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Education Ministry failing its own standards by not releasing promised information on ECE complaints

yelling at childWellington – The Ministry of Education is not meeting its own deadlines in releasing information on complaints it received against early childhood services from 2016.

A fortnight ago the Ministry stated it would release the information that week, but it is yet to do so.

ChildForum chief executive Dr Sarah Alexander, who has been campaigning to make the complaints process more transparent, congratulated the Ministry in 2014 for promising to release a yearly report of complaints.

This followed a serious incident of a baby being left alone in a Porirua early childhood centre after staff went home for the day. Had it not been reported to the media, probably by neighbours who heard the baby crying, other parents at the centre would have been kept in the dark over the standard of care, Dr Alexander says. 

“The cover-up of incidents tarnishes the good reputation of other services in the sector and the Ministry is not monitoring standards. It waits until a complaint is received or a serious incident is reported to it.

“After a serious incident has occurred or a complaint has been upheld at any service, the Ministry should be sharing information in a timely manner to enable other services to check internal procedures and standards and know what can happen to be better prepared.”

In 2012 information received through an Official Information Act request by the ChildForum Early Childhood National Organisation showed that the Ministry had recorded 247 complaints. The Ministry refused a request for the names of the services involved, citing commercial reasons.

Among the complaints listed were:

  • A child had been bitten, had her hands and arms twisted by a teacher and had been abused verbally.
  • Parents were not told that their child had fallen off a slide and medical treatment was delayed.
  • Two staff smacked children and the supervisor dragged children by the arm.
  • A child was left in a swing to go to sleep, resulting in rope burn and bruising to the forehead. 
  • A child was locked in a room after a biting incident.

The information released showed that often the action taken by the Ministry on receiving a complaint was to phone the service first and take the owner’s or manager’s word about what happened. Often complainants were referred back to the service before the Ministry would agree to investigate.  

“That was the last time (2012) the Ministry had released information on how it dealt with specific complaints that would assist the early childhood sector in evaluating how well it deals with complaints. It needs to go back to explaining how it dealt with each complaint.

“For a government department, there is very little transparency.  

“When it imposes conditions for improvement on an early childhood service this is too late and children continue to be placed at risk while the Ministry gives help which can take six months or more before improvements are made.

“It continues to put commercial interests first and deny parents their right to know and be informed of any serious incident or problem that has occurred at their child’s service or one they may consider enrolling at,” Dr Alexander says. 

The following year when ChildForum placed a request under the Official Information Act for information on complaints laid against services in 2013 the request was denied. The Ministry said that owing to the high level of public and media interest it would now publish annual summaries of complaints on its website.  

In 2013 the Ministry recorded 246 complaints. This increased sharply to 360 in 2014 while in 2015 it dipped a little to 342. 

“The highly summarised complaint information released by the Ministry for the 2013, 2014, and 2015 years, masked details and did little to give parents and the early childhood sector confidence that it welcomed and was responsive to complaints and was transparent in its handling and reporting.

“However, there appears to be significant under-reporting of incidents and complaints.”

For example, the My ECE parent website (www.myece.org.nz) receives contact from seven to 10 families a month wanting to confidentially ask about a problem or incident often of a serious nature. The parents also indicate that nothing was to be gained by lodging a formal complaint to the Ministry.

“The parents fear that they may be seen to be troublemakers. Often it’s easier not to say anything but move on. There is also no job protection within the industry for teachers who whistle-blow.

“The Ministry has not yet shown an understanding that secrecy is not in the interests of building public trust in the quality of early childhood education.

“Too often the only way a parent may find out about what’s happening is through gossip within their community or if the media is alerted,” Dr Alexander says.

The Ministry is now behind in releasing even a highly summarised report of complaints for 2016 and 2017.

Dr Alexander urged the Ministry to take immediate action to restore confidence in it and in the quality of ECE by releasing annual reports of complaints lodged with the Ministry. The reports need to include details of each complaint, the actions the Ministry took in response, and the names of services at which complaints of a serious nature were upheld.

News article 

Adele Redmond:  "Ministry of Education withholding complaints about early childhood centres 'tarnishes' industry, organisation claims."  Stuff website.

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