Early childhood education looks set to become a requirement (compulsory) for around 31,500 3 and 4 year old New Zealand children.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett released a cabinet paper today, detailing a new range of obligations for parents who are on state benefits. One of the obligations is for those children to attend a licensed ECE service from the age of 3-years-old.
The paper reveals that all working-age beneficiaries with preschool aged children will be required to take 'all reasonable steps' to have their child attend a licensed ECE service for a minimum of 15 hours a week until they start school.
Other obligations on parents include ensuring that children are attending school from age 5 or 6 years, are enrolled in primary health care with a Primary Health Organisation, Integrated Family Health Centre, or General Practitioner and complete the specified checks under the Well Child health programme.
While the cabinet paper says the social obligations will apply to all parents, only those identified as having potentially vulnerable children will be tested for compliance. Non-compliance could result in financial sanctions.
Compliance checks will be based on self-reporting and checks with Work and Income. The Minister is seeking also to enhance the level of information collected on beneficiaries by establishing an Information Sharing Agreement between agencies and other organisations such as ECE service operators through the Privacy Act.
The rationale behind the move appears to favour centre-based care such as all-day kindergartens and childcare services/early learning centres. Early childhood parenting programmes such as PAFT and HIPPY have been excluded, as the purpose of the policy is to help move parents into paid work rather than improve parenting and children's learning in the home.
There is recognition in the Cabinet paper that the cost of using a licensed ECE service and the availability of places along with the requirement of 15 hours will limit parents’ choice of ECE options. It is not clear what will happen if there are no licensed ECE options available that suit the individual needs of the child or that the parent can afford and access.
"The all reasonable steps criteria will enable the flexibility for social sector agency staff to work with these parents to make suitable arrangements. This flexibility recognises that there is a range of valid and valuable steps towards participation in ECE, provided that the enrolment is sustained and ongoing", says Mrs Bennett.
This flexibility includes a graduated sanction system where parents would receive reminders of their obligations before losing any benefits.
The cost of using ECE will be a significant problem for parents, particularly if they are required by their ECE service to enrol in and pay for more hours than 15 hours a week and because the 20 Hours ECE funding does not cover additional charges made by ECE services. The Childcare Subsidy administered by Work and Income cannot presently be used to cover ECE service additional charges for the first 20 hours. Nor is there any assistance available to cover transport costs.
The obligation on parents to leave their child at a licensed ECE service for a minimum of 15 hours a week or face penalties could make it difficult for early childhood teachers not to accept children when they are sick and unwell.
The introduction of compulsory ECE for children aged from 3 years heralds a major change in social and educational policy in New Zealand. It is being brought in via the Ministry of Social Development instead of through the Ministry of Education, and without widespread consultation and public debate.
Until now, parental access of childcare and support with early education has been a parental choice. This policy change signals movement toward the educational institutionalisation of children from a younger age. Compulsory ECE is being brought in, for the children of beneficiary parents, opening the door to a possibility of extending the age for compulsory education downward to 3 for all NZ children.