The 2011 Election results mean we will see a government very similar to that which we have had over the past three years, but with National having a larger share of seats in the House and therefore, possibly, a stronger ability to do whatever it wants.
Early childhood education was not a key election issue this time round; in fact ECE barely featured in pre-election media coverage.
One explanation for this may be that the Labour campaign floundered and did not provide voters with enough fresh and attractive policy around ECE. Another may be that the lobby groups are losing their influence within the sector. Or perhaps voters were not convinced by Labour’s costings even though they liked the ideas.
When National came in to government three years ago, the finance minister made it a priority to rein in government spending. In ECE it was felt spending had spiralled out of control as more families than expected took up the 20 hours scheme and ECE providers raced to increase their numbers of registered teachers in order to obtain higher funding rates. To contain this spending the government chose a route which would reduce the influence of teachers, the unions and the community-led ECE sector.
During the three years of this National led government many parents have seen their childcare costs increase and teachers have seen opportunities for things such as professional development reduce. Standards have been revised such as increasing licence size from 50 to 150 children and from 25 to 75 infants. The target of having 80% qualified teachers was put off from 2010 to a review in 2012 and funding for centres with more than 80% qualified teachers has been scrapped.
Before the 2008 election National put forward the following policy for ECE:
- “Enhance” the 20 Hours Free ECE funding by extending it to all licensed ECE services and lifting the 6 hour a day limit
- Tackle teacher shortages, with the main proposal being to allow foreign trained teachers to qualify after a 6 week course
- Increase the teacher-child ratio in centres and make it a requirement for centres to ensure under-2s are taught by at least 50% of staff who are registered teachers
- Reduce bureaucracy for early childhood centres
- Boost participation in early childhood care and education
There have been mixed results for the implementation of these policies during their first term. The 20 hours scheme has been extended to Playcentres and Kohanga Reo but the six hour a day limit remains in place. The teacher shortage has instead been tackled by reducing the percentage of qualified teachers funded in centres and moving back the timeframe for reaching 80% qualified teachers. Teacher ratio changes have not been made and no requirement has been introduced to ensure employers do not place all of their 50% of qualified teachers with older children only and leave infants with unqualified staff. Little has been done to reduce bureaucracy; some form filling has been done away with but early childhood services report they have as much if not more bureaucracy to deal with now than under the previous Labour-led government. In regards to boosting participation a programme of funding providers to establish new ECE services or to expand their current numbers has been stepped up. Also, more money is being spent on convincing families to enrol their child in a licensed ECE service. So far however this does not seem to have had a significant effect on participation statistics nationally.
In the lead up to this election National said it would:
- Set a target of 98% of new entrants in school having participated in early childhood education, to be met by 2015.
- Lift ECE attendance rates in areas of low participation especially among Maori and Pasifika children.
- Bring back mobile ECE services (kindergartens?) for rural areas.
- Maintain 20 hours ECE funding and the current fee controls for 20 hours ECE.
- Make available interactive web tools for parents to provide information about local ECE services.
- Develop a new model of funding ECE services that is flexible and reduces bureaucracy, while retaining the universal 20 hours early childhood education scheme.
- Maintain a diverse range of ECE services.
- Maintain funding for Playcentres and Kohanga Reo.
The incoming government will be strikingly similar in party make-up to the last and National has indicated that controlling spending is an on-going issue even though the party has indicated it wants to increase participation.
Therefore we may expect that more of the cost for ECE will shift to parents, rather than be paid for by the government. The cost per child in early childhood programmes may decrease as the government seeks to increase the number of children participating while reducing costs either by lowering staff costs or further loosening regulations.
The target to have 98% of new entrants having participated in ECE by 2015 may see more pressure put on parents by the government to enrol their child in ECE or perhaps be seen to be disadvantaging their child along with stronger targeting of Maori and Pasifika children and those from low-income areas. Primary school principals may also see pressure to request parents to indicate any kind of ECE use in order to try and meet targets.
The introduction of National Standards and possible league tables in primary schools may have an effect on ECE with greater emphasis placed on achievable and observable outcomes. This may place more pressure on ECE services which may well be expected to monitor and provide evidence of these outcomes themselves.
There is a risk that National may be seen as seeking to institutionalise children with policies such as its 98% participation rate and to rate early childhood education as better than parenting. Between National’s 2008 Election ECE policy and its 2011 policy there has been a subtle but noteworthy change in emphasis. The 2008 Policy paper was titled “Early Childhood Care and Education Policy: YOUR FAMILY – YOUR CHOICE”. The 2011 Election ECE policy is titled “Supporting Early Childhood Education”. Note that the word “care” is dropped in National’s ECE Policy along with the emphasis on “family” and “choice”. ECE participation has been climbing steadily anyway, but by stating targets as election policy and seemingly reducing the element of choice around ECE, National risks alienating parents and therefore voters.