By Dr S Alexander
The Ministry of Education today (Thursday) responded to the press release by the ChildForum Early Childhood Network in the weekend asking for it to hurry up and release its promised annual summary of complaints made against early childhood services. View press release here.
Back in 2013 it promised ChildForum and the ECE sector that it would make an annual release, it has now done so for 2016, 16 months behind and has indicated that it will get back to the annual schedule and release information for the 2017 year soon.
What is good
- It has released details, albeit very brief, of each complaint it recorded. This is the second time it has done this, and is similar to the level of detail it released on individual complaints for 2012. In 2013 its reason for not continuing to provide details of each complaint was that it would ‘prejudice the supply of similar information’. Clearly now it has changed its mind on this, but has not included an explanation for its change of mind.
- It has identified that information on incidents in early childhood services that require medical attention should be released and it promised to do this when it released information on complaints made against services.
What is not good
23 complaints led to services being closed – very concerning
Services were closed by the Ministry because of information received from a complaint. It is scary because had complaints not been made those services in all likelihood would still be operating. Twenty-three complaints that resulted in service closures is a large number in terms of the total number of complaints and in the context of strong government policy at the time to keep services open and increase children’s participation in ECE as a government public service policy target. The Ministry makes every effort to keep services open and provide professional support and time to allow improvement, which suggests that at the services it closed there were likely multiple breaches in regulation which the Ministry knew were un-fixable.
No list of incidents
The report does not include a list of incidents reported to it. The report states the number of incidents but not what each of these were. The Ministry said it would provide information on incidents but the information is very general and inadequate.
One-quarter of complaints not responded to
One-quarter (26%) of complaints made against services were not acted on by the Ministry because the complainant had not first made a complaint to the service concerned. In nearly all cases the Ministry did not contact the service to check if it had received or responded to the complaint or put in place a plan to support the service to do so.
Often these complainants did not proceed and dropped their complaint with the Ministry. For example one complainant told the Ministry of concerns for child safety at the service and that they had left the service because of this. Instead of visiting and inspecting the service the complainant was told to check the service's complaints procedure and suggested a further conversation with it (even though the family had left the service). The complainant was advised to contact the Ministry if there was no resolution. Understandably, the complainant made no further contact with the ministry.
It’s not possible to know from the information released if the Ministry is getting better at investigating
No detail on actions/ progress of investigation for each complaint and dates is provided. Without dates and list of actions (as supplied with complaints in 2012) it is hard to get a sense of how thorough, how timely, and how long parents or others have had to wait.
The public’s right to know is not supported
The Ministry has not acknowledged a public right to know about complaints of a serious nature and serious incidents at early childhood services. Parents should be able to access this information if they are enrolled at a service or before choosing to enrol. A reason for a summary format and not naming services linked to complaints was protection of commercial position and the privacy of natural persons. It would seem that protection of commercial position remains a priority, as it has not informed the public and parents of the names of services at which complaints of a serious nature were upheld.
There is support within the early childhood sector for transparency, for services to be named, and for services to be given opportunity to show how they have improved. The Ministry is continuing to let the sector down in not supporting and not leading the way for transparency. See a copy of what people say and past survey results here
It claims in its information release that it shares findings for other services to learn from each complaint. This would be helpful for the sector for improvement and for self-review if the Ministry starts to do this – as it does not. Currently complaints and serious incidents are kept hush, and services learn mainly through the media or community gossip about what’s happened and what has gone wrong, and this is the main way they are alerted to what might need to be checked to make sure something similar does not happen at their service.
Ministry has blind confidence in standard compliance and not knowledge
It claims that approximately 98% of services met or exceeded licensing requirements in 2016. How does it know this? It is not explained.
This appears to be blind confidence because:
(1) the Ministry states in its information release that it relies on parents to come forward and tell it if a service is not meeting regulation standards (assuming that all parents know and understand the regulations, feel safe to report and have the time and knowledge to report), and
(2) that the Ministry may not visit a service and check on standards for years after it is licenced and not unless there is a reason such as a complaint or an incident to do so .
The complaints system needs to be reviewed
The Ministry does not acknowledge the possibility of under-reporting and deficiencies in its system.
- I know of matters not involving child safety, but nevertheless serious including fraud and overcharging when a parent has decided not to proceed to tell the Ministry. To do so might result in them being seen to be a troublemaker by the service, and they don’t want to cause trouble or jeopardise their child’s care.
- I know of teachers who have been told by employers and managers that if they complain they will not get a job elsewhere in the sector. I know of teachers who have expressed concerns about a standard such as staffing ratios not being met, who have been threatened that their teacher registration may not be signed off if they are not happy with working conditions.
- There is a strong expectation that in all cases parents and others will complain to the service first, but not always is it safe to complain and not always does a person want to be identified to the service as a complainant.