Minister Comes Clean on ECE Taskforce Purpose and Playcentre is Saved

© ChildForum

The ECE Taskforce has caused fear and division in the early childhood sector. For the national government this is a good thing. It will be easier, and faster to reshape the sector into its vision.

Just days away from the close of submissions on the ECE Taskforce Report recommendations, the political agenda behind appointing only representatives from teacher-led ECE centres and not from playcentre, kohanga reo, and home-based ECE was revealed.

First Education Minister Anne Tolley said she was disappointed there was some scaremongering over the future of Playcentres and Kohanga Reo. Then she announced funding would not be cut from playcentre.

This is a significant promise going into the general election

A lot of hours in writing submissions, in lobbying, and in stress for people whose time was taken away from children could have been saved.

Her announcement gave a strong hint to childcare centres especially but also to full-day kindergartens that their funding is not as safe as they thought it might be after the taskforce's recommendation to prioritise teacher-led services. 

This is because the saving is going to have to come from somewhere and if it does not come from parent-led services this leaves open the possibility that it will come from teacher-led.

Some of the recent policy changes, such as allowing services with multiple licences to change to a single licence and save on wage costs by spreading qualified teachers across centres on the same site, have perhaps helped to fuel the confidence of teacher-led centre services that they will come out relatively okay.

The ‘other’ part of the ECE sector is only becoming stronger in identity and is winning public/media and government support as a result of the ECE Taskforce bias and the Minster's announcement.

It is notable that the big ECE teacher-led lobbyists, like the Early Childhood Council, NZ Childcare Assn, and the Teachers’ Union, had not spoken out and issued press releases in support of parent-led and home-based services.

In future, it’s going to be harder for teacher-led services to count on the support of ‘other’ early childhood services to fight against any regulation or funding changes they don’t like, as happened when the Early Childhood Council called on Kohanga Reo for support against a regulation for separate closed-door sleep-rooms.

For Kohanga Reo the ECE Taskforce report was the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. The Kohanga Reo Trust has been tolerant for years of the manipulations of government and misunderstanding of its philosophy and purpose and methods.

Having had enough of being treated as just another ECE service and an inferior one at that, Kohanga Reo is now pursuing separation.

As long as Kohanga Reo as a minority, stays lumped in with the majority, and is not understood, equitable provision for the education of young Maori children and outcomes will not be achieved.

Meanwhile Playcentre has been effective in a running a campaign (which Labour picked up on) that could be seen as leading Mrs Tolley to give her assurances on funding for parent-led services.

In the home-based ECE part of the sector, the lack of qualified educators in homes was an issue identified by the Taskforce. However this problem was already being worked on and advocated by the Home-based ECE Association.

The Taskforce's suggested funding cut of up to 80% for home-based simply can not happen unless kindergarten and childcare centre funding is reduced by a similar percentage. Home-based services are the fastest growing part of the ECE sector and are already more cost effective per child place.

Massively cutting funding to home-based would force closures and shift children to kindergartens and childcare centres costing the taxpayer much more in the end.

There are important differences between the two major parties. National is known for pushing the parenting side of early childhood education while Labour puts more emphasis on promoting women’s involvement in paid work and the childcare side of ECE. 

Recall, for example, Finance Minister Bill English’s comments when he was the opposition party spokesperson for Early Childhood Education: 

Helen Clark told the Parliament that if all the women who stay home went to work, the economy could be 5% bigger. Children weren't mentioned. The Government believes women are just sitting at home doing nothing and going shopping when they get bored. And the women who do work apparently aren’t working hard enough. The Prime Minister wants them to get out a few hours earlier in the morning and work out a few more hours at night, because otherwise they will have too much spare time.
I just can’t get comfortable with 6 month old babies spending 10 hours a day in a centre looked after by a teacher.
I have read hundreds of pages of official documents about the government’s policy on early childhood and parents don’t get a mention.
Sometimes I wonder why they let us take our kids home to our unlicensed premises to be looked after by unqualified parents. (13/2/2005, Prime Minister wants to send mums out to work)  

As government worked to increase its control over the early childhood sector through regulation and funding, Playcentre and Kohanga Reo were ‘ghettoised’.

Neither service type fitted neatly into the policy view of ECE as an economic good and as a key strategy for enabling women to participate in paid work through access to high quality affordable childcare.

Home-based ECE has grown because of parent demand but it has still been marginalised within the sector because its mode of delivery is home-based and not in an institutional setting. 

The unintended or perhaps intended (?), consequence of setting up a Taskforce strongly biased in representation of the teacher-led centre part of the sector, which not surprisingly made recommendations favouring this part of the sector, is that the ECE sector may never be the same again.

As a result of the furore caused by the Taskforce report, what we are likely to see is some re-balancing of priorities and ideology in policy and in the early childhood sector.

Parents may start to get a mention.

Should National continue to hold power after the election, expect to see greater valuing of early education as a good in and of itself for social and cultural reasons.   

Parents who want childcare will likely be asked to contribute more toward the cost.

This doesn't mean that 20 Hours ECE funding will necessarily go overnight.

But we could see some remodelling of the scheme to make it more cost-effective; and so it favours early education as a right for all children, over childcare.

For example research shows that children who experience sessional ECE (i.e. around 2 ½ - 3 hours a day) get the same intellectual, social and cognitive benefits as those who attend for longer.

So, one road the government might take would be to reduce the number of hours of eligibility per day from 6 to 3 thereby giving more children access to ECE and change the rules so services can not charge top-up fees on the free ECE. 

ECE will however always be a political battlefield until such time as parties reach some common agreement and we have a vision and consistency in policy regardless of who is in government.

So in this respect nothing has changed and we can't  expect to see the lobbying stop anytime soon.


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