There's a need to speak out about the quality of childcare in our country.

Parents rarely find it difficult to access childcare these days. There is no longer a shortage of places and big financial grants are still being offered to providers to open more services and increase their scale. But the Government has shown no clear direction when it comes to quality and it has been getting a number of things wrong.

It has increased the maximum centre licence size of 50 children to 150, and from 25 babies to 75. A target of 100 per cent qualified registered teachers was withdrawn.

National has forgotten its promise, made to voters before it was elected, to improve the minimum adult-child ratio for infants. Teachers report that in some centres it is a daily struggle to try to give every infant personal attention and time.


The Government has looked the other way when there have been reports of serious workforce issues including teacher stress and gender discrimination.

Alarm bells start ringing when teaches share their concerns about early childhood education becoming akin to something more like factory farming and the Ministry of Education uses language such as teachers working "on the floor", as though it was a shop or factory.

Its funding policies have supported significant growth in services owned by business people, shareholders and companies which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the proportion of community-based services has dwindled by comparison.

A former opposition spokesperson for early childhood education, who is now our Prime Minister, said to me over 10 years ago that he was trying to cut his way through political rhetoric that implied the best thing we could do for our children was get them into a centre as soon as possible.

He felt quality was being more oriented toward the school model though to a layman the best evidence shows pedagogy that can emulate a loving and engaged environment like a home, works.

It is time to bring some of that layman thinking into the Government's handling of early childhood education and care.

The Ministry and Minister of Education have renamed early childhood education and care as "early learning" services, thereby aligning the sector more closely with schools and the purpose of schooling. But care for children who are so young and dependent, and for whom learning comes through care, is vital too.

International research evidence shows that participation beyond 12 - 15 hours a week does not necessarily result in greater developmental benefits for children. It's a bit like consuming kiwifruit - a little can be very good for you but overindulgence and not having some variety in your diet might have some quite painful consequences.


Perhaps the 20-hour funding policy could be tweaked to say 15 hours and the savings used to improve quality, along with making sure it is Free ECE and parents are not asked to pay extra charges?

The hourly funding rates per child for part and full day attendance need to be made the same so the financial disincentive for providers to offer part-day education sessions is removed.

The minimum amount of space per child in centres needs to be increased and limits placed on the maximum number of children grouped together within centres. The rhetoric of "classes" and staff working "on the floor" needs to change. Children this young do not belong in classrooms, or in factories.

There is lack of accountability for taxpayer money paid to providers. There needs to be tracking of where funding goes, checking that revenue from parent fees is not pocketed and if it is, then maybe the service does not need as much taxpayer funding.

This would help keep in check the profit-motive and ensure that all providers, not just some, have children's interests at the heart of what they do.

The Ministry of Education protects the business interests of providers foremost by not releasing information on complaints upheld and services placed on provisional licences, even when to do so would be important for child protection and enable parents to make informed choices.

An independent body is needed to deal with provider misconduct, as already exists for teachers, which is also open and it should require automatic referral of providers by the Ministry of Education and the Education Review Office.

There is no pride in keeping early childhood education female-centric. Quality without valuing gender diversity is not possible.

Perhaps the new Minister of Women's Affairs Paula Bennett will challenge the sexist thinking that has seen no action being taken to develop a plan to achieve gender balance in early childhood teaching.

Early childhood education today is a competitive market with different interest groups that struggle to come together to advocate for children and respect of the child-rearing rights and duties of parents.

It's therefore essential for children and families that the Government shifts its focus to making quality a priority.

As Prime Minister now, Bill English could see to it that the political rhetoric is stripped back and quality needs and issues are addressed.

The question is do he and the Government care enough about children to do this or will it take opposition parties and parents to make this a major election issue before there are improvements?

• Dr Sarah Alexander is chief executive of the ChildForum National Network and a parent of five children. She has researched and reported on early childhood policy and quality from before the first major education system overhaul in 1989.