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Debate: Should preschool be compulsory?

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Two views on the Government's decision to require social welfare beneficiaries with little children to arrange for them to attend preschool education centres from July next year. Join the debate and leave your comments at the end.

Digital image / P.K. Stowers
Digital image / P.K. Stowers

Peter Reynolds: Yes. Lost ground, for some, ensures life of struggle

The Early Childhood Council believes all children deserve to arrive at school ready to learn.

A minority, however, arrive having never held a book, not knowing their numbers and letters, unable to hold a pencil, unable to sit still on the mat, and about as ready for school as the average 3-year-old. Most of these children are poor, Maori, Pasifika, and/or the children of beneficiaries.

These "at-risk" children tend to be difficult for early childhood centres to reach. They are often transient, and can be overlooked by support services. Their parents tend to not vote, and their needs are easily overlooked at election time.

If children from such backgrounds miss out on early childhood education, they are at elevated risk, however, of never catching up at school. Of leaving school without qualifications. Of being unemployed. Of being poor. Of living on benefits when adults. Of going to jail. And of producing yet another generation of children who fail to access early childhood education.

Government after government has failed to reach these children. And we have therefore a system in which the more likely a child to really need early childhood education, the less likely they are to get it.

That is why the Early Childhood Council supports Government intentions to vigorously encourage the parents of beneficiaries to enrol their children in early childhood centres. The incentive to ensure children attend childcare has the potential to rescue thousands from educational underachievement, and the nightmare that can follow from this.

It is our understanding that this policy has not been tried anywhere before. And no-one can be sure of its unintended consequences. But we think it's worth a go. We simply cannot bring ourselves to oppose a policy with the potential to expose our most needy children to a fair go at a good education.

It is our view that elements of the news reporting have failed to convey fully how the policy is likely to work in practice. Some have suggested that early childhood education will be "compulsory" from the age of 3 for the children of beneficiaries.

This is not what we're expecting.

We expect beneficiaries will be required to do their best to enrol their children. We expect encouragement and assistance for those who have difficulties. And we expect the new demand for early childhood education to result in the construction of new centres. In other words, more early childhood education in the lowest-income areas where there are shortages and centres are needed most.

We do not expect sanctions if beneficiaries find access blocked by geographic distance or unaffordability. And we do not expect sanctions for more than a tiny hardcore minority.

The Early Childhood Council is sensitive, however, to arguments that childcare compulsion undermines family in theory. But we think it possible the opposite will happen in practice.

It is our hope that many beneficiary families will be strengthened by finding support in "community hubs". These hubs provide both education and care for children, and practical support for families such as health care advice and parenting classes. We know there is a shortage of such services. We hope the new childcare requirements on beneficiaries will increase the pressure on Government to provide centres of this sort. And to do so in the lowest-income areas where they are really needed.

Some critics of the policy have focused on the idea that it will remove government support from needy children. We think the opposite will happen. We think the net impact will be increased support for exactly those children who need it most.

These are our best guesses at how the new policy will pan out. But the most important questions are empirical. And it is time and good data that will tell us whether it is we, or the critics of the policy who are right.

In the meantime, our position is this. All children deserve to arrive at school ready to learn. Too many children of beneficiaries do not. Given the known benefits of early childhood education for at-risk children, we think the policy is worth a go. And we look forward to working closely with government to ensure it is implemented with minimal risk to vulnerable families.

* Peter Reynolds is CEO of the Early Childhood Council which represents more than 1100 early childhood centres, about 30 per cent of which are community-owned and about 70 per cent of which are commercially owned.

Jane Silloway Smith: No. Better parenting helps kids' lives, not preschool

The Government's announcement last week that all beneficiary parents will be required to send their children to early childhood education (ECE) for at least 15 hours a week from age three was signalled as a way to ensure children of beneficiaries "get the best possible start in life". Despite good intentions, making preschool compulsory could ultimately do more harm than good by undermining instead of strengthening children's most critical relationships.

The case for compulsory preschooling seems, on the surface, to be a compelling one. Evidence from many reputable sources indicates that attendance at high-quality ECE can enable children from disadvantaged backgrounds to narrow the achievement gaps with their more advantaged peers in terms of school readiness. So, children of beneficiaries go to ECE; they get better prepared for school; their life chances improve; and the Government avoids the social and financial costs of future negative outcomes for these children. A win-win for all, right?

Not quite. ECE has been shown to benefit children from disadvantaged backgrounds because these children often lack what their more advantaged peers have: a nurturing home environment. Educational researchers regularly report that a nurturing home environment will have a more profound impact on a child's educational achievement than preschool programmes - a reason often stated for why more advantaged children are not often found to gain much, if anything, educationally from ECE.

So making preschooling compulsory for the children of beneficiaries actually dodges the most critical factor for a child's future - their home environment. Most child development experts will tell you children need a good home in which they are able to form an attachment to their parents for proper development. For that to occur, parents need to be nurturing and interacting with their children: talking to them, cuddling them, and generally taking an interest in their lives.

Many parents on a benefit are doing a good job with all that, despite the financial and employment obstacles they may be facing. It would be a mistake, then, to force them to put their children in ECE when other options may be more suitable.

Though good parents abound, we must face the reality that some are not properly nurturing and interacting with their children. Yet taking decision-making away from parents in dysfunctional situations, as compulsory preschooling would do, absolves them of their responsibility for their children and does nothing to correct the most pressing problem: poor parenting. No amount of high-quality ECE will ever make up for this lack.

In these cases it would be better to bring support alongside parents to enable them to make decisions in the best interests of their children. Frontline service providers, like Plunket, could be equipped to identify those families that need help to learn how to parent. Once identified, these families could then be referred to parent training programmes, whether in the public sector - like Triple P or the Incredible Years Programme - or in the community.

Such services target the most troubled families helping them learn new habits and ways of relating, holding the potential for long-term benefits for children not just educationally, but socially and emotionally.

There's no need for this parenting support to be compulsory. The risk of losing half of one's benefit creates perverse incentives and has strong potential for harm to children when their parents' benefit is cut. If a household is already near breaking point, applying more stress via a benefit cut will only harm children further.

Instead, parenting support should be incentivised for those who most need it, perhaps by the offer of a separate stream of supplementary benefit that is open only to those families who learn to nurture their children well. Those identified as in need of support but refuse it would be denied this additional stream, but their existing benefit would not be cut. The difference between a sanction and an incentive is subtle, but it does send a different message. It encourages parents when they take initiative on behalf of their children.

In the end, what's best for children is to grow up in a stable family with parents who are nurturing and interested in their development. Compulsory preschool won't ensure this; indeed, it may undermine it.

* Dr Jane Silloway Smith is research manager for the Maxim Institute, an independent research and public policy think tank, incorporated as a charitable trust. For more details, see www.maxim.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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"If it sets up a child to start school well, if it allows the parent to pick up part time work, if it is not horribly expensive."

Rob
Susan Fraser

"No Government should dictate certain behaviours to parents and say 'or else' you won't get your subsistance money."

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