University of Waikato research exploring Early Childhood Education (ECE) managers' and children's experiences of Covid-19 found imaginative ways that services addressed the challenges of the pandemic and communicated with families during lockdowns.
Qualified ECE teachers provided care for children of essential workers in their family homes. Many ECE centres were open for children during Alert Level 3, while also running distance education programmes tailored for children and their parents who were at home.
Extraordinary efforts were made by managers and teachers to connect with families, far beyond usual operations, with staff working in solidarity to support each other, their families and communities.
The lockdowns prompted a kindergarten association to use its connections with community and government agencies to organise food vouchers for families who were in dire financial straits. It employed a "community navigator" to work with refugee and
migrant families, translating information about the virus and lockdown requirements and brokering social and housing support where it was wanted.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's message to New Zealanders is that we are "a team of 5 million". This kindergarten association exemplified a similar ideal of unity and acting together.
Don't we want all ECE services to act for the common good?
Many children showed signs of anxiety and stress on their return to ECE. Using play-based methods and story-telling, case study research exemplified ways in which qualified teachers helped children to communicate with others about their experiences and to extend their own understanding.
In effect, Covid-19 illuminated the powerful role ECE plays as an essential service, and its potential to be a positive force for social cohesion and equity.
New Zealand has employed a market approach to the provision of ECE, which means that any business can set up an ECE service provided it meets licensing and regulated standards.
Overall, the government has tended to take a hands-off role in planning ECE. As a consequence, there has been a massive increase in privately owned ECE in the past 30 years.
In some areas there is an oversupply of ECE services that are all competing with each other. In other areas, there are not enough services, or they are not meeting the needs
of families. The failure of neoliberalism and of an idea that the "market is the only show in town" was graphically illustrated in the need for the wage subsidy and its big uptake by education and care providers.
Problematic issues caused by privatisation and competition came into sharper focus during the alert levels.
Many ECE services, especially in low-income communities, reported a drop-off in enrolment following the lockdowns. Managers are worried about their future enrolments, on which funding is based, and their ongoing viability. Some ECE services are likely to close.
If ECE services collapse, a real risk is the potential for ill-considered takeovers and a further wave of privatisation if a market environment continues.
The need for public responsibility and a collective vision for ECE was graphically illustrated in the recent closure of 10 centres from a privately-owned chain.
Amongst the complaints reported by a Ministry of Education official were "allegations of physical or emotional injuries inflicted on children, including verbal abuse, isolation of children and physical harm, poor curriculum quality, a lack of staff and poor learning support".
Management of these centres received government ECE funding over the last year (and over many preceding years) and almost half a million dollars in wage subsidies.
It is scandalous such ECE centres are allowed to exist, propped up by government funding. This was made possible by the ease with which private owners can establish a childcare "business" without having any ECE expertise themselves, access government funding, determine their own staff pay and conditions, and operate with insufficient accountability for their use of funds.
Such latitude would never be given to schools.
Simon Wilson (NZ Herald, October 31, 2020) pointed out that the Covid-19 crisis has shown neoliberalism to be useless. He argued there is a better way. He is dead right.
A realignment of the role of the state in provision of ECE, where the market has gained a too powerful position and the state has been hands-off in determining the kind, nature and location of ECE services, is urgently called for.
Now is an ideal time to rethink the purpose of ECE, to redefine ECE as a public good, and to plan, fund and support it accordingly.
• Linda Mitchell is a Professor in Early Childhood Education at the University of Waikato.