To uplift standards of service provision in the sector, the Ministry of Education is keen to tighten up on services that cycle on and off provisional licences.
As part of reviewing the current Education (Early Childhood Services) Regulations, the Ministry is considering if there should be a maximum number of times that an ECE service can be placed on a provisional licence before it gets its licence to operate withdrawn, and what that number should be set at. This would not affect any other services owned by a service provider.
However, what say the problem is at the level of the service provider – should there be a way of assessing the practices and competency of the provider?
Keep these questions in mind as you read the following case story, and form your own view on how well the current licensing system works when it comes to protecting children’s health and safety.
New Shoots Children’s Centre: A glimpse behind the scenes
In 2018 a New Shoots Children’s Centre in Cameron Road, Tauranga had its licence downgraded from a full licence to a provisional one by the Ministry of Education. In late 2019 the same centre was again placed on a provisional licence due to non-compliance with legal minimum requirements for child health and safety.
The latest available Education Review Office report dated 21 August 2015, states that the centre is “very well placed” to promote learning outcomes for children and will be reviewed again in four years.
The centre is advertised to parents as one that has been "architecturally designed". It is licensed for 124 children (including 40 babies) and operates from 6am to 6pm. Based on a search of the NZ Companies Register the centre is owned by Michelle Pratt and Nikki Prendergast, with some shareholders that include private equity managers.
Parents felt they had been kept in the dark about licence breaches. So, a request for information about the Tauranga centre was made to the Ministry of Education under the Official Information Act (OIA).
Seven months after the OIA request was made the Ministry responded to the request. (See Note 1 below for details of how this was outside the legal requirement of 20 working days and only after the Ombudsman’s Office began to investigate).
Here’s what we know from the very little information the Ministry agreed to release.
At the Tauranga centre and at a second New Shoots Children’s centre in Papamoa on 7 June 2018, children were able to leave undetected. A comment made internally within the Ministry of Education about the separate incidents at two different New Shoots Children’s centres was that the service provider’s supervision plan and management had failed.
It is possible, but we cannot be certain, that the ‘escapee’ from the Tauranga centre was a young toddler or had little speech because the person who found the child outside a café, had to search for where the child belonged.
“The service had no idea the child was missing until the alarm was raised by the person from the public who inquired at the centre (showing the centre Director a photo of the child) to see if the child was enrolled at the service. The Centre director went with the member of the public to see if the (word redacted) belonged with the centre and found (redacted) did.”
As part of its investigation into the child escape at the Tauranga centre the Ministry noted that the inside and outside premises were free flowing and the layout was such that children were always visible to teachers. Children were observed on a tree branch overhanging the centre fence line, talking to people at the bus stop. Additional aspects suggested within the Ministry that officers should investigate were: ratios and disengaged teachers.
The centre was placed on a provisional licence on 18 or 20 July 2018. The conditions to be met that were placed on the provisional licence were:
- To provide a robust supervision plan that details how staff will take all reasonable steps to promote good health and safety practices of all children enrolled.
- To provide evidence of positions and role descriptions showing a full induction with staff, including supervision responsibilities.
- To ensure all outdoor activity space is enclosed so children are not able to leave the premises unnoticed.
Then on 13 December 2019 the same centre was downgraded to a provisional licence again. This was because of an incident on 14 November 2019 involving non-compliant climbing equipment and resulting in a child breaking their collarbone. The equipment had been brought inside from outside, without provision of safety matting and checking for suitability within the indoor environment.
The child’s parent was not contacted until 45 minutes after the incident. The concerned parent arrived at the centre and took their child to the Emergency and Accident Department, where upon it was noticed that the child was favouring their right shoulder.
When the parent phoned the service for details for ACC, the service claimed the incident was unseen.
The service provider did not report the serious injury incident to the Ministry of Education. It is understood that the child’s parent informed the Ministry by making a formal complaint against the centre.
The Ministry of Education noted that there was “disparity between (the service’s) Supervision of Children Procedure and practice” as per the service’s documentation. The conditions to be met that were placed on the provisional licence were:
- To provide a supervision plan that shows how staff will be deployed so children are always supervised. Evidence that all staff are able to implement the plan.
- To ensure that children who fall ill or are injured are given appropriate care.
- To ensure that all items used by children are safe and suitable for their intended use.
On 31st January this year, the Ministry received another new complaint against the centre from a family concerning communication with parents and health and safety practices. It upheld the complaint. But because the issues occurred while the centre was on a provisional licence there was no new licensing consequence for the centre recorded or issued. (It escaped being placed on a provisional licence for a third time).
The family who made the complaint were unaware that the Ministry was already investigating the centre.
“We did not know that New Shoots has been put on Official notice. This was not because of us, so someone else must have laid a formal complaint too. That is very surprising to know, but also is what I've come to expect from the owner. They have hidden the truth and key information from parents like us the entire time we have been there. We didn't even know they were on a provisional licence in 2018 due to breach of health and safety.”
The family told the Ministry about incidents concerning the youngest of their two children at the centre. The child was 10 months when she went unconscious and stopped breathing and after coming back around staff phoned her mother to let her know and told her they put her down for a sleep because she was crying and they thought she was tired. The mother decided to leave work to check on her daughter and took her to the local Hospital Emergency Department. The child was found to have Influenza A with respiratory distress and was admitted to the Paediatric ward. (Note that type A influenza infection can be serious and cause widespread outbreaks and disease.)
Allegedly, days prior at morning drop off, a senior member of the teaching team commented to the mother that she felt unwell, had Influenza A and was going to have to take some time off. That afternoon, at pick up, the same teacher said she had enjoyed lovely cuddles with their baby that day.
In January this year, there were 4 separate incidents involving the child who was by then 18-months-old. One incident recorded was a slight graze to her big right toe. But the parents found a second toe was also grazed and both were unprotected and covered with dirt and sand, resulting in blood infection with infected sores covering her body and the child requiring repeated doses of antibiotics.
The family withdrew their youngest child from the centre but continued to take their older child who was soon to graduate to school. The area manager and a service owner met with the family on 5th February to discuss their concerns.
On the 11th February the mother said she noticed on the sign in / sign out form that there had been 14 incidents recorded for children in the room and she later asked Ms Prendergast about this. In an email to the mother Ms Prendergast stated: “It is clear to me at this point with the continued communication around your dissatisfaction with New Shoots Tauranga and our management we have come to the conclusion that Tauranga is not the centre for you and your family. We hereby cease (child’s name) enrolment at New Shoots Tauranga (as per the terms and conditions on your enrolment attached) effective the 26th of Feb 2020 … I have forwarded this email to (name) at the ministry to ensure she is also fully informed of the current situation.”
But after the child received a head injury on the morning of 14th February and the mother tried to find out more details about this from a teacher, the family received an email from the service stating that neither parent was welcome in the centre again and that their older child’s enrolment was terminated effective immediately. It was claimed that the mother’s questioning made the teacher feel unsafe. The mother however believed that the teacher feared management, as the teacher kept saying "I'm going to get in trouble" and the mother kept reassuring her that it was fine.
Information obtained from the OIA request reveals that the Ministry gave feedback to the service about the poor standard of its accident recording. It told that the service that:
“a number of records used emotive words and dismissive language to describe the incidents/ accidents (and) could potentially cause parents unnecessary distress”.
The Ministry of Education asked the service provider to provide a progress report that details progress and evidence of meeting HS27 (aiming to uphold health and safety of children by ensuring that children who are injured are given appropriate care) by the 20th August, even though the centre had its full licence restored in April 2020.
The Ministry felt that while the service provider had policies and procedures in place, its ability when it came to embedding practice was a challenge to it.
Since 2018, New Shoots has expanded its financial operations and has opened or is opening a further 6 purpose-built centres.
The OIA request was made on 13 March 2020. By law an OIA request must be responded to no later than 20 working days after being received. The Ministry of Education sent two letters of delay, one on 27 April 2020 stating that a definitive date by which it would respond could not be given. A second letter on 8 June stated that a reply would be given by the end of June 2020 and there was approximately 200 pages of information. On 30 July 2020 an email was sent to the Ministry noting that a reply had been promised by the end of June and asking when it would be sent because it had not yet been received. On 28 August another email was sent to the Ministry asking when it would respond, but again no reply was received. The Ombudsman’s Office then became involved, resulting in the Ministry responding on 6 October. The Ministry apologised for the delay which was well outside its statutory obligations. It stated that there were in excess of 470 pages of information, of which it provided just 57 pages (and 12 of these pages were photocopied duplicates which meant only 45 pages in total). Most of the 45 pages comprised ministry staff workflow documents, with repetitive sections, and with some sections blacked out (redacted).
The Ministry clearly tried to avoid releasing information on the centre owned by Nikki Prendergast and Michelle Pratt with shareholders. This gives rise to a question of why? Without all the information perhaps we will never know.
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