One of the more contentious decisions hidden in the Budget last Thursday was in the financing of early childhood education. The previous Government gave childcare centres an incentive to employ trained teachers, increasing their grants as they hired a greater proportion of qualified staff.

The Budget has done away with two of the highest bands of subsidy, effectively cutting funds to centres with more than 80 per cent of their staff trained.

It expects to save $280 million over four years out of an annual allocation for childcare that has risen from $428 million to $1.3 billion since Labour introduced its policy of 20 hours a week free for 3- and 4-year-olds and imposed staff training obligations.

Fewer than half the country's 4300 centres have more than 80 per cent of their teachers registered yet. The cost blowout over the past five years would have escalated further without the decision National has taken.

While the cut-off will save $295 million, Education Minister Anne Tolley plans to put $107 million back into other early education programmes, $91.8 million of it earmarked for Maori, Pacific and low-income areas.

Plainly, National does not regard specialist teaching of pre-school children to be quite as important as Labour did. It is probably right. When the previous Government imposed training requirements, there were loud objections from childcare companies that some capable and dedicated staff would be unable to meet these. National does not want to drum them out of the industry.

From next February, no centre will be funded for 100 per cent trained staff. Those that have more than 80 per cent will have to charge higher fees if they will not reduce their staffing costs. Fees may have to rise next year by $25-$42 a week. They will release public funds for those who would otherwise miss out.

The Childcare Association calls this a "brutal blow" which could affect more than 2000 teachers and 93,000 children. The primary teachers union, which includes early childhood teachers, said the Budget threatened to "dumb down" early education and punish those most committed to improving its quality.

But did childcare centres ever need to be fully staffed by trained teachers? Or was this a classic case of "qualification inflation". There are powerful interests at stake when training requirements are decided. Training institutions can expand, unions can enlist more members and base their pay claims on the qualifications required. Arguing against them can be difficult when the subject is children.

It is easy to insist little children deserve nothing but the best. And working parents who place their infants in childcare want to be assured on that score. But "the best" at this level might not require professional training. The best could include people with an aptitude for caring but not for academic study and tests. Checks on their performance can be reliably left to a competitive industry that must constantly satisfy observant parents.

The Government is right to direct more of its early education support to areas where children are missing out. It has chosen five community projects based on successful programmes in Counties-Manukau and Tamaki.

Pre-school attendance is of proven benefit to a child's later education and no child should miss out. But once kindergartens and playschool gave way to fulltime childcare, the teaching profession took control and the cost to the taxpayer rocketed. Something needed to be done. It seems reasonable to suggest that eight trained teachers out of 10 staff is a perfectly adequate ratio. It has the side benefit of keeping some unqualified but dedicated carers in the job.

Contentious the decision may be but it seems educationally harmless, socially equitable and financially necessary.