What the rise in ECE complaints in 2018 tells us

yelling at childDr Sarah Alexander

Recorded complaints against early childhood services made to the Ministry of Education have risen by more than a quarter, from 339 in 2017 to 430 in 2018.

The ministry says that a big rise in the number of complaints against early childhood services is due to reticence by parents up to now to report on their service. But there is no evidence of a substantial change in the reticence of parents to come forward with complaints. More likely it is an indication that improvements in the sector are not being made and the risk of things going wrong continues to increase.

There are significant limitations on the ministry’s involvement in making sure children are safe. Among the limitations is the fact that the ministry can only uphold a complaint against a service if it identifies an actual licence breach.  

It did not for example uphold a complaint that a person with a conviction for child abuse was working with children (as a volunteer) because the service said that the person did not work alone with children and no breach in regulation was identified. 

However, if you were a parent would you not be horrified to learn that a person whose lap your child might sit in while having a story read for example, has a previous conviction for child abuse, that this was allowed, and that it was kept secret from you?  

Whatever the number of complaints, complaints only matter if the ministry properly investigates these, and evidence to date is that often this is not the case.

Furthermore, complaints are too easily dismissed or not looked into properly. 

But complaints are driven by genuine concerns.

The Ministry is known to decline to look into complaints, concerning for example physical restraint or other child abuse, unless a specific incident or incidents and dates and times are provided to it.  It then shares this with the service provider who could potentially identify the complainant from this. In all such cases the ministry should do its own research by immediately going in to observe practice and talk with all persons at the service but instead it puts the onus onto complainants.

If the Ministry desires to be true to its word that "nothing is more important than the safety and wellbeing of our children," (Katrina Casey, MoE) then it will stop picking and choosing which complaints it looks into and instead put time into looking into every complaint a complaint about even a small matter may be a first sign that something more is going on.    

Dealing with the Ministry’s complaints process is not easy.

Complainants put themselves at risk of never getting another job in the sector or of having their child badly treated because they have snitched. There is also a risk that the service provider might try to come after them through lawyers and, or sue for defamation or loss of business.

The safest option for complainants currently is to go through a third party and lodge their complaint with the website for parents www.myece.org.nz 

When a complainant contacts the ministry directly the ministry checks that they have first gone through the service’s own complaints process.

There is promised but little actual protection for complainants of their identity.

The Ministry of Education should make available for parents the names of services that it has upheld complaints against of a serious nature – that is not too much ask.

A sample of complaints upheld by the Ministry included:

  • Service operated without enough qualified teachers and first aiders at all times.
  • A child sustained a broken wrist, grazes and bruising. The service did not notify the parent of the accident or seek medical help for the child.
  • A child was physically restrained and spoken to in a derogatory manner.
  • Physical and verbal abuse, a lack of response from the service provider, concerns with ratios and pay rates for staff.
  • Food withheld as a strategy for managing child behaviour.
  • Service falsified records and concerns regarding the number of accidents that had occurred at the service.
  • Service required sick teachers to come to work, failed to complete daily hazard checks, did not deliver a full curriculum, and bullied teachers.
  • Contact details for a child were for the wrong parents.
  • Babies cried throughout the day and the service did not meet minimum adult to child ratios.
  • Unqualified staff communicating with parents and changing nappies, concerns with the number of relievers being used, and staff were stressed.
  • Child over six years old attended the service and travelled in the van that provided transportation to and from the service. The van was inadequately supervised.
  • Multiple concerns including inappropriate food handling, ratios not being met, noise issues, supervision issues, and a lack of cleaning, poor food and high staff turnover.
  • Service was not meeting ratios, was not helping with toilet training, not meeting transport requirements, not informing parents after the outbreak of various illnesses, and staff argued with each other.
  • Asked to enter false information into the services enrolment system to indicate correct ratios when ratios were not met.
  • No qualified staff on duty.
  • Child's enrolment cancelled due to a need for learning support.
  • Person responsible had not visited a home for four months and safety concerns at the home.
  • Children were force-fed, verbally abused, had toys snatched from them and thrown, and other incidents. 

See a 2018 press release here - Education Ministry Failing its Own Standards

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