By John Gerritsen of RNZ
A survey of 4000 early childhood teachers has revealed worrying allegations of crowded, noisy centres where profit is put before children's welfare.
While three-quarters of the respondents to the Child Forum survey endorsed the quality of the places they worked, a quarter said they could not.
Advocates for teachers and children in early learning told RNZ the results tallied with what they were hearing from teachers.
Survey respondents' comments touched on problems including inadequate staffing and insufficient time to spend with individual children:
• "They cut a lot of corners to give the appearance of quality care, when actually it is about profit-making."
• "I went to relieve in a centre I put my child in after he left to go to school and the place was a crazy over-filled zoo of kids. I felt so awful for having put my son there."
• "I have witnessed how poorly children are treated in ECE and I have lost faith in the system and trust in other teachers."
• "ECE has become baby farming."
Susan Bates, who founded support group for early childhood teachers the Teachers Advocacy Group, said the comments and the survey findings matched the complaints she heard regularly from teachers.
Bates said the regulations that governed the amount of space, noise and number of children in a centre were at the heart of the problems and urgently needed updating.
"Psycho-social development of children we believe is being harmed, so all of these things that teachers are suffering under at the moment are directly related to the environments that children are in," she said.
Bates said the results were credible.
"When you've got 4000 respondents I think you can have some faith in that, and the fact that our results back up Child Forum's results can also provide some faith," she said.
Child Forum chief executive Dr Sarah Alexander said the results showed policy-makers needed to talk to teachers more.
"Currently the main source of information for policy and decision-making comes from service providers and it's perhaps time to listen to teaching staff as well," she said.
"We're not actually hearing what is happening behind closed doors."
Alexander said teachers' comments in the survey provided a strong indication that children were at risk.
Te Rito Maioha represents about 500 early learning centres, and chief executive Kathy Wolfe said she was not convinced the results were representative of the more than 30,000 early childhood teachers working in the sector.
She said teachers needed to report bad practice when they saw it.
"Definitely there'll be centres out there that need to be dealt with and usually that comes through ERO process, but sometimes ERO doesn't get around quick enough and that's where teachers need to be stronger and voicing their concerns about quality of services and the curriculum that children are receiving because that has an impact on children and that is just unacceptable," she said.
Wolfe said she was confident a lot of the problems raised by survey respondents would be addressed by the Government's early learning action plan.
Advocate for children's wellbeing Dr Mike Bedford said the survey might suffer from selection bias because respondents opted into the survey, but its results were very consistent between 2014, 2017 and 2020 even though the number of respondents had quadrupled in the latest iteration.
He said even if the percentage of teachers who would not endorse their own centres was half the figure cited by the survey it would still be cause for alarm.
"What if you said 12-and-a-half per cent of teachers couldn't endorse the quality of their own centre? That's a shocking number.
"So however you look at the survey, it is a massive red flashing light on the sector and it's absolutely consistent with the loss of teachers from the sector, so we have every signal you could need to say 'we say we have serious problems and we've got to fix them'," he said.
Bedford said poor conditions for staff and children at some centres were driving teachers out of the profession.
"Teachers have said 'I can't condone this any longer', what they're seeing being done to children on a day-to-day basis. Now what's being done to children is they're being forced into situations that are way too crowded with too few teachers," he said.
He said part of the problem was inadequate regulations for space and teacher numbers.
The Early Childhood Council represents about 1200 centres, and chief executive Peter Reynolds said the results showed the funding system for early learning was broken.
He said the 29 per cent of respondents who did not have time to develop individual relationships with children reflected the shortage of early childhood teachers and the increased use of relievers.
Reynolds noted the survey showed most teachers did endorse the quality of the centre they were working in and said teachers should complain if their centres were not meeting minimum teacher-child ratios.