Education

ECE adult-to-child ratios not fit for purpose

Experts and advocates say adult:child ratios are not fit for purpose and ministry records show they aren’t based on any research, evidence or best-practice, Laura Walters reports

Calls for significant changes to adult to child ratios in early learning centres are increasing, with some saying the current regulations may be doing harm.

The case for change comes as the ministry confirms the current regulations aren’t backed by any known research or evidence.

The current legal minimum ratios are one adult for every five children, if they are under two years old. If the child is over two, the ratio is one adult for every 10 children.

Separate regulations dictate the amount of space per child inside a room (2.5 square metres per child, regardless of furniture) and outside (5 square metres per child) is regulated. 

There are no limits on the total number of children allowed in a group. 

Those working in the sector say these ratios aren’t fit for purpose, and in some cases are actively harming children due to noise levels, overcrowding, temperatures, stress, and a lack of one-on-one attention needed to build important early relationships.

“Because these requirements came into effect in 1990 and 1960 respectively, information about the evidence or research relating to these sections of the regulations is not available in any computer records."

Teachers and ECE professionals told Newsroom some centres are not sticking to the current regulations, due to a lack of staff and in some cases a misunderstanding of the rules.

When the Ministry of Education was asked, via the Official Information Act, what the regulations relating to ratios and space allocations were based on it was not able to identify any evidence or research.

In its response, the ministry pointed to the Education (Early Childhood Centres) Regulations 1990, which was updated in 1998 and 2008; and the Child Care Centre Regulations 1960.

“Because these requirements came into effect in 1990 and 1960 respectively, information about the evidence or research relating to these sections of the regulations is not available in any computer records,” the ministry said.

It appears the regulations were inherited, rather than being born out of best-practice and evidence.

The sector has changed rapidly over the past decade, experiencing significant growth: In 2018, there were over 5,400 early learning services – an increase of over 30 percent since 2000; and the number of teachers almost doubled between 2001 and to 2017 (from 29,200 to 57,700).

Those who spoke to Newsroom said the regulations were no longer fit for practice, if they ever were.

The Government’s new 10-year Early Learning Action Plan acknowledges the current ratios need to change, and commits to lowering the ratio for children under two to 1:4 (from 1:5) over the next 10 years.

It also expresses an aspiration desire, in the long-term, to move towards a ratio of 1:3, as is the case in some other countries, including the UK.

The plan also says ratios for children over two would be dropped from 1:10 to 1:5 “as funding allows".

And it acknowledges the lack of regulation regarding group sizes: “The Ministry will develop comprehensive, integrated and culturally appropriate advice about the relationships between group size, centre design and wider environmental factors, and how to improve quality standards in these areas.”

But those working in the area say they can’t wait for 10 years - the damage is being done now.

“While the early childhood education research does not dictate ideal ratios for adults and children, it is certainly clear from the neuroscientific evidence that one-on-one reciprocal interactions offer a vital foundation for the learning and development of children."

There had been discussion of lowering ratios since the laws were last changed in the 1990s, and again a long-term plan had been developed, but teachers and advocates said change needed to come sooner.

The current pressure on the system, the uncertain economic future due to Covid, and the teacher shortage crisis had again brought the ratio issue to the fore.

Academics, teachers and advocates are now calling for a swift move to a 1:3 ratio, rather than treating this as an aspirational goal.

This move was backed up political party TOP, which recently released its early learning policy, calling for reduced ratios and group sizes as part of a wider system overhaul.

“While the early childhood education research does not dictate ideal ratios for adults and children, it is certainly clear from the neuroscientific evidence that one-on-one reciprocal interactions offer a vital foundation for the learning and development of children."

Meanwhile, education union NZEI also recently released a paper calling for the Government to restore maximum numbers in ECE centres to 75 from the current 150, and introduce ratios of 1:3 for children under two.

“While being fenced into small spaces devoid of grass and natural environments, with no space to run... This is anti-education.”

ECE teacher, advocate and researcher Susan Bates said there had long been an outcry to change the ratios, which many believed were “dangerous and exhausting”.

Some centres were voluntarily lowering their ratios. But doing this affected the profitability, due to the way funding was allocated, which meant cuts had to be made elsewhere.

It was also difficult to find enough qualified and experienced teachers.

Some teachers told Newsroom their centres struggled to find and fund the staff needed to meet the minimum ratio regulations, and would operate unlawfully.

For example, teachers on their breaks would not be covered by someone else, meaning the ratio would drop to below minimum requirements. The law says a person does not count as an adult while at lunch, or while having a break, or during non-contact times.

In order to get around these regulations, some would leave the door open to their office while on a break or doing administrative work, so they could be counted as ‘in ratio’.

A former ECE receptionist said the centre manager would falsely fill in records and rosters saying she was ‘on the floor’ with the children for the day, when she was actually in her office doing paperwork.

To add to the trouble, there has been recent confusion from the ministry over whether the centre manager or ‘person responsible’ for staff and children can be counted towards the ratio of adults to children.

The lack of clarity in the regulations was raised with the Regulations Review Committee earlier in the year. It was pointed out that the law said "the adults providing education and care… are supervised by a person responsible”, but as a person could not supervise themselves, they should not be counted as being within ratios to meet the minimum number of adults.

The committee has since recommended a complete rewrite of the regulations, saying they were difficult to understand, possibly ambiguous and breached parliamentary standing orders.

“The minister thinks his 10 year strategic plan should appease us. It doesn't."

Bates also raised issues with the absence of regulations regarding maximum group sizes, and the amount of space allocated per child.

The environment played a significant part in a child’s wellbeing, she said.

"Space per child, acoustics, infection control should be the primary elements… Sleep rooms for toddlers are often awful, poorly ventilated, too hot or too cold - lovely environments for germs, but not children.”

Some children were in overcrowded rooms for up to 10 hours a day, which affected their mental and physical health.

In a 2018 paper, Mike Bedford - a public health expert, specialising in health and wellbeing in early childhood education settings - said the quality of care and education was “drastically lacking”.

“While being fenced into small spaces devoid of grass and natural environments, with no space to run... It’s not surprising therefore that children start school with language problems. This is anti-education.”

His research found as many as 30 percent of centres could be actively harming children.

Bates said current regulations, licensing, staff and employment practices were putting the health and wellbeing of children under threat.

“The minister thinks his 10 year strategic plan should appease us. It doesn't...

“Academics, researchers and public servants in our sector have a great deal to answer for when regulations can be unchallenged or reviewed for decades when our children's health and wellbeing is at stake.”

Ministry of Education deputy secretary for sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said New Zealand’s ECE standards compared favourably among OECD member countries, and at any one time, 98 percent of services met or exceeded licensing standards.

“We know high quality early learning services play a vital part in supporting parents and whānau in their role as their children’s first teachers. For this reason, the Government is focused on further improvements in early learning.”

Casey said the implementation of the 10-year action plan would help address these issues.

She specifically pointed to the actions on: lowering ratios, developing advice regarding group sizes, lifting the proportion of qualified teachers to 100 percent, improving teacher salaries and working conditions and developing a teacher supply strategy to deal with the current shortage.

This article has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly said the Education and Workforce Select Committee was reviewing the interpretation of ratio regulations, rather than the Regulations Review Committee.

Can you help our journalists uncover the facts?

Newsroom is committed to giving our journalists the time they need to uncover, investigate, and fact-check tough stories. Reader donations are critical to buying our team the time they need to produce high-quality independent journalism.

If you can help us, please donate today.

Comments

Newsroom does not allow comments directly on this website. We invite all readers who wish to discuss a story or leave a comment to visit us on Twitter or Facebook. We also welcome your news tips and feedback via email: contact@newsroom.co.nz. Thank you.

With thanks to our partners