Primrose Schools is not a household name in New Zealand, but according to Primrose CEO Jo Kirchner it could be in five to 10 years’ time.

The ECE provider recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. In that time the company has seen massive growth and now has 350 centres throughout the US.

And they haven’t stopped growing. Kirchner tells Education Review that Primrose is looking to expand its operation into other countries. English-speaking countries are high on the agenda, and New Zealand could be on the list.

Kirchner gave the opening address for the 2017 World Forum on Early Learning in May in Auckland.

“Listening to the delegates from around 70 countries, it is clear the challenges in trying to ensure high-quality education for children are very, very similar,” she says. “There is more commonality than difference.”

Kirchner says the biggest challenge facing early childhood education from a global perspective is equity. She says a successful ECE programme needs affordability, accessibility and quality – yet all governments grapple with how to fund early education appropriately.

What does the Primrose approach entail?

Unlike New Zealand, the US doesn’t have an overarching national curriculum framework.

Instead Primrose has developed its own curriculum, the Primrose Balanced Learning curriculum, which is predominantly play-based and child-led. It combines the wisdom of early learning philosophers such as Montessori and Vygotsky with more recent child development research.

Its premise is that introducing a skill when a child is truly ready leads to mastery instead of frustration. As such, the curriculum is structured so that in each learning area, whether it be literacy or art or physical education, there are clearly defined levels for children to work towards at their own pace.

The challenge for Primrose as it rolls out its approach across so many states is how to make a one-size-fits-all approach work for a diverse range of communities.

Each US state has its own set of high-level guidelines and standards. Kirchner says they review every state’s standards and ensure their curriculum meets the highest standards among those.

The beauty of having so many centres spread across the country is that Primrose can collate the data at each child level to identify any areas in which children are not mastering skills and concepts as expected. This allows Primrose to look into what areas need to change. It could be that better equipment or more staff professional development is needed, or a change to the curriculum.

It operates on a franchise model, and Kirchner says most franchise owners are parents whose children attended a Primrose centre. The franchise model lends itself to great engagement with local communities.

Would it work in New Zealand?

But would Primrose be able to operate within the New Zealand ECE system with its unique curriculum and framework?

Early Childhood Council chief executive Peter Reynolds says foreign ownership of ECE centres is not bad per se.

“There are overseas-based investors operating in New Zealand already, so foreign ownership is not a new thing for us.”

But he does outline two key concerns. The first is around the competition that overseas providers would bring, and the impact this would have on
local providers.

“Increasing the scale of foreign ownership is likely to increase competitive pressure on some good but small ECE providers, many of whom are struggling already with deep government cuts to per-child subsidies and sharp competition from larger providers.

“Government has cut $105,000 a year in funding from the average ECE centre since it began ongoing per-child funding cuts in Budget 2010. It is no surprise, therefore, that some small centres are doing it tough. And it is likely some would be unable to survive a ratcheting up of competitive pressures driven by an increase in foreign ownership,” he says.

Reynolds says the Early Childhood Council also has some concerns around the ability of foreign providers to deliver ‘quality’ in a New Zealand context.

“All New Zealand ECE providers must comply with a substantial number of very specific government regulations,” he says. “Foreign providers need to get their heads around a compliance regime that may differ substantially from the one to which they are accustomed.”

Reynolds points out that our ECE curriculum Te Whāriki is “uniquely New Zealand”.

“Foreign providers need to understand this, and the implications this curriculum has for the manner in which they deliver education and care.”

He says that foreign providers must comply also with the expectations of New Zealand families, which may well differ from those of families in their countries of origin.

“It is our view that the impact of foreign ownership depends on the ability of individual foreign owners to address these quality concerns and to deliver high-quality care in the New Zealand context.”

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