Playcentre is a unique New Zealand institution focused on fostering the development of the pre-school child, while providing support and education for parents – usually, but not always, the mother.
Since its establishment in 1941, hundreds of thousands of children and generations of parents have benefited from Playcentre's parent-led approach to early childhood education. Its core philosophy of education through mixed-age play and child-centred initiatives now underpins the approach of all forms of early childhood education in New Zealand. Today, around 7 per cent of children attend the 420 Playcentres throughout New Zealand, yet they receive only about 1 per cent of government funding.
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The Minister of Education recently suggested the Playcentre model may be out of step today because of the greater likelihood of most parents working. He implied that was the reason Playcentre had not received funding increases in the same proportion as other, teacher-led, early childhood education services.
The timing of his comments was extraordinarily unfortunate. The consequences of Covid-19 have meant disruptions for many households, including job losses, leaving many parents with unexpected changes in their circumstances. They will be both anxious and uncertain about their personal and household futures and looking at how they can continue to be positive role models for their children.
So, this is the time to be enhancing parent-led approaches to early childhood education through organisations such as Playcentre, and increasing parental involvement in education generally, not running them down by benign neglect.
For years, various experts have stressed the valuable role of parents in the educational and societal development of their children, as carers and providers, educators, and role models. It is an oft-stated truism that the first few years of a child's life are the most critical in its future development, and that the influence of good parenting is a vital element in this.
In so many communities, Playcentre has been the invaluable network through which those skills have been built up among parents, providing them with the confidence, support and empathy they need to do this most important of jobs well. That is something any government should be welcoming, not brushing aside as out of date.
We are fortunate in New Zealand to have a range of quality early childhood and childcare services for parents, staffed by professionally qualified teachers, for parents to choose from. That range of services is appropriate, given the increasing diversity of our country.
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Parents should be able to choose the service that best suits their needs and circumstances – but in the interests of the children, the choice needs to be made on a level playing field.
Current funding arrangements suggest that is not the case with regard to Playcentre, which now faces the real prospect of having to close or downsize some of its centres, just to continue to make ends meet.
That would be an intolerable tragedy, especially in rural areas where Playcentre is often the only early childhood education option.
All of which begs the question: Why this is being allowed to happen? It is not just the changing social circumstances that the Minister has wanly referred to. After all, thanks to Covid-19, those social circumstances are now about to undergo their biggest upheaval in the nearly 80 years since Playcentre was established, arguably at a time when the need for the type of approach it offers will be stronger than ever.
No, the real reason runs a little deeper. The increasing professionalisation of early childhood education services and their merging with childcare services over the past 30 years has been good for improving the quality of service provided. But it has led to a greater focus on teacher-led early childhood education, at the expense of the parent-led model Playcentre has epitomised so successfully.
When the Minister says Playcentre's approach may be out of date, and implies two-parent working families are the reason, he is really saying that Playcentre's unyielding focus on placing parents and children at the forefront of early childhood education does not fit today's more teacher-led environment. That is especially disturbing and smacks of a wider agenda.
Prior to Tomorrow's Schools, parental involvement in all forms of children's education was akin to genuine but enthusiastic amateurs. Tomorrow's Schools and the advent of Boards of Trustees gave parents a clear role in the education of their children.
Now, the Government wants to change that, to pare back their responsibilities, and give greater control to teachers.
Playcentre looks like becoming the victim of a similar approach in early childhood education.
• Peter Dunne is a political scientist and historian who was Member of Parliament for 33 years, latterly as leader of United Future.