Our investigation of early childhood education last week found a problem that invites an obvious solution. A frazzled teacher told us she was ready to quit over working conditions so intense she felt she could not give the children in her care the attention they needed. She was one of three qualified teachers looking after up to 28 children aged 2 to 5. That is probably not a bad ratio for 3- to 4-year-olds. It is the younger ones who appear to be the problem. "Some days we are so busy we can't change nappies for two hours," she said.
"Sometimes the children want you to sit down and play with them but the environment is such that if you sit down you can't see everyone." Often there were just two teachers in the room because one was taking "non-contact" time. "That's when we can't change the nappies ... But sometimes we do it anyway because it needs to be done."
Any parent with children in this age range will know the problem. The physical needs of the very young demand urgent attention but the emotional needs of the older preschool sibling are also important and very appealing. Three and 4-year-olds have a lively curiosity and their minds are ready for early education. If their teachers are being constantly drawn away to deal with babies it is time to ask, should the age groups be in the same centres?
How hard would it be to bring specialisation to the sector? Day nurseries for those in nappies, kindergartens for the older infants. Working couples might prefer having two or more preschoolers at the one place, but perhaps not after reading our reports. They will not be persuaded by the standard public service suggestion that all would be well if more money and staff were put into the centres. Three teachers to 28 children is as good as any country could reasonably afford. The state can hardly provide a personal carer for every child.
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The teachers' union, NZEI, did not go that far in response to our findings. It blamed the sector's stress on the fact childcare centres are permitted to make profits. "Profit-driven" childcare, it thinks, leaves less money for "quality teaching". It is a simplistic argument often invoked by education unions and ignores how any service makes a profit. It does so by satisfying its customers.
If profit-seeking franchises are driving out "community" not-for-profits, as the latter complain, they are assuredly not doing so with a price advantage. They must be making more effort to impress parents and ensure their children are contented and developing.
It is hard to think of a business that operates under more intense customer scrutiny than childcare. The discontent we found was confined to hard-working teachers, and it is hard work attending to the constant needs and requests of preschool children. When childcare took on the grander title of early childhood education it was already trying to mind infants of all ages. It may be convenient for working couples to have a one-stop shop but it is too much to expect qualified teachers to be changing nappies, and it cannot be good for the children ready to learn.