Preschool policy 'short-sighted'

Legislation that threatens to cut parents' benefits in half unless their children attend early childhood education (ECE) is short-sighted, a Whangarei community worker says.

In what has been described as a world first, a new government policy will halve parents' benefits if their children don't attend preschool from the age of 3.

The decision, announced by Social Development Minister Paula Bennett, will start from July next year and affect 31,500 children, aged 3 and 4, whose parents are either on sole parent or couple benefits. By June 30 of this year, there were 18,129 people on a benefit in Northland.

Carol Peters, co-ordinator from 155 Community House, said the legislation was short-sighted, as it treated people who were poorer as not worthy to look after their children at home.

"Cutting a parent's benefit for children who are already in poverty is a very, very weird thing to do - it's extremely punitive on the child. Early childhood education for young people in most cases is helpful, but for some people it's not," Ms Peters said.

Parents will have their benefits halved if they fail to take "all reasonable steps" to keep their children in licensed or certificated early education for at least 15 hours a week from the time they turn 3 until they go to school.

"That whole universal - 'you should take your children to early childhood' - what happens when the child does not fit with that?" Ms Peters said.

"What happens when the child has a disability or is ill?"

The policy has been labelled "beneficiary bashing" and criticised for removing parental choice. It was unveiled with new Social Development Ministry figures showing the country's beneficiaries would cost taxpayers $78 billion if they stayed on benefits for life.

A Cabinet paper estimates about 2200 beneficiary families might fail the test each year, of which 1300 might fail to comply immediately and have their benefits cut.

Childcare Association chief executive Nancy Bell warned of a shortage of ECE services in poor and rural areas, where many beneficiary families are based.

But Grace Ikiua of Mangere's Good Seed Trust, welcomed the policy and said preschools could meet the needs.

- Northern Advocate

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