Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Linking welfare to preschool attendance a world first

Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Natalie Slade
Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Natalie Slade

Experts believe the Government's decision to tie welfare benefits to children's preschool attendance may be unprecedented in the world.

University of Auckland sociologist Maureen Baker and retired Massey University professor Mike O'Brien, who have both written books on international welfare reform, said they were not aware of any other country that had tried the idea.

The new policy, which will halve parents' benefits if their children don't attend preschool for at least 15 hours a week from the age of 3, has come under attack across the spectrum from Labour on the left to the Christian-based Maxim Institute on the right.

But in an unscientific survey of more than 11,000 Herald online readers, most supported the policy, with 32 per cent calling it "a bold, sensible move" and 27 per cent saying "it could help the kids long-term".

Only 21 per cent felt it was "heavy-handed", 7 per cent that "it will hurt the kids" and 13 per cent that it "needs testing".

Professor Baker said family allowances were tied to medical checks in France but she did not know of any country tying benefits to preschool attendance.

Labour MP Jacinda Ardern said halving benefits for families that didn't comply would "disadvantage the children who need that support the most".

Maxim Institute researcher Dr Jane Silloway Smith said beneficiaries should seek work in return for income support, but making them hand over their children to someone else would undermine families.

"Families know their children best," she said. "They are the best placed to know if their children would thrive in an ECE setting or if they would do better at home in the care of a trusted adult."

Childcare Association chief executive Nancy Bell said the policy ignored a shortage of ECE services in poor and rural areas. She said places for an extra 12,000 children would be needed to meet a target of 98 per cent having preschool education by 2016.

But Grace Ikiua of Mangere's Good Seed Trust, which runs nine preschool play groups, said play groups could meet the need in existing buildings. She welcomed the new policy.

"There's a group of people that don't really understand the importance of ECE for their children and this is one way we can reach them," she said.

"They have a responsibility to the taxpayer. They are on a benefit to bring up their children and sometimes you have to use a stick."

- NZ Herald

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