Dr Sarah Alexander
The most basic expectation every parent has when using an early childhood service is that their child will come home alive and unharmed at the end of the day.
However, this is the situation: The Ministry of Education acknowledges limitations on its involvement in making sure children are safe.
In April 2019, the Secretary for Education Iona Holsted and two of her officials agreed to meet with myself and the parents of a toddler who nearly died in 2016 at a Rotorua early childhood centre and now has permanent brain injury after choking on raw apple. The meeting came after the release of a report into the handling of the tragic incident which received considerable media and public interest. In its statements to the media the ministry made some serious errors - a rebuttal to the ministry's statements can be found here.
A good thing that came out of the meeting was that the child’s parents received an apology from the ministry for never having had any contact with them and for not knowing of the family’s complaints about the standard of Worksafe’s report.
But unfortunately, change is probably not going to happen any time soon and here’s why.
First, the ministry takes a view that all early childhood services are private entities and it can have no degree of authority over them. Nearly all early childhood services in NZ are not owned by the State, however, this does not let the ministry off the hook. Services are publicly-funded and the ministry’s job is to ensure that all services meet the Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations 2008. The ministry cares about children’s safety but perhaps it does not care enough to take a stronger role.
Second, when the Ministry of Education receives a report of a serious incident concerning a child its first action is not to check what it can do to support the family and what the family wants to happen, its first action is to support the service provider. It does not view families as having a right to know and be kept informed - it expects families to accept what happened and move on.
Unless a complaint is made the ministry may not look immediately and properly into what happened, and many parents do not know or understand this. It is so unfair to leave it in the hands of families to lay a formal complaint following a serious incident and when they are already under extreme stress and have enough to cope with. There is also a problem that the current system places parents at risk of being seen to be a ‘nark’ or ‘snitch’ should they lay a complaint - potentially destroying relationships they have with teachers and community members which is unfair on everyone involved.
Third, the Ministry of Education hesitates to and can step away from enforcing health matters for children in early childhood education. For example, following the release of the report into the choking incident the Director-General of the Ministry of Health informed the Ministry of Education that the “relevant Ministry of Health guidelines are clear on the need to avoid raw apple in toddlers and preschoolers due to the choking risk”. However, the Ministry of Education continues to allow services to do what the Ministry of Health says is dangerous to do – which is to give high risk food to high risk children.
Yet, the regulations are very clear in requiring early childhood service providers to:
- take all reasonable steps to promote the good health and safety of children (Regulation 46, 1a),
- take all reasonable precautions to prevent accidents among children (Regulation 46, 1b), and
- ensure that no child is ill-treated (Regulation 56, 1).
Back in 2008 the Ministry of Education promised the parents of a 14-month old who died after choking on raw apple that it would require services to grate or cook apple. It still has not followed through on its promise.
Fourth, ineffective monitoring by the Ministry of Education sees itself focusing on keeping service owners and what it calls 'peak bodies' happy at the expense of keeping children safe.
The Rotorua centre where the choking incident occurred was earlier found to have some major licence breaches which included, among other issues, having children in a loft space that was not fire safety approved. The breaches were not found through a routine monitoring visit because the ministry does not do regular inspections, the breaches were found only because a change of ownership of the centre triggered the need to issue a new licence. The centre's licence was not downgraded to provisional - the decision not to put the centre on a provisional licence until such time as it complied with regulations was made after a phone call the ministry received from the service's chief executive. Therefore, major breaches in compliance at the centre were kept quiet.
The ministry said no to the requests of parents and myself to add to its licensing criteria that high risk food should not be provided to children of high risk of choking (which is a simple change it could make as opposed to a regulation change that must go to Parliament for approval). The explanation I was given was that that it would not do this immediately or soon to improve child safety, because it could spark requests for other changes to licensing regulations and criteria and create a lot of work for it. Yet, just recently the ministry announced it will seek to change the Education Regulations to loosen requirements on staff training in early childhood education because this is what some 'peak bodies' requested that it do.
Iona Holstead said at the meeting in April 2019 that she would make it a priority to review the early childhood education regulations. A review has since been announced; however, we have not been approached for input and I have seen no indication that any regulation changes will be squarely about what is best for children and not influenced by politics.
The fifth reason why we are unlikely to see improvement is that the Ministry of Education leaves serious incidents affecting children to Worksafe. When Worksafe starts to investigate the ministry steps back from any involvement. But in every case the ministry should be involved since Worksafe focuses on compliance with the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and does not have expertise to understand young children and the unique culture of early childhood service environments.
In summary, it seems that the Ministry of Education’s over-riding response is to shrug off its responsibility to ensure children’s safety. It passes the buck to:
- the providers of ECE services, whom it says it has no degree of authority over as private entities;
- parents, who in any case are unlikely to be aware that the ministry may not look into what happened to their child unless they lay a formal complaint against their service;
- the Ministry of Health, even though its not the Ministry of Health’s job to enforce the Education (ECE Services) regulations for health and safety; and
- Worksafe, who it leaves to investigate serious incidents affecting children in ECE.
Perhaps my conclusion is this: What is the point of the whole licensing regime when it is quite clearly failing our children.
It would seem that publicly-funded licensed early childhood education may not, in reality, be any safer for a child than being in informal care such as with a babysitter or neighbour.
An external review of the Ministry of Education’s regulatory work to ensure child safety in early childhood education services is needed. Nothing will change unless the problems are brought out into the open and honestly and properly addressed.
This opinion is based on:
- my review of evidence of what happened concerning the Rotorua toddler who nearly died in 2016 and now has permanent brain injury after eating raw apple provided by his early childhood service;
- my meeting this year with the Secretary for Education Iona Holsted, two of her officials and the parents of the toddler;
- being contacted by many other families and people in the early childhood sector concerning serious incidents and learning from them about their struggle to get accountability and to see changes are made to prevent something similar from happening to another child;
- the work I’ve done since 2012 in encouraging the Ministry of Education to be more upfront about how it handles complaints against ECE services and publish complaints that are upheld so parents can be informed of potential dangers and problems; and
- my experience of working in the early childhood sector over the past 30 plus years.
Some further articles
First prosecution of an ECE Service Owner by Worksafe following injury to staff and toddlers - Ongoing problems of compliance with Education Regulations at numerous centres under the same owners but Ministry provides support for operation of centres operating in breach of regulations vs taking its regulatory role seriously