The early years are recognised by most as crucial to a child’s development and it is often said that investing more money in early childhood education and those early years can save millions of dollars in the long-term and improve society as a whole by catching children before they develop problems.
Funding for quality early childhood education has already been a talking point recently with the Government reducing the targets for qualified teachers from 100% to 80% in a bid to cut spending and a push to increase participation in what are often seen as at-risk sections of New Zealand such as Maori and Pacific Island communities.
Just over one month out from the election a number of parties including the current Government – National – have yet to release their official policies for early childhood education.
ChildForum has contacted each party to ask for its ECE policy but so far not all have replied. Of those that have the main talking points seem fairly obvious – the percentage of qualified teachers, the 20hours subsidy scheme and staff to child ratios are mentioned by most
At first reading it seems that most of the parties will be campaigning on similar promises.
For example most of the parties which have released ECE policy so far have said they will restore funding in some way to increase the number of qualified teachers back to the previous 100% target.
The notable exception to this is the National Party which, of course, reduced the qualified teacher percentage to 80% and looks likely to stick by this decision. National has stated many times that it needs to control spending in some areas in order to increase spending in others and the reduction in qualified teachers to 80% is a major way for it to reduce that spending. What is unclear so far is how those parties campaigning to restore the higher ratio would fund it.
Staff to child ratios is also a popular area for debate with United Future and the Green Party being particularly specific in this area.
The Greens’ policy sets out the following specific ratios for each age group:
- 1:3 for under-twos with a group size of no more than 6 children
- 1:5 for two to three-year-olds with a group size of no more than 12 children
- 1:8 for over-threes with a group size of no more than 24 children
United Future states it would prioritise staff to child ratios for each age group as a condition of funding for ECE centres.
The 20hours free subsidy also looks like it will be an election issue once again with most parties stating they would continue to provide a subsidised number of hours for 3 and 4 year olds.
However Government subsidies are coming under scrutiny from some of the smaller parties, with the Mana Party saying that although it would restore funding for teacher-led ECE centres, they would "phase out public funding for profit-driven centres".
United Future has also said it wants to make sure government funding is reflected in costs passed on to parents by requiring services to disclose what proportion of their fees are funded by the taxpayer.
National has said previously it intends to use some of its ECE budget to increase ECE participation among specific groups such as Maori and Pacific Island communities and this is also included in other parties’ policies.
The Green Party would support improved resources for community based not for profit services such as Kohanga Reo and Pacific Island language nests while the Mana Party devotes a large part of its ECE policy statement to Kohanga Reo which it says needs an independent review. It would increase funding for Kohanga Reo but would also seek to increase training for leaders and managers.
Several of the parties talk of using ECE centres and services as hubs within their communities and of promoting parent, whanau and community involvement.
United Future is particularly focused on parents as primary educators and says parents are "drivers of their children’s education, implicitly and explicitly". It would like to pilot using ECE centres as contact points for things such as parenting courses and health and counselling services as well as expanding programmes such as PAFT (Parents as First Teachers) and HIPPY (Home Interaction Programme for Parents and Youngsters) to families other than those deemed at risk.
Labour and the Greens have also indicated they would try and increase parent, whanau and community involvement. The Green Party has also stated it would aim to encourage mothers to breastfeed their children in ECE services and investigate the idea of providing free healthy breakfasts in all ECE centres.
One policy area not directly related to ECE but likely to have a knock-on effect which could also become a talking point is paid parental leave. This is an area which has been debated for some time and Labour, the Green Party, United Future and the Mana Party have all stated that they would seek to increase the period of paid parental leave. If this were to be the case it may have an effect on ECE with new parents perhaps making different decisions on how long to stay at home with their child and how to use ECE.
While National Standards in schools has been the focus of talk about education recently, the early childhood sector still has plenty of interest this election, particularly if National sticks to its decision to reduce the number of qualified teachers.