parata said.
How success will be measured and reported and what financial or other carrots or sticks are issued to ECE services to ensure the NELP statement and objectives are met is yet to be clarified.
A shift away from concern for the individual child's personal learning and partnership approach with families toward a national standards approach with indicators and measures of success defined by politicians could for example see checklists and testing of child achievement becoming compulsory, the placement of unfair and inappropriate pressure on children, the loss of funding for services whose children do not meet the specified levels of success, and the introduction of performance pay by ECE service employers for teaching staff based on their ability to get children to meet the success criteria. This could also see another another layer of paper-work being added to the workloads of already time-stretched teachers, many working at services that are financially struggling and at times working on minimum staffing ratios.
Early childhood teaching and learning expert and CEO of ChildForum Dr Sarah Alexander said that on the surface what seems to be suggested as being good to lift the achievement of young New Zealanders goes against the evidence base that informs best teaching practice for infants, toddlers and young children.
“The intention behind bringing in a NELP statement of education and what successful learning looks like for children from birth to the end of compulsory schooling is very politically driven. Red flags for early childhood education are the Minister’s use of words such as ‘achievement’, ‘success’, ‘accountability” and the Government telling parents and educators who know their children best what success in learning looks like for their children,’’ Dr Alexander said.
Dr Alexander does not oppose the introduction of a NELP statement but cautions that there should be safeguards against the potential for the miseducation of our young children and the reshaping of early childhood services into entry levels schools.
“Do we want NZ early childhood education to be taken down a similar path to what esteemed child psychologist and author Professor David Elkind in 1986 warned against in the USA when he coined the term ‘miseducation’ to describe the pushing down of school teaching methods and expectations for learning into early years education for no other reason than political and social whim?”
The Amendment Bill was presented by Ms Parata to Parliament on 22 August and is going to the select committee stage after its first reading.
“There will be another chance for people to have their say during the Select Committee process, and I encourage anyone with an interest in education to make a submission,” Ms Parata said.
The Ministry of Education says that once the proposed objectives are enacted it will work on new regulations for planning and reporting by ECE services and schools.
There could be an increased risk of litigation against ECE and school providers and the Crown by parents or others over the way in which providers engage with the government’s NELP statement and objectives.
Elkind, David (1987). Miseducation: preschoolers at risk. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
Alexander, Sarah (2003). Quality teaching early foundations. Best Evidence Synthesis. Wellington: Ministry of Education. http://www.childforum.com/education/professionalism-working-conditions-career-development/professional-development/111-characteristics-of-quality-teaching-best-evidence-synthesis.html
Parata, Hekia (2016). Biggest update to education in 27 years. Press release 23 August 2016. www.beehive.govt.nz