By Dr Sarah Alexander**
The National Party has done good for early childhood education in three respects over its three terms in Government.
1. A shortage of childcare used to be a big issue, for the economy and especially for mums wanting to return to work after having a baby or before their child started school. The government has been successful in resolving this problem.
It's promoting participation policy and target has seen funding channelled toward achieving this purpose.
No limit has been placed on new services opening up (even when located right next door to an existing high quality service that has spare places), and receiving government funding. The number of services and places continues to expand driven by investors mainly in childcare centres and home-based services who still see the level of funding provided by the government as very profitable (see an article on profit-driven ECE is flourishing).
The Government even made ECE attendance compulsory for children of beneficiaries. In doing so it however has got away with breaching children's basic human right to care by their parent and adequate state support to reduce child poverty (the penalty of not attending ECE is 50% reduction in government benefit payment).
2. It opened up 20-Hour ECE funding to Playcentre and Nga Kohanga Reo - which was the right thing to do.
The Labour Party previously in government had made the funding available initially only available to community early childcare centres. National would have been able to keep the "free" in 20 Hours ECE because costs would have been contained, had not Labour said yes at general election time to the request of the Auckland Kindergarten Association and the Kindercare/ Early Childhood Council business lobby to lift rules on not charging parents to make up for any loss in profit level and allow private for-profit services to also access the funding. National therefore faced a big budget blow-out with uptake far greater than planned when the policy was introduced.
While National is often on the receiving end of a lot of flak for not meeting sector demands to keep lifting funding rates to meet expectations, history could nevertheless judge National as doing well for continuing with this funding policy and making it available to more children despite NZ moving through a recession and many other equally deserving demands on government funds. It could have, for example, restricted the 20-Hour subsidy to only the children of parents in employment or studying, but it did not.
3. It has stood firm and shown it cannot be swayed or brought by any particular group or stakeholder claiming to represent the political views or financial interests of the sector.
I was fascinated to watch how easily the tactic of gaining control by setting up various working groups on early childhood education and funding over its three terms in government, played out. National effectively kept lobbyists thinking there was a chance they were having influence and were important – but nothing much, if anything, resulted from the working groups that wasn’t what National already intended.
But the National Party in Government has shown no clear direction when it comes to protecting and improving the quality of ECE for children and it has been getting a number of things wrong.
It increased the maximum centre licence size of 50 children to 150, and from 25 babies to 75. A centre with 50 children used to be considered a very large centre and the sector and families alike knew that small size was better for children. But when introducing a licensing fee for services to re-licence under new regulations, allowing owners of multiple licenses on the same site to combine these into a single licence and have more children with potentially fewer staff was a sweetener to control opposition. The government has failed to make the Ministry of Education develop policy on limiting class or group size in centres in line with international quality standards, ensure that children do not have more than one change of teachers during the day, and that they are not forced to develop resiliency in having three or four transitions between classrooms in centres that segregate children into classes by age.
The National Party did not support a target of 100 per cent qualified registered teachers and withdrew this, thereby reducing demand for qualified teachers, easing a teacher shortage, and reducing pressure on ECE providers to provide competitive wages. It has continued to provide a funding incentive in addition to the base 20 Hour ECE for 3 - 5 year-olds and 30 Hour general for 0- 5 year olds for ECE service providers to employ 80+% qualified teachers, and for sessional-licensed kindergartens only to employ 100% qualified teachers.
National has forgotten its promise, made to voters before it was elected, to improve the minimum adult-child ratio for infants. The ratio has remained at 1 teacher to 5 infants. Teachers report that in some centres it is a daily struggle to try to give every infant personal attention and time.
Alarm bells start ringing when teaches share their concerns about early childhood education becoming akin to something more like factory farming and the Ministry of Education uses language such as teachers working "on the floor", as though it was a shop or factory.
Its funding policies have supported significant growth in services owned by business people, shareholders and companies which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the proportion of community-based services has dwindled by comparison and along with that the number of sessional-licensed services for child attendance of 4 hours or less per day.
Bill English as the then opposition spokesperson for early childhood education said to me over 10 years ago that he was trying to cut his way through political rhetoric that implied the best thing we could do for our children was get them into a centre as soon as possible.
He felt quality was being more oriented toward the school model though to a layman the best evidence shows pedagogy that can emulate a loving and engaged environment like a home, works.
It is time to bring some of that layman thinking into the Government's handling of early childhood education and care.
The Minister of Education and the Ministry of Education have renamed early childhood education and care as "early learning" services, thereby aligning the sector more closely with schools and the purpose of schooling. But care for children who are so young and dependent, and for whom learning comes through care, is vital too.
ECE research on the effects of childcare on children shows that participation beyond 12 - 15 hours a week does not necessarily result in greater developmental benefits for children. It's a bit like consuming kiwifruit - a little can be very good for you but overindulgence and not having some variety in your diet might have some quite painful consequences.
Perhaps the 20-hour funding policy could be tweaked to say 15 hours and the savings used to improve quality, along with making sure it is truly 'free' ECE and parents are not asked to pay extra charges? A reduction from 20 to 15 hours would not likely have a negative impact on women's employment since there is a good supply of childcare choices and strong demand for full-time workers in our economy, making the cost high for parents choosing to stay at home or work part-time as opposed to holding a full-time job and using full-time childcare.
The hourly funding rates per child for part and full day attendance need to be made the same so the financial disincentive of operating a two session daily early childhood service is removed. This would allow many more children to participate in ECE using existing services and providers would no longer have a financial benefit by setting minimum enrolment hours of 30 or more per child.
The minimum amount of space per child in centres needs to be increased and limits placed on the maximum number of children grouped together within centres. The rhetoric of "classes" and staff working "on the floor" needs to change. Children this young do not belong in classrooms, or in factories.
There is lack of accountability for taxpayer money paid to providers. There needs to be tracking of where funding goes, checking that revenue from parent fees is not pocketed and if it is, then maybe the service does not need as much taxpayer funding.
This would help keep in check the profit-motive and ensure that all providers, not just some, have children's interests at the heart of what they do.
The Ministry of Education protects the business interests of providers foremost by not releasing information on complaints upheld and services placed on provisional licences, even when to do so would be important for child protection and enable parents to make informed choices.
An independent body is needed to deal with provider misconduct, as already exists for teachers, which is also open and it should require automatic referral of providers by the Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office.
There is no pride in keeping early childhood education female-centric. Quality without valuing gender diversity is not possible.
Minister of Women's Affairs Paula Bennett and Education Minister Nikki Kaye have not shown any interest in challenging the sexist thinking that has seen no action being taken to develop a plan to achieve gender balance in early childhood teaching.
Early childhood education today is a competitive market with different interest groups that struggle to come together to advocate for children and respect of the child-rearing rights and duties of parents.
It's therefore essential for children and families that the Government shifts its focus to making quality a priority so children all have a good experience in ECE. Longitudinal research in NZ has highlighted urgent needs for improvement that would make a significant difference to child outcomes.
As Prime Minister now, Bill English could see to it that the political rhetoric is stripped back and quality needs and issues are addressed.
Does he and the National Party care enough about children to do this if elected back in for a fourth term in Government?
What do you think? Add your comments below.
Go to an article showing the election policies of each political party - Labour, National, Maori, Greens, NZ First, Mana, ACT, United Future, Opportunities, and the Conservative Party
* The above is an updated version of an opinion article published by the NZ Herald on 3 March 2017.
** Dr Sarah Alexander is chief executive of the ChildForum National Network and a parent of five children. She has researched and reported on early childhood policy and quality from before the first major education system overhaul in 1989.