An open letter to the new education minister on early childhood policies

Dear Minister Kaye,

Congratulations on your appointment as the new Minister of Education. As your responsibilities within the Education portfolio expand from your previous Associate Minister focus on educational infrastructure, I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you to take a fresh look at your government’s policies on early childhood education (ECE).

I’m sure your officials will be telling you that spending in the ECE area has increased significantly during this government’s term, and, with an increase of just over $600 million during that time, they are correct. However, these figures tell only part of the story.

For example, from 2008 to 2015 more than 500 (13.4 percent) new services were established with nearly 22,000 (12.4 percent) more children enrolled in ECE. It is not just a story of growth within the ECE sector; rather, a trend of significant structural shifts that started early in the 21st century has continued. In 2003, nearly two-thirds of services provided full-day programmes. Five years later, when your government came into office, that figure had risen to just under three-quarters of services, and by 2015 nearly 90 percent of ECE services were licensed to provide full-day programmes. Different teacher-child ratios for sessional and full-day licences mean the number of teachers required has also increased by 50 percent, even though there has been no improvement in licensing requirements for teacher: child ratios.

The other, rarely told, part of this story is that significant cuts in real funding for ECE services have occurred since 2010, including the cessation of a higher funding band for services employing 80 to 100 percent qualified and registered teachers; significant reductions in funding to support teacher professional development programmes; and a freeze on the ‘per-child’ funding rate. A post-2016 Budget NZEI Te Riu Roa survey of members teaching in ECE services found 89 percent of respondents reported experiencing a shortfall in government funding. Resulting from these funding policy decisions, 70 percent reported increases in parent fees, 40 percent reported reductions in their proportion of qualified, registered teachers, and 51 percent reported increased teacher-child contact hours. Negative impacts on curriculum implementation were reported by 48 percent of respondents, while 76 percent noted impacts on teacher professional development and learning.

These figures tell a story of increased growth and participation but not of improved quality. 

While increasing participation rates, particularly for Māori and Pasifika children and for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, was a core policy initiative of your predecessor, the same attention has not been paid to making sure that children are participating in high quality ECE services. The time has come, Minister, to shift the focus from participation, or quantity, to a focus on quality.

We know from an increasingly rich research base that children gain more from their participation in ECE when the quality is high. For example, an extensive review of research studies into the outcomes of ECE undertaken by Linda Mitchell, Cathy Wylie and Margaret Carr in 2008 found positive outcomes for children were most evident in good quality services. Similarly, Carmen Dalli and colleagues’ 2011 review of research found quality ECE for under-two-year-olds was “characterised by attuned relationships between children and adults … underpinned by a number of interrelated elements that … include high ratios, ongoing professional development and low stress environments”. We also know, from repeated Education Review Office reports into the quality of ECE services, that many are struggling to provide good, let alone high quality, ECE for our young children.

So what needs to change in terms of policy in order to build consistently high quality ECE in New Zealand?

First, we need to address some of the structural contributors to quality:

· a return to the staged implementation of a fully qualified and registered teacher workforce for teacher-led services (which make up almost 80 percent of ECE services)

· improved ratios—especially for children under two, from the current 1:5 teacher-child ratio to at least a “good enough” 1:4 but ideally a 1:3

· ongoing access to quality professional learning programmes that enable teachers to remain up to date with research and developments such as the recently revised ECE curriculum document, Te Whāriki 2017.

These structural aspects provide the foundation upon which teachers can engage in sensitive, reciprocal interactions with children and work with parents to encourage their engagement with their children’s learning. Implementing a rich, complex curriculum such Te Whāriki 2017 requires high levels of teacher knowledge and agency together with supportive working conditions such as sufficient non-contact time to discuss and document children’s learning. These factors collectively support teachers to establish effective learning environments within which they can engage in quality interactions with children and extend their learning.

Minister Kaye, I have been part of the ECE profession for more than 30 years and, together with my contemporaries, I know that in previous times we have made good progress toward achieving some of the policy and structural initiatives outlined above. However, all too often ECE has been a political football, with policy decisions made on an ideological playing field rather than with the best interests of young children at the heart of the process. One of the most enduring policy decisions you could make for ECE would be to establish a cross-party initiative where politicians from across the House worked collectively with the profession to develop a long-term bipartisan plan for improving quality. Such a plan would remove the regular lurches from one end of the policy continuum to the other that have occurred with each change of government and would, instead, ensure our collective gaze remained firmly fixed on what the research evidence tells us is good for children—our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Sue Cherrington

Associate Dean (Academic) Faculty of Education

Victoria University of Wellington

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