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In the Education Ministry we place our trust to enforce ECE minimum standards and practices but it is letting us down

Opinion article
Dr Sarah Alexander

hand n hand trustThe names of early childhood education services breaching minimum standards in 2017 is grim reading. The list has just been released and is published on the My ECE parents’ website. (view the list)

The number of services that had licences reclassified as provisional is more than double the number in 2016.  

Since the Ministry of Education does not make the decision to put a service on a provisional licence lightly - it says it weighs up factors such as immediate risks to children’s safety, the number of licence breaches and the severity of the breaches - this could be taken as evidence that quality in early childhood education is slipping.

Disturbing also is what it brings to light about the way the Ministry approaches its responsibility as the regulatory body. 

The Ministry is letting us down in taking a reactive approach and not engaging in prevention through active monitoring.

Ministry officials are not getting out and visiting early childhood services at random.  Annual or biannual compliance checks are not undertaken as a matter of course.  Compliance is largely left up to trust in the service provider and as we’ve seen in several cases in recent years, children and families can experience the disastrous consequences of this.  

One example from the 2017 list of ECE services with breaches is the Discoveries centre group.  A serious incident occurred in November 2016 at a Discoveries centre when several children were injured, one critically, after a tree fell on them.   Had this not happened, perhaps the Ministry would not have visited the centre again a year later near the end of 2017 and also the other 12 Discoveries centres and picked up that they were all operating with licence breaches.

A second example concerns PORSE – a nationwide home-based early childhood organisation. At a PORSE home a 5-month-old left was left with brain injuries, a broken arm and detached retinas. The educator who inflicted the injuries was sentenced to 12 months home detention and 200 hours community work at the Christchurch District Court in Sept 2017. According to the court news the judge said the educator was young and immature in a job where she was seriously out of her depth. The judge declined to comment on the checking that was done before her employment, without giving PORSE an opportunity under natural justice to comment.  This case of abuse may have been behind the Ministry having a major blitz on PORSE in 2017 and on Au Pair Link owned by the same company as PORSE. Forty-two PORSE services and seven Au Pair Link services were found to have been operating with various and often multiple standards breaches. 

Choicekids provides another example.  The Choicekids Ormiston Road centre was reported in the news to have opened without a licence in August 2017. The Ministry moved to close it so children could not attend until it was licenced. The Ministry then carried out visits to other Choicekids centres and discovered breaches at these centres serious enough to reclassify licences to provisional.

Regulations exist for a reason.  Regulations for Childcare Centres were introduced in 1960 because it was believed that enforcement of minimum standards and practices would go a long way to protect children’s safety and health and reduce the exploitation of children, according to Otago University Prof Helen May in her book 'Politics in the Playground'.

But what we are seeing now is that regulations alone are not enough to protect children’s health and safety and prevent or reduce exploitation.

Only in the last year and a half has the Ministry started to actively use Education Review Office confirmed ECE reports to identify services to watch. This isn’t a full-proof method of identification as ERO focuses on systems not on practices.  And amazingly, ERO is under no legal obligation to share information about any known or alleged breaches with the Ministry. 

Before carrying out a review ERO gives lots of notice to enable services to get records up to scratch and put on the best show possible for review day.  It can give a positive report to a service that is later discovered after a serious incident to have major safety or other problems.

A case could be made for diverting the public funding spent on ECE reviews by ERO to the Ministry to enable it to better monitor services and enforce standards. 

Monitoring and enforcement are important and the Ministry of Education needs to have more staffing and resources to do this. 

I have noticed in looking at ERO reports for community-based services with parent involvement or that rely on volunteers that they can be pulled up for things such as not doing regular staff appraisals, which suggests no intention to breach regulations but rather a need for support. 

It would be wonderful if the Ministry considered bring back liaison officers like in the old Department of Education days, who would visit services at least once a year, sometimes more often, checking that all was going well and providing advice and support.  What do you think?   Add your comments below 

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