ECE funding rears head again

With the election approaching, the education sector is beginning to beat its drum. The latest is the Early Childhood Education sector (ECE), who are demanding more money from their new Minister. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

Following a morning meeting with new Education Minister Nikki Kaye, a trio of ECE bosses arrived at a pre-organised press conference.

While they were happy with some of the initiatives in the Budget, they said, the sector remained chronically underfunded and parents were likely to bear the brunt as fees rose.

Such underfunding claims in the sector are not new.

But the three groups – New Zealand Kindergartens, Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand (ECNZ), and the union NZEI - looked slightly foolish at the conference after stumbling at the first, and what should have been most obvious, question: how much money do they want?

Those fronting the media were unable to say, with journalists later directed to an earlier-released Infometrics report.

In March, NZEI held a rally outside Parliament drawing attention to the study it had commissioned.

It found $260 million a year had been sliced off ECE funding, through halting subsidies for employing qualified teachers and failing to adjust for inflation since 2010.

ECNZ chief executive Kathy Wolfe said new Government funding of $350m announced at the Budget was good news for future children, but did nothing to assist those already in the sector.

The Government had focused heavily on increasing participation rates, but this had come at the expense of the hourly rate per child.

New Zealand Kindergarten chief executive Clare Wells took her time to focus on the removal of subsidies for qualified teachers.

The sector had been on track to reach its goal of 100 percent qualified teachers, but this had become impossible when subsidies for centres with high levels of qualified teachers were scrapped.

It resulted in a 14 percent drop in funding for kindergartens and there was little incentive for centres to move past the 50 percent minimum qualified teacher rate.

NZEI president Lynda Stuart said she had high hopes for the Budget, but the hourly rate per child remained almost identical to 2008.

ECE centres were being forced to cut costs including equipment and survive through fundraising and donations.

“The NZ public needs to understand what this means for children, the days of our young children beginning their learning journey with skilled professionals who understand how young children learn, their developmental stages and how to provide high-quality learning environments are set to become a thing of the past.

“We have an election coming up, obviously early childhood education is one of the issues we want to see to the fore around this time.”

Warmth and engagement not enough

Sue Cherrington, associate dean of Victoria University’s School of Education, agrees the ECE sector is under financial stress.

“There’s absolutely no fat in the system and in real terms services are getting less per child than they were previously.”

The focus on lifting participation rates, rather than quality, was a concern as research showed that participation in mediocre early education could be detrimental.

Having a high percentage of qualified teachers was important, as they had the skills to react and tailor teaching as the situation demanded.

Untrained teachers working alongside may have the empathy, but lacked other skills, she said.

“Expecting an unqualified person or someone with a low-level qualification to be able to do that merely by working alongside someone else is completely unrealistic.

“Warmth and engagement are really important, but on their own they’re not enough.”

Cherrington said while a funding injection was needed, it was important it was targeted rather than bulk funded.

There had been a proliferation of for-profit ECE providers and while this was not necessarily a bad thing, extra money needed to be funnelled into the right areas rather than shareholder’s pockets.

Could more money be on the way?

It’s possible that regardless of who wins the election, the sector could get a boost in the future.

The education funding system, including ECE, is currently under review, with changes expected in 2020.

Education Minister Nikki Kaye said she would continue to talk with unions about funding.

“We do have a funding review underway and what I’ve said to them is we will have a range of conversations around funding through that funding review.”

She dismissed claims that the sector was chronically underfunded, stating more was being spent than ever before.

An extra $386m had been announced at the Budget, including spending for disadvantaged children, and the Government was now pouring in about $1.8 billion for education.

The overall affordability of ECE had improved in the past few years and parents spent about 10 percent less than their counterparts in Australia.

There had also been an increase in the average of qualified teachers, which was now sitting at about 73 percent, she said.

Labour’s education spokesperson Chris Hipkins said the party was still “crunching the numbers” on an alternative budget and was not in a position to announce how much would be spent in the area if the party were elected.

But it would restore the subsidy rates for 80 to 100 percent qualified teachers, with a long-term goal of reaching 100 percent across all providers.

It was also important to reduce the financial pressure by making sure providers were not relying on alternative funding sources, such as donations, like they were now.

“We’re aware there’s a big gap in the Budget around education that we will have to fill.”

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