Education

Rule-breaking ECE centres forced to shut

Childcare centre closures have left families and staff out in the cold. In some cases, they were given just three days’ notice, Laura Walters reports

Staff and families of Auckland’s Discoveries Educare branches feel blindsided by the sudden closure of the early childhood education centres.

The Ministry of Education has cancelled the operating licences for five of the Discoveries centres due to the organisation’s ongoing failure to comply with a range of safety and wellbeing regulations.

The Mangere branch has also closed after the organisation decided it would cease operation.

The decision to close the centres comes after years of regulation breaches and complaints about a lack of resourcing and standards of care.

In 2016, a tree fell over at the organisation’s centre in Newmarket, seriously injuring four children and a teacher. Last year, Discoveries was ordered to pay more than $200,000 for failing to ensure the health and safety of the children and staff, putting them at risk of serious injury or death.

While the non-compliance issues, and provisional licensing of the centres, had been ongoing for sometime. Staff and families say they were not told what was going on, or that the centres could close.

The Discoveries Educare centres in Wairau Valley, Albany and Newmarket had their licences cancelled during Covid-19, and none of them re-opened after lockdown.

Meanwhile, the centres in Henderson and Mt Wellington had their operating licences cancelled by the ministry on July 7 and July 3, respectively.

In the case of the Mt Wellington centre, families and staff were told just three days before the centre closed. In the case of the Henderson branch, some parents said they were unaware of any breaches, or that the centre was on a temporary licence.

“Cancelling licences is not a decision we have made lightly, however, these services continued to remain non-compliant and did not meet the conditions on their provisional licences."

The closures come after years of non-compliance issues. Of the organisation’s 12 centres, 10 have been on provisional licences in recent years. 

The exception is the centre in Papakura, which regained a full licence. And centre in Takanini was on a probationary licence, which had since expired and the centre had shut.

The provisional licences were issued after the centres failed to comply with a range of health, safety and wellbeing regulations, as well as laws relating to record-keeping and transparency regarding funding. 

Provisional licences allow the ministry to monitor centres, and those in charge are able to work to lift standards over a specified period of time. Where improvements are not made, and in serious cases, the ministry suspends or cancels the operating licence.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary of sector enablement and support Katrina Casey said the ministry had been working with Discoveries to try and ensure it provided the level of education and care required by the regulated standards. 

“Cancelling licences is not a decision we have made lightly, however, these services continued to remain non-compliant and did not meet the conditions on their provisional licences."

Despite the centres being on notice over the past couple of years, the ministry continued to receive complaints.

In 2019, the ministry received eight complaints about Discoveries, and a further three this year. This is on top of a raft of complaints about a lack of staff and insufficient supervision in 2017 and 2018.

"Our efforts to resolve these ongoing issues have been genuine, consistent, and evidently - in the Ministry’s view - not enough."

Discoveries Educare owners Rippan Sandhu and Ajit Singh have battled against the closures, and sought High Court injunctions and judicial reviews of the ministry’s decisions. 

This led to the closure of some centres being delayed over the past few months.

In a letter to families of the Mt Wellington centre, the Discoveries owners said the forced closure was unexpected and out of their control.

“The decision is a devastating blow to us, as we have been working hard with the Ministry of Education in rectifying some compliance issues which have come to light over the last two years. Our efforts to resolve these ongoing issues have been genuine, consistent, and evidently - in the Ministry’s view - not enough," they said in the letter.

“We did this because serving our community is the reason why we get up in the morning. We fought for our staff, for our parents, and most of all for our tamariki. We fought because you matter,” they said, adding "we are heartbroken, and we cannot express to you enough the sadness and disappointment we feel".

Sandhu and Singh said their sympathies were also with their staff.

“You talk about being a company who wants to look after your people, you talk about being a company who values children, and family and whānau, but this is how you treat your employees, and this is the notice that you give to people in your centre."

But a teacher from the Mt Wellington centre, who did not want to be identified, said staff felt undervalued and “absolutely trapped” by the current situation.

Discoveries was first notified of the ministry’s decision to cancel its licence for the Mt Wellington centre on May 27. The court proceedings delayed the final decision, which was confirmed by the ministry on June 26 (a day after they resolved the issue for the interim order).

Staff and families were not told about any of this until June 30 - three days before the centre closed.

“You talk about being a company who wants to look after your people, you talk about being a company who values children, and family and whānau, but this is how you treat your employees, and this is the notice that you give to people in your centre,” the teacher said.

“It really says something. It’s really cruel.”

Staff were told they could work at another centre, but there was no guarantee those centres would remain open, given they were also on provisional licences.

They were also told they would not be eligible for their redundancy packages if they refused the offer of employment at another centre.

In one-on-one meetings with management, staff were told not to talk about the situation. They were told if they did not show up to meetings, the business would make decisions about their future employment on their behalf.

The teacher said staff felt under pressure, intimidated, and "absolutely trapped".

The long-running compliance and safety issues at Discoveries also reflected poorly on teachers, and made it hard for teachers to get jobs elsewhere.

“It’s easy for us to get swallowed by the reputation.”

“Discoveries Educare has had a long-running history of poor performance and breaches of ECE regulations, so its claim that they had to close suddenly because the Ministry of Education withdrew their licences is difficult to reconcile with the facts.”

More broadly, Discoveries centres had issues with meeting adult to child ratios, a lack of resources, bullying and high staff turnover, the teacher said, adding that the Mt Wellington centre had three different managers in the past year.

“They clearly don’t care about their people. They just care about money,” the staff member said.

Newsroom understands parents were also shocked by the closures.

Some parents were finding it difficult to enrol their children at other centres, others were struggling to transition children who had formed relationships with their teachers, and many were without sick leave as a result of Covid.

One parent at the Henderson centre told ChildForum: “It was heart-breaking to see my child cry when I told her it was closing and she would not be able to go anymore. She has a strong attachment with a lovely teacher, and she’s really going to miss her.”

NZEI Te Riu Roa national secretary Paul Goulter said closure at such short notice was not acceptable for children and their families, or for staff.  

“Discoveries Educare has had a long-running history of poor performance and breaches of ECE regulations, so its claim that they had to close suddenly because the Ministry of Education withdrew their licences is difficult to reconcile with the facts.”

Discoveries Educare director Rippan Sandhu declined to be interviewed, but in a brief statement said the organisation was working with the ministry regarding the closures.

“We appreciate that centre closures are a difficult time for children and their families, and we are doing our best to support families and children during this time, including finding other care and their transition.”

The closures come at a time when the sector is under financial pressure and scrutiny. Covid-19 has highlighted inconsistencies in pay, conditions and service delivery across ECE.

Goulter said the severe stress facing the sector was a consequence of competition, chronic under-funding over the past decade, and now Covid-19’s impact on the labour market.  

This has led to calls for transformation of what some say is a broken system.

The Government released its 10-year early learning action plan at the end of 2019. The plan includes commitments to address many of the fundamental issues facing the sector.

But some say the plan does not go far enough, and the changes will not come fast enough.

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