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Why we need a complete reform of the ECE and care sector

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

From Executive Officer Dr Mike Bedford:

This is the first blog for ECE Reform, and I have to say it's quite an exciting moment! I believe that we can achieve some really significant things, not only for New Zealand children, but potentially with international reach. But it is also a bittersweet moment. Let's be honest, few of you would be reading this if you didn't already know that we have a serious situation in New Zealand ECE and care.

Looking back to the early ‘90s, we were in quite an exciting time in New Zealand for ECE, and for ECE teachers. Moving ECE and care under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education seemed like a really good step forward, and it certainly made sense. We were looking forward to a time when teachers would be recognised properly for the work they did and the skills they had. We recognised that if you were involved in non-parental care and education you needed to be properly qualified. When I worked with the sector from a public health perspective in the ‘90s, I caught this enthusiasm. I remember one ECE conference I attended where I said, “It wouldn't matter what my job was, this is a delight – an inspiration”.

During my early work with the ECE sector, I was struck by the dedication of teachers, and also by the potential richness of experience in good quality ECE environments. The New Zealand ECE curriculum guidelines Te Whāriki were the best government level document I had ever seen, and a brilliant human development model. Te Whāriki was a beautiful gift to the nation from the indigenous New Zealand Kohanga Reo movement. Back then we had some problems in the ECE and care sector, especially infection transmission, poor physical and ratio regulations, bad design of indoor and outdoor spaces, and a lack of understanding of the wellbeing strand of Te Whāriki, but these were all fixable things. I would certainly not have described the sector as being in any kind of crisis – the future was reasonably bright.

Now in 2021 we have a teacher shortage, as teachers leave the workforce with comments such as, “I can't condone this system anymore”, and “I feel broken by this”. This term of government could see the collapse of centre-based ECE and care, due to shocking conditions and a demoralised, unsupported, teaching workforce.

So how did things go so terribly wrong?

I believe the answer lies with the combination of provider motivations and systems, including Ministry and governance structures, and regulations. Unfortunately, our licensing system is stacked with perverse incentives. It is a model that only requires compliance with minimum standards in order to receive government funding. If a centre complies with the minimum, the Secretary must licence them. The funding is not determined by good quality, so there are no quality incentives. At the same time, our minimum standards for space per child and ratios are appallingly low, we have no environmental standards for ECE and care, and almost no indoor or outdoor design standards. The financial model for profit-based providers is driven by child-dollars per square metre, per hour, per day, per year. To maximise profit you give children the least space for the most hours per year, and minimise overheads such as quality of environments, food, and staff conditions. There is a financial incentive to locate centres on busy roads, busy intersections, and in industrial zones, with associated health-damaging emissions and particulates. Not surprising then, that teachers suffer high levels of injury and illness, and some of our ‘ECE’ environments are the last thing you would want a child to experience for their wellbeing or education.

Aside from commercial motivations and poor regulations, the siloed behavior of government Ministries, especially health and education, has left the care of our youngest, most vulnerable children, desperately neglected. The 30 year experiment has seen neither Ministry take responsibility for care, or for child mental, emotional and physical heath.

The 4,000 teacher survey last year by Child Forum, showing that 25% of respondents wouldn't endorse their own centre’s quality, would be sufficient on its own to be a cause of great alarm. But was this survey representative? Surveys such as this have inherent selection bias. So, let's cut the numbers in half and say that one in eight teachers couldn't endorse their own centre. That alone should be enough to initiate an investigation into ECE sector conditions. We have also had teachers on TV and radio with disguised voice and disguised face, (in one instance to protect themselves against their former employer), describing horrendous conditions in the sector. Our minimum indoor and outdoor space, the one teacher to five child ratio for children under two years old, crowded and noisy conditions, combined with high teacher turnover and teacher stress, each individually constitute a form of child abuse, as well as a disrespect for and abuse of teachers.

The emphasis in the next ten years needs to be on children’s quality of life and experiences. The first priority must be on quality of life in the moment. This is care. Secondly, we need to holistically consider the way in which experiences of all things – relationships, environments, discovery and knowledge, set an emotional, social, physical, and learning trajectory for future years. This is Early Childhood Education. We must address the crisis of care in New Zealand ECE.

ECE Reform has been born out of a recognition of the need for complete system change, combined with the development of high-quality models for provision and governance, and a new approach to government systems for children in their early years. ECE Reform proposals honour children, teachers, and parents, and are eminently practical and achievable.

One of the best things about the ECE Reform suite of proposals, is that they are excellent systems in their own right, even if there were no problem to fix.

If you're reading this and not yet a member, but would like to see our proposals implemented in New Zealand (and brought to the attention of other nations with similar ECE and care problems), please join us! If you can help facilitate meetings, or otherwise assist the promotion of our proposals, please go to our contact page to get in touch with me.

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