National says it will keep 20 hours free scheme

The National Party says it will retain and improve the Government's 20 Hours Free early childhood education scheme.

National criticised the scheme when it was introduced in July last year.

It pays for 20 hours of educational childcare a week for pre-schoolers.

Some centres say they have had to levy their own charges to break even but the Government has claimed it as a success.

National's education spokeswoman Anne Tolley today released the party's early childhood education policy, which includes retaining the scheme.

"While we will keep the scheme, it will be renamed 20 Hours ECE (early childhood education) instead of 20 Hours Free, which was patently misleading," Ms Tolley said.

"We will retain all existing subsidies and fee controls but we will also make the scheme much more flexible for parents."

The party's associate education spokeswoman Paula Bennet, who is in charge of early childhood education, said thousands of parents were using the scheme and National did not want to cause them uncertainty.

"However, we will not live with the clearly dishonest claim of the scheme being free for parents," she said.

"It never was. What we will do is improve the scheme to make it much more flexible and available to more children, while giving parents the freedom to choose which facility best suits them."

Ms Bennett said National would:

* Remove the six hours a day limit;

* Include play centres and kohanga reo in 20 Hours ECE;

* Provide 20 Hours ECE to five-year-olds; and

* Investigate more frequent payment methods.

Ms Bennett said staff ratios, reducing bureaucracy and boosting participation rates were key parts of National's early childhood education policy.

"To combat teacher shortages we plan to promote working while training, allow qualified English-speaking foreign teachers to qualify after an intensive six-week programme, and allow Montessori, Steiner and play centre qualifications to count towards a degree," she said.

"Staff ratios for under two-year-olds are critical. We believe the current 1:5 ratio is too high. We do not think one person will always be enough to ensure all five babies can be guaranteed the high level of attention they may need."

She said that over time, the ratio would be reduced to 1:4.

- NZPA

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