Childcare centre education and care model reduces barriers to ECE and benefits wider socio-cultural outcomes

A challenge for Ministers and MPs: come visit and see what privately-owned centres do

We have heard a lot from this new Government that children are to be placed at the centre of policy and at the heart of our education system. We have also seen a bit of media coverage about the issue of inequality and the fact it is likely to dominate politics for decades to come (Robert MacCulloch (24 April 2018). New style of reform way out of growing inequality divide. New Zealand Herald).

The Early Childhood Council wanted to tell a different story, about what privately-owned early childhood education is doing in some of our New Zealand communities.

Here, we tell the story of one early childhood education centre, and the passion and drive of three people who established an education model in a community where they are making a real difference, and where quality early childhood education is most needed.

This privately-owned centre, employs a social worker, provides transport, and exceeds recommended teacher-to-child ratios, to work side-by-side with whanau in Northland to care for and educate tamariki.

Here’s their story:

Elysa Thompson is a passionate advocate for barrier free access to early childhood education. As the Operations Manager for the childcare and education centres operating in Whangarei and Kaitaia she says their mission is to aim high for all our tamariki.

How did this model come about? It was 2013. Elysa was working in early childcare and education in Auckland. Together with her husband, and Maori businessperson, Wiwini Hakaraia, who had experience in youth development, they began to develop the vision for encouraging more children into early childhood education (ECE).

Elysa explains they wanted to do something that would meet community needs and also work with people who really needed ECE but were missing out. The aim was to work in a community where whanau and tamariki would truly benefit.

“It’s all very well putting support in at the top of the hill, but ECE lays the foundations for a child’s future learning outcomes, so what if we got in more at the beginning, and just imagine the difference that could be made earlier on,” Elysa says.

They began looking at the issues and barriers that were preventing some people from accessing ECE.

“We wanted to understand the statistics and reports, and work out where the best place would be to position our childcare centre.”

Looking at official reports and data, she said they could see there were some common themes, elements, or barriers preventing people from accessing ECE, and consistently ensuring their children attended.

These were transport, cost, and kai (food).

After a lot of research, they settled upon a site in Tikipunga, Whangarei, where they felt they could deliver a true socio-cultural ECE practice, and reduce some of the barriers to ECE that they had researched.

Wiwini purchased the property and Elysa and her husband set about working with the local council, community, agencies, and Ministry of Education towards setting the centre up. She describes it as a lot of Aroha that surrounded the early development of the centre.

While the centre was being built, Elysa met with a lot of agencies and began being put in touch with families about the new ECE model.

“I began meeting with them to introduce them to the concept. I did home visits and we ended up with 68 families on our books before we’d even opened our doors. The idea was to build that relationship and talk to them about the concept.

“It was really important to spend time with these families so we could understand their situations. We’d overcome some barriers to enrolling in ECE right there by helping families to fill in the paperwork.”

The doors of the first centre opened in December 2014. Licenced for 40 children, and operating split sessions, and high teacher-to-child ratios, the model was so successful they went on to open a further two centres, in communities that needed it the most.

Overcoming the barrier of transport was easy. The centre got a van, kitted it out, and transports the tamariki to-and-from the centres. Elysa explains transport can be an issue for some families. They may not have a car or their car breaks down, and they can’t get their tamariki to the centre all the time. Well, that was easily fixed with the van.

Six meals a day (main meals and snacks), provide the children with good nutrition, and regular meals, that may not always be present. This is a very easy way that children’s learning, health and wellbeing can be supported, Elysa says.

To the barrier of fees or cost, they do charge fees but these are charged in line with Work and Income subsidies and families’ individual situations.

In the early days they really worked with the families and partnered with them. Elysa says the partnership extended beyond ECE and she and her team helped with other issues and barriers such as helping to fill in paperwork, applying for courses, helping families visit the doctor, or sourcing enough warm clothing. She said they found it worked well to have a social worker on-site to partner with their families, the centre, and the children. The wide use of Te Reo has also been a benefit.

She says they also made a conscious decision to have high ratios because their tamariki need a lot of stability and relievers just wouldn’t work in their setting. They have 1:7 ratio for the over twos, and 1:3 ratios for the under twos.

“Ninety percent of our staff are qualified teachers. We have also supported our other staff members to undertake and complete their training. We really believe in investing in our staff and providing them with opportunities to grow their pedagogy and practice.

“We worked really hard to open our first centre and it had real community spirit behind it. It got up and running because of the community and neighbours who all pitched in to help. We now have three centres all working with the same philosophy.”

And what is the difference she has seen?

The primary focus is the tamariki, to give them skills to progress through life, and for whanau have aspirations for their tamariki.

More whanau are signing up for courses and getting jobs, and with that comes mana. Most of the children enrolled attend daycare every day, and that is simply huge having that consistent attendance. That’s where the van to transport the children has worked well, and the partnership with the families.

Having a social worker attached to the centre has been a real asset. This person works with families, some of whom have issues with violence, poverty and crime. She bridges the gap between social services, and supports families to access support and services such as training courses, supports them to fill in forms, she takes families to fill medical prescriptions, and also works onsite with the children. It is a support designed to make life less stressful. And, that benefits the children.

They also keep an eye on the children’s health. Using the online health system iMoko, with permission from families, the centre can get children checked and treated at the centre for childhood health conditions like school sores, via this remote online health system. This means that children get fast access to healthcare, and families don’t have to worry about transporting them to doctors, where transport is an issue.

“When things are not going so well for families we do home visits, we go in and ask: how is it going? It’s a real partnership.” She says lots of their children stay in ECE until they are six, which gives them a great stable start.

The centre has followed up with some families after children go to school. They found some had truancy issues and some hadn’t enrolled in school. They had issues getting transport, a car might have broken down, filling in forms for enrolment can be a barrier for some that didn’t finish school themselves.

The centre has helped some families by using their van to drive children to school for a number of weeks to re-establish them in the system, and enabling the family time to fix their car. The children want to go to school but sometimes no one is following them to see where they have gone to and why they are not at school.

We need to be a bit more empathetic to others situations and to lend a helping hand, she says.

For such a positive and passionate person, Elysa does have a concern that the new Government has a preconceived idea about privately-owned childcare centres.

To that she lays down a challenge for the Government, for Ministers, and to MPs: “come and visit us. Come and see what we do. Don’t judge privately-owned ECE centres until you come out into the community and see what we do. Our profit goes back into the centres, into educating our tamariki, and we are working to make a difference to society. Not only are we educating and caring for children, we are helping their whanau.”

And what’s next? Elysa is working on developing parenting courses that are made for the New Zealand context and relevant to our communities. The aim is to give whanau confidence, a voice, and the freedom to play with children and give them the skills they may have missed out on themselves growing up.

She would also love the hearing bus to visit regularly. She says there are just not enough speech therapists, and so many of the issues with speech and language development, and learning needs, are associated with ear infections or hearing issues that haven’t been treated or picked up. This then impacts speech development and learning long-term.

“If we put some of these extra supports in place, working with whanau to make life less stressful, the flow on effect is astronomical.” And, our tamariki benefit and thrive.

This piece is written by the Early Childhood Council, from an interview with a member centre. Names of the childcare centre have been withheld for privacy reasons.