Early childhood education in 2012: a round-up

December 2012

 

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2012 has been an eventful year for the early childhood education (ECE) sector in New Zealand.

The qualified vs. unqualified debate has continued, implications from funding cuts have been felt, and a proposed new policy is set to shake up the sector even further. KATE RUSSELL looks at some of the major challenges and issues our ECE sector has faced this past year and what the hopes are for 2013.

Qualified vs unqualified

Currently, ECE services only require fifty percent of teachers to be qualified and registered. In reality, while some centres are staffed solely by qualified teachers, many have no choice but to only have half their teachers qualified.

There are varying thoughts on this topic. New Zealand Kindergartens chief executive Clare Wells strongly believes that every teacher in a teacher-led ECE service should be qualified and registered, especially at a time when the Government is looking to increase participation in ECE and raise student achievement in schools.

“The research evidence identifying the key factors in the provision of high quality ECE is very clear, and critical in that mix is teacher qualification,” says Wells. “If we want to maximise tax payer investment and the benefits of participating in ECE, then ensuring all staff in teacher-led services are qualified is crucial.”

Nancy Bell, chief executive of the New Zealand Childcare Association (NZCA), believes that every child deserves a qualified teacher. A study commissioned by the NZCA this year, based on teachers’ practice in ten New Zealand ECE centres, examined children’s experiences in centres where half the teachers were qualified, compared with centres where all the teachers were qualified. While all centres were good at promoting children’s social competence, the teachers in the fully qualified centres were much more intentional about children’s learning and had deeper and more challenging conversations.

Memory Loader, principal of Childspace Early Childhood Institute in Wellington, also endorses the need for teachers to be educated, but she points out that there are benefits of having untrained teachers, too.

“Having qualified teachers is important, and having a high qualification standard is important for our professional integrity,” she says. “However, I believe 80-100 per cent works well because there is a professional understanding that is upheld, as well as giving room for unqualified teachers to be involved in the education and care of young children.”

Loader states that many of the unqualified teachers at Childspace have a gentle intuition and respect and work in partnership with children. “This needs to be celebrated and encouraged,” she says.

Carol Stovold, president of the New Zealand Home-Based ECE Association, has a similar outlook.

“Parents rely on ECE to be providing the best quality of care and learning available to their children,” she says.

“But in saying that, there is also a place for learning on the job – so to speak, where qualification-based training can enhance the depth of experience and skills that people already bring to the role.”

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The budget and its implications^^^

The 2010 Budget, in which the National Government removed the 100 per cent qualified funding band for ECE services, forced many centres that were previously better funded to adopt a pragmatic position regarding the number of qualified teachers they could afford. It has also forced many centres to raise their fees just to stay operating, which has led many parents to reduce their children’s hours of enrolment. Then, ironically, the objective of the latest budget is to raise participation rates in ECE and to give opportunities for all children to participate in early childhood programmes.

Clare Wells believes that the major implications of the recent funding changes relate to the quality and affordability of services and the subsequent impact on the participation of children and families in ECE.

“It was not only the reduction in the level of funding but also the method by which the Government made the changes – cutting the two top funding bands that had supported services with 80 per cent or more qualified teachers to reach and maintain a 100 per cent qualified teaching team – that concerned the sector,” she says. “Over time, we will see the full extent of the policy change, but anecdotal evidence suggests a number of services are struggling to meet costs, including their commitment to employ all qualified teachers and to support teachers’ professional development.”

For Wells, and the Kindergarten Associations across New Zealand, the implications are recasting budgets, including pulling back on capital works, deferring maintenance, revising professional development allocations, and in some cases, reducing the hours of non-teaching staff, just to retain 100 per cent qualified teachers.

The 2012 Budget signalled a shift in thinking towards increased targeted funding. While there was no change in universal funding rates paid to ECE services, the equity funding rates did increase.

“Should the trend to increase targeted funding without also maintaining adequate universal funding continue, ECE services will come under further pressure, exacerbating current difficulties and narrowing the options available to meet increased and ongoing costs,” says Wells.

The latest Budget also aims to increase Māori children’s participation in ECE, and this is central to the Government’s ‘Better Public Services’target of 98 per cent participation in ECE. This initiative will support Māori-medium ECE services, and it will improve access to and support for Māori immersion ECE services and be delivered by working with iwi partners and others to improve participation and quality for Māori learners.

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Compulsory ECE for beneficiaries

One of the biggest announcements the sector has faced in 2012 is that ECE has been proposed to become compulsory for three and four-year-old New Zealand children whose parents are on state benefits. Under the proposal, children will be required to attend a licensed ECE service for a minimum of 15 hours per week, or otherwise, families could eventually have their benefits slashed by 50 percent.

This announcement has produced mixed feelings within the sector. Many take the view that it is forcing families to go against what they want for their children and adding extra costs that many just simply can't afford. Even with three and four-year-olds getting 20 hours free ECE, there are the additional charges made by most ECE services, as well as transport costs.

Clare Wells, for one, is not a fan of the proposal.

“Making enrolment in ECE compulsory for a particular group denies parents the right to choose what is appropriate for their child,” she says.

“I think a better strategy is to ensure all families can access high quality, affordable, inclusive,and culturally relevant ECE services so they are empowered to make positive decisions about their child’s education.”

Memory Loader also believes there will be negative implications.

“I think as soon as we take away people's choices and start prescribing what will happen to them as opposed to in consultation with them, we create rifts in our society,” she says.

“There are all sorts of implications that could come from this, such as access to quality education, additional costs, and facing penalties if their child does not attend. For ECE services, it means we will have more children and families attending, but I think there needs to be more public discussion around what this will mean for families.”

Nancy Bell also believes that ECE should remain non-compulsory. However, she also states that there are huge benefits for three and four- year-olds who participate in high quality ECE.

“Rather than the ‘big stick’ approach, we want to see interventions that encourage and support parents to see the value of ECE and to overcome barriers to participation,” she says.

Carol Stovold has a slightly different outlook on the proposal.

“There is a raft of ideological reasons why ECE should not be compulsory for anyone, but the reality is that a large majority of children who are not attending ECE are the children of beneficiaries. If we look at children as citizens within social networks instead of commodities, they therefore have the rights to attend learning environments that provide for their wellbeing, education, competence, and social connectedness with others,” she says.

“Regular attendance at another environment, in addition to their own home, can provide additional opportunities for the children to develop their capacity for knowledge.”

Thoughts on curriculum

It has been sixteen years since the New Zealand early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki, was launched, and in the view of most ECE professionals, it is still an extremely effective curriculum document; its influence in shaping the New Zealand Curriculum in schools in evident. The only suggestion has been to change the way Te Whāriki is implemented.

As Nancy Bell states, “Te Whāriki is world-leading, highly respected, and as timely as when it was written,” she says, “However, it requires competent professional teachers working as learning leaders within their communities to bring the framework to life.”

Te Whāriki is a beautiful, holistic living curriculum that encompasses and celebrates the whole child,” says Memory Loader.

“What makes it effective is us – we are the curriculum, people, places, and things. We need to ensure we are respecting and honouring the Kotahitanga nature of Te Whāriki, educating ourselves to use it wisely and look more in-depth at the experiences we are offering children, the way we empower them and get them excited about learning.”

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Other challenges and issues^^^

The ECE sector has faced a number of other challenges and issues in 2012. Carol Stovold says that just keeping up with all of the reviews and changing methodologies is a big enough challenge in itself.

Changes to the provisional registration funding have been challenging, according to Memory Loader, requiring educational organisations to think differently and creatively about how teachers attend professional development. Also, children’s rights to high quality ECE versus business imperatives has been an issue, states Clare Wells.

“The call for reduced compliance costs has led to centre sizes being increased from 50 over-two-year-olds to 150 children, which by default, becomes the maximum group size, and the removal of the requirement for separate sleep rooms, for example.”

Wells also states another issue: the emphasis on collaboration across ECE services to meet communities’ needs and increase participation, alongside competition and the lack of rules around planning services.

“In some areas, operators have established services and received Government funding where there is already a sufficient supply of services to meet demand,” she says. “Services are unlikely to collaborate where they compete for families in the same community in order to remain viable.”

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Hopes for 2013^^^

There are many hopes for the ECE sector in 2013.

“In the year ahead, we expect to hear much more about the learning outcomes of ECE and how these can be shared with schools to support effective ECE-school transitions” says Nancy Bell.

“This is a focus of current ECE policy work and will require us to become better at documenting learning and building a shared cross sector language to show individual’s learning progressions.”

There are different hopes for home-based childcare, with Carol Stovold hoping that the review of home-based ECE has a positive effect on the sector, providing greater clarity and expectations to improve quality outcomes for children.

“I hope that the recommendations for more research into home-based ECE are picked up and that future decision-making is evidence-based on research,” says Stovold.

Other shared hopes for 2013 include that the collaboration between ECE and compulsory schooling sectors continues to develop and grow and that Best Evidence Synthesis work is undertaken in the ECE sector across a range of service types. Also, importantly, there is the hope that quality provision of ECE continues to be the focus alongside of increasing participation.