Opinion piece: ECE: an essential component of the Community of Learning model

The Early Childhood Council is a huge supporter of the Communities of Learning model. Why? Because we think the idea of early childhood education services and schools collaborating over how preschool and school children can better meet their learning challenges has to be a good thing.

How can they be more successful? You won’t be surprised here that I say this: early childhood education (ECE) needs to be, and should be, included as an equal partner around the Community of Learning tables, and funded like schools to participate.

Communities of Learning or Kāhui Ako were set up under the National-led government. The premise is for a group of education and training providers from one community location or area to get together and form a Kāhui Ako or committee around children and young people's educational learning pathways. The idea is that they share information and learnings, and work together to help children achieve their full potential by identifying achievement challenges and work on ideas to solve these as a community of education services.

There are 2,500 schools across the country, and 4,500 licensed ECE services. It is important schools are fully aware of the range of feeder ECEs they have - getting children ready for school. These ECE services can make a valuable contribution to successful transitions to school and the achievement challenges for a Community of Learning.

So, what have been the key impediments to engaging ECE services in Communities of Learning?

There’s really been a lack of incentives for ECE services to participate. Schools were given funding that enables them to release time for key staff and teachers to establish and engage with other schools in setting up and maintaining a Community of Learning in their area. There’s no funding for ECE services to release staff to do the same.

The second key impediment to ECE services getting around the Community of Learning tables as equal partners is the Ministry of Education. The Ministry recognises that all ECE providers are private entities and, that as such, they do not deserve the same level of recognition or support as state schools. This very old-fashioned idea accounts for the lack of support and action from the Ministry over ECE participation since the Communities of Learning inception.

Aside from funding, ECE teacher-led services aren’t supported to undertake “non-contact” activities, including things like participate in Communities of Learning. The Ministry of Education’s ECE Funding Handbook (Chapter three) sets out how services record staff hours for the staff:child ratio requirements (or contact time teaching), but provides no recognition or funding for teacher planning time, professional development or involvement in a Community of Learning.

Surely the Ministry has within its power the ability to address the issue of the recognition of ECE teacher non-contact time? If it really wanted to. This rule was established at a time when ECE-qualified teachers were newly established in our sector and was likely an assurance mechanism that additional funding for teacher-led ECE services was being applied appropriately.

We would love to see this re-visited. Imagine a clear statement to the ECE sector by the Ministry that the contribution of time spent engaged in professional development and Community of Learning activities is recognised. Most of all this makes an important additional contribution to the quality of ECE service provision, and aligns ECE services with schools in the Ministry’s expectations.

It’s also imperative that any changes to the way non-contact time is viewed doesn’t negatively impact the expectations around adult:child ratios, the requirements for persons responsible, or the maintenance of the 50 percent regulatory requirement for ECE teachers.

It makes sense too, for the Community of Learning plans submitted to the Ministry for approval to demonstrate the active participation of, and consultation with, their local ECE services. Plans submitted without this consultation with ECE should be rejected as not fulfilling the Community of Learning goals and requirements, because a major chunk of the educators in the community have been missed off. This recommendation of ours has not yet been embraced by the Ministry.

Why should ECE services be around the Community of Learning tables anyway? And, what do they contribute – apart from their time at their cost?

Schools and ECE services working more closely together was an explicit recommendation in both the Advisory Group for Early Learning (AGEL) report and also ERO’s Continuity of Learning report, both released in 2015.

ECE is the first formal education a child will enter in to. There is a National curriculum, Te whāriki, and this education is designed to provide the critical social skills children need, and to get them ready for school. Having more alignment between ECE and schools in a community would improve the transition to school processes for the children. Better alignment between curriculums and the needs of the community has got to be better for the children too.

What’s more, if the idea of a Community of Learning is to look at catching issues and opportunities, otherwise known as achievement challenges, and working on them earlier, then isn’t it critical ECE is at the table too?

For example, say children in a particular Community of Learning region are struggling with maths or reading. Maybe if you talk about that as a whole Community of Learning pathway – 0-18, there may be steps that can be put in place that help look at the gaps and address maths or reading issues early. Maybe there are things ECE can contribute to here that flows on to primary school and on to high school. ECE, after all, has a very close relationship with family and whanau and is frequently in a better position to explore the opportunities of early interventions.

The Community of Learning tables are also a critical and sensible place to look at special learning needs and ensure a seamless approach for the children and their families. Strategically addressing special education and learning needs of children, and the appropriate professional development for teachers, could be done well in the Communities of Learning space. It also better services the community, parents, whanau and caregivers using the education system.

We are keen to collaborate with government, the schooling sector and our colleagues in the wider ECE sector to make Communities of Learning work. Reducing barriers so ECE services can more readily take part would take Communities of Learning beyond just schools of learning and benefit the children and community from 0-18.

It goes without saying, Communities of Learning are dependent upon the formation of productive relationships between the key personnel in each school or education organisation, and this can take time. Given Communities of Learning are really still getting going – we must not lose the opportunity to ensure an inclusive approach and to make sure ECE is at the table.

Peter Reynolds

Chief Executive Officer

Early Childhood Council