Clare Wells left Whanganui some years ago to forge a career in early childhood education.

Although Clare and her husband are now resident in Waipu, she was schooled here, was a founding member of the Whanganui Four Bridges Folk Club and she still visits family who remain in Whanganui.

She also taught at Sacred Heart in 1980, worked on the weekends at Aramoho Service Station and at The Red Lion Inn in the evenings.


"So I could pay my parents back because they had to bring me home from Europe."

Now she is Clare Wells, QSO, having received the honour of Companion of the Queen's Service Order for services to early childhood education.

Clare left Whanganui in 1975 to attend Teachers' College in Auckland, taught in Whanganui, Auckland and New Plymouth, then spent most of her career in Wellington. She moved to Waipu last year.

She was made QSO in this year's Queen's Birthday honours.

"An honour and privilege indeed," says Clare.

"I've been involved in early childhood education for more than 40 years, so I've always had a passion for working with very young children. For many years, I think early childhood education got a bad rap: it was not really seen as part of the education sector and was seen more as a stepping stone into school.

"I think that those views of ECE over time have changed so that it's about children accessing education in their own right. That's what drives me: that's what has been behind my involvement over the years – to promote and raise the status of early childhood education and the rights of children to a high quality ECE. In my career I've been in roles that have been working towards that end."

Clare says before ECE status changed, there was a perception that education started when children went to school.


"It was difficult for early childhood education to be noticed within the education sector, and particularly for teachers who worked in early childhood education to be seen to be part of that wider education profession.

"A lot of the work I've done over the years has been about recognising and promoting the state of early childhood education and the benefits of getting that right, but also recognising that teachers who work within the early childhood sector are very much part of the teaching profession, just like their colleagues in primary and secondary."

Clare feels there's still a way to go but perceptions have certainly changed. There are about 30,000 people employed in ECE in New Zealand, which is about the same number of secondary school teachers.

"One of the big issues is that not every person in the early childhood sector is a trained and qualified teacher, so we've still got work to do there.

"The Government's latest Budget gives incentive for early childhood centres to employ qualified teachers."

Clare applied for primary and kindergarten teaching courses at the beginning of her career.


"When I got accepted for both I actually thought that working with very young children was an area that was new, in a way, because people were still coming to terms with the benefits of early childhood education. It was a challenge for me, on an intellectual level, but also I thought how wonderful it would be to work with young children, understanding the significant learning that goes on in those first five years. What a privilege to be part of that."

Clare taught for a few years but most of her career has been in non-teaching roles.

"I became president of the Kindergarten Teachers' Union in the late 1980s, and then went on to be the president of an amalgamated union when kindergarten teachers came together with early childhood workers to form a new union.

"Then I was part of NZEI, Te Riu Roa, when the early childhood union amalgamated with the primary teachers' union. I worked for a number of years as an industrial advocate there, negotiating terms and conditions for kindergarten teachers and for people working in educational care services. Then I went on to focus on the mainly professional role around teacher practice and professional standards and so on, and that was across early childhood and primary teaching."

Clare then went to work for the PSA as a policy adviser and left there in the early 2000s to work as a senior political adviser for the Ministry of Education.

"That was working with Trevor Mallard when he was Minister of Education.


"Working for the unions and in Trevor's office honed my skills around policy development, design and implementation and applied that to the early childhood sector."

Clare used those skills as chief executive of NZ Kindergartens for 11 years, finishing last year.

Her passion for early childhood education continues unabated.
"When children are independent of their families in early childhood settings, we've got to make sure it's the absolute best it can be."

Now living in Waipu, Clare is on the NZ Teaching Council governance board and she is also on the board of Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand.

"Both are based in Wellington so I go to Wellington once a month for board meetings, although lately we've been Zooming. I'm also doing a series of projects for different organisations, some of which is around strategy and development, some around building professional practice around teaching, learning and curriculum; I've been talking with people about other projects around different areas of early childhood policy and supporting some ideas there. There's a range of things I'm involved in."

And for something completely different, Clare Wells, QSO, is secretary of Mangawhai Artists Inc.