Let's stop the falling centre numbers together

The RNZ story about less early learning centre licences being granted, while more centres are closing is a red flag for our sector. The squeeze is being felt by parents wanting choice in their children's education and care.

Let's look at some of the factors in play.

The number of new licence approvals slowing down can be explained for the most part by the impact of COVID-19 and the pressure on the economy. For most, it's about survival or consolidation, not new ventures or bold expansion.

We're concerned that this is the Ministry of Education's Managed Network model - where the Ministry proactively manages the makeup of services in a particular area - being implemented ahead of their promised collaboration with the sector.

Either way, parents' choice is reduced, with those brave enough to offer new services being rejected before they've had a chance to open their doors.

The increase in closures also reflects a COVID-19 economy, on top of a decade of underfunding. If a centre was already struggling, the costs of lockdowns and parents deciding to keep children home are the straws that can break the camel's back.

The closures are likely to also reflect increased compliance monitoring pressure from the MoE and Education Review Office. I've got no problem with the expectation to meet licensing requirements, but we shouldn't have to tolerate officials bullying providers and nit-picking to achieve compliance quotas.

We can also put some reduction in home-based networks down to the pressure of the introduction of the qualified educator requirement, and some because of the intensity of monitoring practices by MoE and ERO.

Either way, the decreasing number of early learning services and reduction in choice for parents is a concerning trend. The sector was assured we'd be consulted on Network Management along with other regulatory changes before they're made, but I'm concerned this downward trend shows it's happening already.

Everyone in ECE agrees we need a high trust model for working together. To get there, we must address issues like this realistically and with openness and transparency. Our challenge to the Ministry is to work with the sector to investigate and reverse this alarming trend, before more good people are lost to our sector, and parent choice is further eroded.