Maria Johnson: Early education needs funding boost from Government

Many centres offer a high standard of early childhood education but this should be the norm rather than the isolated example. Photo / 123RF
Many centres offer a high standard of early childhood education but this should be the norm rather than the isolated example. Photo / 123RF

• Maria Johnson, a qualified teacher in primary and early childhood education, is founder and owner of the Little School group of pre-schools in Auckland and Wellington. She is an executive member of the Early Childhood Council and a member of the Education Council's Teachers Disciplinary Tribunal.

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft has said he was "shaken" by the 2016 Child Poverty Monitor and will ask Prime Minister Bill English to set a poverty reduction target. The early childhood education sector in New Zealand will be hoping the Government acts on Judge Becroft's request, and that significant funding challenges facing the sector are addressed.

On paper, the Government's target of 98 per cent of children attending "quality" childcare is admirable and has led to many new early education providers entering the market. In reality, years of underfunding and adverse policy changes threaten to erode quality in the sector.

New Zealand has many very good early childhood education centres, but I couldn't say hand on heart that every child in them is in a quality environment.

I have 30 years' experience in education, 15 of those in early childhood education. I recognise, through my work with educational organisations, that quality is under threat.

Many in the sector say the same thing. Many centres operate very high standards of service but every centre should be achieving those standards. The difference good early education can make to children's lives, particularly in lower socio-economic areas, is significant.

It's a key factor in addressing child poverty. A 2012 report from the previous Children's Commissioner underlined how it can help mitigate effects of child poverty and disadvantage, leading to reduced child poverty in the next generation. It is estimated every dollar spent in early childhood education saves taxpayers $13 in future years.

People might say, "She runs an early childhood education business, of course she wants more government funding for the sector". But I'm not talking about measures that make more money for providers, I'm talking about lifting quality with funding linked to requirements to ensure the highest standards.

Several issues need to be addressed to raise quality. There's a lack of leadership within the sector, exacerbated by its rapid growth. Current pay rates mean early childhood teaching is often not a first choice career. Salaries are not attracting teachers, and applicants often lack the skills and knowledge for infants and toddlers and/or leadership.

It's great that New Zealand ranks in the top third of the OECD for participation but as participation has increased, millions of dollars have effectively been cut from the per-child rate in Government subsidies.

Funding was cut in 2009 for services employing more than 80 per cent qualified teachers. Inevitably, that led to some centres reducing ratios of qualified teachers, or new facilities opening with minimum qualified staff ratios.

Increases to per-child Government subsidies have not kept pace with the consumer price index and there has been no increase in the per-child rate of government subsidies in the Budget for the past two years.

Minimum required ratios of staff to children are of particular concern. Currently the legal requirement is two adults per 10 children aged under 2, and one adult per 10 children over 2.

One to 10 isn't enough. If you have 30 children and only three teachers, children won't have the one-on-one conversations or engage in learning in the way they need to.

Children with special needs won't get the support they need. Operating at bare minimum ratios, without good levels of qualified teachers is not early childhood education, it is baby-sitting.

This approach won't translate into improved educational outcomes or support children, particularly those who most need support, to become lifelong learners. The manifold benefits that could be achieved from making consistent, quality early education available to every child will not be passed up the line.

I have started to provide consultancy services in the Middle East to help providers there raise the bar. Because of these concerns about quality, I'm now looking into providing that service in New Zealand, particularly in lower socio-economic areas.

I feel privileged to have seen the impact well-delivered early education can have on children's lives. I want those opportunities for every child in New Zealand. I know the many passionate, committed, dedicated people in the sector want that.

The only way to achieve this will be through the Government restoring per-child subsidies to adequate levels. We must lift the level of quality for our children because they are our biggest asset.

- NZ Herald

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