Opinion: A view on the state of the ECE sector in New Zealand and what the Early Childhood Council would like to see happen

4 September 2017

The early childhood education (ECE) sector in New Zealand is complex. Not because of the different options available to parents, whanau and caregivers, but because of complexity in funding, rules and regulations, and the fact these things are not applied uniformly across the sector. Even ECE teachers aren’t allotted the same pay increases across the board by government.

It’s a complex model and one often so layered in technical education speak and acronyms that parents, whanau and caregivers accessing ECE services are often none-the-wiser about the complexity of regulation and funding arrangements that sits behind the shop front window.

Why does ECE matter? Research shows ECE establishes the foundations for a child’s future learning, and in New Zealand we have good uptake of ECE services. Not only does ECE provide educational building blocks for pre-schoolers, but it also helps support early development of crucial social and emotional regulation skills to support sharing, turn taking, and getting along with others. It’s also honest to acknowledge that ECE participation has an economic benefit as well, enabling thousands of parents to participate in careers they might otherwise find difficult to continue.

How we value our early childhood teachers, and ECE services, directly feeds into the quality learning outcomes for our country’s pre-school-aged children.

The Early Childhood Council (ECC), which is a voluntary membership-based body representing the interests of over 1,000 independent licensed early childhood centres, is a strong supporter of the existing ECE policy framework that offers parental, whanau and caregiver choice. Our membership base represents childcare centres across the whole country, and is made up of around 30% community-owned centres and 70% privately-owned.

New Zealand has a highly effective ECE sector that innovates rapidly in response to social change, government policy and different community needs. And on behalf of our membership, the ECC works to support and promote a quality ECE sector.

The system does have areas that we think could have some improvements made. This includes altering the ECE government funding system to make it simpler, and more comprehensible to understand and easier to administer. The ongoing level of confusion leads to mistakes being made on all sides. It’s time we thought more strategically and more practically about how ECE service should and can be funded.

We also would like to see the six-hour daily subsidy limit lifted so that parents, whanau and caregivers can access that entitlement in a manner that better fits their family and employment needs. A family with parents who both work shift-work, for example, have to deal with childcare arrangements that may change significantly part-way through their shift-work for purely bureaucratic reasons. This creates a barrier for many when it comes to thinking about accessing ECE services.

We also agree with government policy that a focus on increasing the supply of quality ECE for at-risk families or those on lower-income is important. The ECC would like to see a continuation in the Equity Funding and other supply-side interventions aimed at encouraging all families and whanau with pre-schoolers to access ECE. It is especially important to ensure eligibility criteria, to access this funding, is simple and available to both community-owned and privately-owned centres. The key issue here, however, is to ensure such a focus on our most vulnerable must not come from funding currently directed at mainstream ECE services. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” does little other than to put current ECE services under extreme pressure and hardship, forcing up parent fees and impacting on participation.

Reviewing unnecessary compliance requirements like the Frequent Absence Rule and the Staff Hour Count is also important here. These rules take precious time away from focussing on children and into unnecessary administration. The Frequent Absence Rule, for example, cuts centre funding if a child’s attendance becomes erratic, which is something that can affect low income and at risk families the most and further disadvantage them. And measuring every 15 minutes of a teacher’s day in the Staff Hour Count is bureaucracy-gone-mad and inconsistent with the way similar requirements are met in other parts of the ECE sector.

Ideally, a world-class quality ECE sector would be based on ‘equivalent equality’ for all ECE services. What this means is that all ECE services, whether home-based, centre-based, teacher-led or parent-led, would fall under aligned quality regulations. Currently different services are required to meet different regulatory and compliance requirements which we argue can lead to pockets of low-quality and commercial favouritism.

What’s more, to maintain a quality sector with choice for families, whanau and caregivers in New Zealand, the ECC advocates for maintaining the value of ECE funding subsidies in relation to inflation. We’d like to see research undertaken on the impact of the funding cuts to the per-child rate of government subsidisation for ECE, that have quietly been undertaken since 2011 without many New Zealand parents realising.

The ECC has calculated that, despite the rhetoric of more funding for education, every early learning service in New Zealand has in fact lost over $100,000 in government subsidy levels. We’d like to see research undertaken so that we can get a better view on the issues the underfunding has created, and help work on the remedies that are needed to maintain quality ECE and the fair access that we all strive for.

One of the arguments we frequently see in the media and opinion pieces online discusses the wage rates in teacher-led services. Current regulations only require teacher-led ECE services to have 50% ECE-qualified teachers. While some policy-makers argue that 100% is a goal, the ECC believes that regulating at the 80% ECE-qualified teacher level is appropriate in the New Zealand setting. This would allow for ECE services to also have carers and educators that meet community needs of their enrolees, such as having trainee teachers, nurses, social workers, Kaumatua, or Pasifika elders, and teacher aides. This is a similar approach undertaken by primary schools. It ensures the needs of the community and enrolees are being met, and we argue is whole-heartedly more realistic in this day of teacher shortages.

We also want to see ECE teachers valued the same across the sector. The ECC recommends reinstituting a catch-up payment to education and care centres sufficient to move towards pay parity between kindergarten and other ECE teachers. We also strongly support government increasing the universal funding available to early childhood education and care centres by the same or similar amount as any future increase they give under the Kindergarten Collective Employment Agreement. It doesn’t make sense that we treat teachers doing the same jobs differently in a country like New Zealand.

There are a lot of policy areas that the ECC could focus on, and would like to see tweaked to ensure ECE in New Zealand remains high quality and world-leading. At the end of the day we will continue to work for our membership, work that also benefits the wider ECE sector, to advocate for the best quality ECE services that are supported by sensible policy, regulations and funding. It is especially important that ECE is treated as an equal partner, not only across the sector, but also at the big education tables.

ECE is a valuable contributor to the long term learning and social outcomes of our youngest citizens, and we should all value it for the contribution it makes to society, and value the hard work of the caring teachers and professionals who work in ECE.

Peter Reynolds

Chief Executive Officer

Early Childhood Council