Opinion: Will there be band-aids or healing for sore points in ECE?

As we rocket towards May and the unveiling of Budget 2018, and the heavy work begins to review and future-proof the education sector, early childhood education (ECE) services continue to deliver New Zealand’s ECE curriculum.

It is no secret that ECE has some points-of-pain, particularly around policies for funding and unevenly applied rules and regulations. There are teacher shortages and varying levels of teacher training. We have put some plasters on the sore bits, while those delivering ECE work daily to deliver a quality ECE curriculum and learning experiences.

I want to say, and this is very important, let’s not ever lose sight of the fact that we have much to celebrate and be proud of in our ECE sector. New Zealand’s ECE system is considered to be amongst of the best in the world and has good standards. We have a well-established model that offers choice and variety to parents, whanau and caregivers with teacher-led, whānau-led, or parent-led services.

All ECE services must be licenced by the Ministry of Education, and they are reviewed and regulated. Of course, there are always areas that can be improved on, and there are a number of support mechanisms to work with ECE services that don’t meet the standards. Services must be of good quality for children, and safe.

We now have the highest numbers of pre-schoolers attending some form of ECE before starting school. According to latest Ministry of Education ECE census statistics*, in 2017 there were 202,772 enrolments/attendances in licensed ECE services and kōhanga reo, with 65% attending education and care services.

According to the same data, there were 5,585 licensed or certificated ECE services and kōhanga reo as at June 2017. Of these, 4,658 were licensed services and kōhanga reo and 927 were certificated playgroups. Education and care services, which includes community-owned and privately-owned licensed childcare centres, forms 55.4% of the sector or 2,582 services.

To continue delivering the world-class ECE curriculum that New Zealand clearly wants, we need adequate funding, enough quality teachers, and for ECE to be treated on a level playing field not only across the ECE sector, but in the education sector as a whole.

ECE has undergone many changes in the last 15-years to accommodate changing needs of the community and the economy, families and parents, and the educational needs of children.

New Zealand’s ECE service provision reflects a mixture of government regulation, market response and parental choice over time. There is no such thing in New Zealand as free ECE.

The funding model is complex and a whole funding handbook is dedicated to trying to explain the subsidy funding available to licensed services. Funding includes the universal subsidy, targeted funding for disadvantage, 20 hours ECE, Equity Funding, annual funding for isolated services. There are also other funds such as grants for educators.

The time is well-past to establish a simpler funding model that incentivises quality. Because quality is what we all want, and to get that consistently, there needs to be more than ambulances at the bottom of the cliff.

The ECC has engaged with others in the ECE sector and government officials from 2012 to revise the ECE funding system. Still no decisions have been made, and no action taken to simplify this system.

I believe there are opportunities to heal some of these sore points with the funding review work. The review has considered areas including moving away from funding three times a year for smaller services, to monthly funding; getting rid of or substantially simplifying the silly Frequent Absence Rule and Staff Hour Count rule; and ensuring, where government has a role in setting pay rates for teachers, that they treat all ECE services the same.

The ECC estimates, that funding cuts to subsidy rates and the per-child rate since 2010, as well as rising compliance and regulatory costs, has shaved an average of $103,000 off the operating revenue of each ECE centre in New Zealand. Centres are expected to meet a complex range of rules and regulations, that are of course needed to protect our youngest citizens, but at times these rules are not evenly applied across the sector.

We have heard only recently (as part of, in our opinion, a not-so-balanced Radio New Zealand documentary about ECE), the Minister of Education say help is on the way for ECE.

We will watch this space to see if the Budget in May, and education reforms, deliver more band-aids or some much needed funding changes. It will be interesting to see if there will be moves towards a more level regulatory field for our sector, to begin the process of healing some of the administrative and funding pain that has crept in in recent years.

So-called sweeping education reforms have begun under the Labour-led Government. A three-year programme of work is underway, and a consultative and inclusive approach promoted involving talking and planning, and hopefully action.

For ECE, as well as reinvigorating the funding review work, there is to be work done on implementing an Early Learning Strategic Plan, there will be a review of home-based services, and for the education sector more widely, a number of education system strategies developed that are expected to provide the basis for a 30-year education strategy.

A future-focused Education Workforce Strategy will look to establish the future direction for teacher qualifications and career pathways. There is to be an action plan for teaching children with special needs, and work undertaken on Maori and Pasifika strategies.

We also need to future proof our ECE teaching workforce. We have recently heard that numbers of people entering initial teacher training for ECE has declined by almost half (Minister media release 27 February 2018: Chronic teacher shortage laid bare). The ECC has been saying since at least September last year that teacher shortages are not just an Auckland problem, and not just a school problem. It was good to see these figures and get a sense of the scale of the problem going forward.

As well as a longer-term view of establishing a workforce strategy, there needs to be some faster fixes here, such as making it easier to recruit trained and qualified ECE teachers from overseas.

It is a good time too to bring ECE in as an equal partner within the education sector and we are hopeful the education reforms will achieve this. All too often ECE is a bit of an add-on, rather than being seen as a crucial start to a child’s whole education. After all, our education system is meant to be a learning pathway from 0-18.

ECE and schools are all educators, and yet, there are some marked differenced to how policy treats them. A good example is the way the new digital curriculum in schools is being implemented versus the way the refreshed ECE curriculum Te Whāriki is being implemented. The digital curriculum has had $40 million allocated to implement it. This country’s national curriculum for early childhood education, Te Whāriki, has been given $4 million for implementation. What signal does this send about the value placed on ECE and the fact it is part of the wider education curriculum?

There is also an opportunity to address some of the historic issues with the Community of Learning model, which favours and funds schools, but leaves ECE as an optional extra to include around the table. Imagine our education system and the improved transition to school for children, if ECE was brought in and it was a truly cohesive and inclusive approach.

In fact, there are a few areas where better alignment for teachers across ECE and schools would foster more of a level playing field, and see ECE treated as an educator rather than a sector that is a nice to have or an optional extra at the education tables.

The professional teaching practice for all our young learners is meant to be of the same high standard, and it should be allowed and enabled to operate on a level playing field. Addressing disparities such as recognising the non-contact time for ECE teachers (as school gets), enabling all teachers equal access to professional development across school and ECE could be a step here to valuing teachers, and enabling a more level education playing field.

We look forward to continuing to discuss these points with the decision makers and at the main education policy tables, including opportunities that will arise as part of the education reforms and the three-year work programme that supports it.

It will be interesting to see come Budget Day how ECE is positioned and valued.

Time will tell whether more plasters will be put in place, or whether the band-aids will be removed, and some healing can begin so ECE can be properly positioned.

Meantime, ECE services will continue their work educating this country’s youngest citizens. And, let’s not forget there are good stories about the quality ECE that is being delivered.

Peter Reynolds

Early Childhood Council

Chief Executive Officer

*ECE Census Summary data for 2017 can be found on the Education Counts website: www.educationcounts.govt.nz/statistics/early-childhood-education