Prime Minister John Key has dropped the strongest hint yet there could be changes to early childhood education funding - prompting fears thousands of parents will end up paying more.
During questioning this week Mr Key said he was not committed to keeping fee controls in place for the 20 hours scheme, something that would effectively allow centres to charge additional fees on free hours of care for more than 100,000 children.
Early Childhood Centres are subsidised so they can provide children over the age of 3 with 20 hours of free care. They are also subject to controls which prevent them from charging any additional fees for those 20 hours, although some teacher-led services can ask parents for "optional charges" if they have more than 80 per cent registered teachers.
Labour's education spokeswoman Sue Moroney has been questioning National about its plans for the popular scheme after speculation there are changes coming. The party has repeatedly said it is committed to 20 hours.
However, under questioning this week Mr Key gave the first indication that might not be the case.
He initially said the Government's position was that it would be maintaining the 20 free hours policy. But under further questioning he changed his stance saying he was committed to keeping the same subsidies for 20 hours' early childhood education but was not committed to keeping the fee controls for the scheme.
Ms Moroney said the implication was that the Government planned to allow centres to start charging extra fees for 20 hours which basically meant the end to the scheme.
"The only reason you would do that is if you are going to drop the subsidy."
When the Herald tried to seek clarification on what the Prime Minister meant, his office said ECE policy was still being formulated.
"The Government continues to stand by the commitments it made before the last election in relation to 20 Hours ECE, and we understand how popular it is with parents. ECE policy is still being formulated to take into the election campaign, and the public will get a good chance to assess it when it is released."
Educational sector union NZEI said it sounded like the Government was doing a "flipflop" on its election promise not to touch 20 hours.
Mr Key's comments follow a recommendation from the ECE Taskforce to remove fee controls for 20 hours and move to a funding model where working parents pay more for care.
PAYING FOR ECE
From Parliament's question time, Labour education spokeswoman Sue Moroney to the PM:
"Does he stand by the answer that he gave to the last question, that he is committing to keeping the same subsidies for 20 free hours' early childhood education and the same fee controls in place for 20 free hours' early childhood education?
John Key: No to the last bit.
What National's Anne Tolley (now Education Minister) promised in the last election campaign:
"While we will keep the scheme, it will be renamed '20 Hours ECE', instead of '20 Hours Free', which was patently misleading. We will retain all the existing subsidies and fee controls. But we will also make the scheme much more flexible for parents."By Elizabeth Binning Email Elizabeth