Imagine it: Groups of 20 children or more in an outside area. One adult.
Among the children are rambunctious 4-year-olds, unsteady 2-year-olds, children with anxieties on any given day and those with a range of behavioural, physical and emotional needs. One adult.
Examples sent to the Ministry of Education include five babies all day with one adult; 12 or more pre-schoolers with one adult; 19 toddlers with one adult.
As a registered early childhood teacher working as a reliever, I have seen these situations or been that one adult. It is deeply stressful. There is not enough care, there is no "education".
And yet it is argued to be legal and within existing regulations. How can this be?
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Regulation 44 schedule 2 states the minimum ratio is one adult to 10 children over 2 years of age, and one adult to five children under 2 years of age. It is accepted in the sector, these ratios are not quality, they are not even safe and not conducive to quality care by any measure.
Citing the need for some services to be "more flexible" with their staffing, the Ministry of Education introduced "across the license ratios" in 2011. This means teachers in their own room or space may find themselves with far too many children because enough staff are on the premises.
Those staff may be in meetings, in offices, or not even in the building, but the operator can still claim to be in ratio, because there are enough staff in relation to the number of children.
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Raising this with the ministry, I was told across-the-license ratios were purely a funding tool, and that Regulation 44 schedule 2 stood, so one teacher could not be in charge of more than five under-2-year-olds, and no more than 10 children between 2 and 5 or 6 years. I was told by another ministry official that misinterpreting this rule to leave teachers out of ratio was reportable. I have been assured on two further occasions in detailed emails, that Regulation 44 stands at all times.
It does not protect parents. They do not imagine, based on the ministry's stated regulations, they are leaving their children in such unsafe conditions.
And yet, a senior manager in the Auckland office has disputed all of them. I was told ratios are indeed calculated across the license. In response to this, a Wellington manager has now stated this is "a grey area".
Effectively, Regulation 44 has been rendered obsolete, although it is still on the
What do teachers do? Many early childhood teachers are not taking their legally required breaks because they do not want to leave colleagues or children in dangerous positions, and are told by employers that the room can be out of ratio.
When I raised this apparent disparity, I was told by a senior ministry manager in the Auckland office the "across the license ratio" stood and the ministry had sought legal advice. Who does this legal advice protect? Only the ministry.
When parents leave their children at a childcare facility in New Zealand, they have every right to expect that service is adhering to government regulation ensuring safety and quality.
They should feel confident enough qualified teachers are in attendance and every child is receiving adequate care, good nutrition, quality education.
Legal advice on "across the licence ratios" was not sought to protect teachers who are already stressed, overworked, carrying various injuries as well as mild to severe depression and anxiety. In the event of a serious injury to a child, the teacher will live with it for the rest of his or her life.
It does not protect parents. They do not imagine, based on the ministry's stated regulations, they are leaving their children in such unsafe conditions. The public has the Ministry of Education Regulations (2008) which state the minimum ratios of 1:5 and 1:10.
Some operators claim to provide ratios much better than this minimum, but teachers tell me this is often a fiction. Is this false advertising actionable under the Consumer Guarantees Act?
The Minister of Education needs to act - to recognise the need to radically improve the regulations in early childhood settings.
The 10-year Strategic Plan in Early Childhood Education - including space, group sizes and noise, which are among the worst in the OECD - is being considered. An improvement in the attitude and performance of the public service needs to be added.
Our children, their whānau and their ECE teachers all deserve better.
• Susan Bates is an early childhood teacher and founder of Teachers Advocacy Group