There’s a couple of distinctions to be made as Early Childhood Education (ECE) industrial action begins nationwide.
First, it’s not a strike.
“In Hawke’s Bay, we’ve had a horrible year,” Otatara Children’s Centre manager Saemone Fraser says.
“We’ve only been back on campus [at EIT] for seven weeks, because we had to relocate to an emergency centre.
“We were quite cyclone-damaged here, so we spent eight months in the back of a church in Maraenui. We know what disruption is and we’d hate to do anything like that to our parents.
“Everybody’s stressed, everybody’s busy and this has been the longest year ever in Hawke’s Bay.”
So Fraser and her colleagues took Friday’s industrial action outside normal centre hours.
The next distinction is that ECE centres like Fraser’s are not kindergartens. They draw their funding from the same source - the Ministry of Education - but the funding model is different and so is the pay.
“We’re paid $10,000 to $15,000 less a year than our kindergarten counterparts, so we’ve got a serious shortage of staff as you can imagine, because why would you want to work for less money?” Fraser said.
That’s something Fraser isn’t sure many people are aware of, partly because she and her colleagues tend to just accept their situation and get on with it.
“ECE and kindergarten teachers do the same job with the same children, although many ECE centres will take children younger than those accepted in kindergarten,” NZEI spokesman Ben Rosamund said.
“The chief difference is that kindergartens are not-for-profit organisations that have been treated as part of the state sector, whereas ECE is typically private or community-based.
“Pay parity was won by kindergarten teachers in their union collective agreement decades ago, but not extended to those working in private ECE, which is a fragmented sector with thousands of employers.
“This has led to an erosion of pay and conditions in ECE over the years as compared with their kindergarten colleagues. The qualifications etcetera are exactly the same.”
Fraser has been centre manager at Otatara for three years. All she seeks is pay parity with kindergarten teachers and a change to the funding model, whereby ECE centres are given funding rather than teacher salaries being paid by the ministry as with kindergartens.
She starts taking children at the age of 2. By that stage, an increasing number already present with “serious spectrum disorders and behavioural problems”, she says.
Figures from 2022 say 181,045 New Zealand children attend ECE centres, but Fraser doesn’t believe she and her colleagues are sufficiently supported financially to make the early interventions necessary.
“We’re feeding these kids with high needs into schools that are already struggling, so it’s just a widening problem,” she said.
Fraser sees children with “no sense of community or community responsibility” even at a young age and can’t understand why more resources aren’t made available to a level of education where she says fundamental change can occur.
“All the research points to this but, for some reason, it just gets overlooked,” Fraser said.
“Maybe we’re not whinging enough, maybe we’ve done this to ourselves, maybe we should’ve been kicking up a stink 10 years ago.
“Good-quality ECE pulls in whānau as well and, where there is the need for whānau support and if wraparound services are required, ECE centres are great at putting them onto the right people in the right places.
“This is about community more than just children.”
Hamish Bidwell joined Hawke’s Bay Today in 2022 and works out of the Hastings newsroom.