Early education's critical path
We are at a critical crossroad for early childhood education in New Zealand and there is no doubt the decisions we make today will have an impact on generations to come.
Last year the Government commissioned an Early Childhood Education Taskforce to write a report on the sector and to make recommendations on future service provision. This body of research sits before ministers and is likely to underpin the development of new policies. There have already been significant changes to early childhood education regulations and the funding structure since 2010.
Both of these changes have the potential to have an impact on the quality of early-childhood education services available to children and families.
When the Treasury briefing paper to the incoming finance minister was issued, it recommended that existing early childhood education funding should be directed to low-income families.
Issues of who has access to early childhood education, the quality of services available, and the role of early childhood education in the New Zealand education system are all being considered.
There are two main factors driving early childhood education policy development: a focus on fiscal constraint and debt reduction; and a goal of increasing early childhood education participation rates among Māori, Pasifika and low-income communities.
These are priorities that should not be at odds with maintaining high-quality early childhood education services universally accessible to all families.
In fact, ensuring that every child can attend a culturally appropriate early childhood education service - and in the case of teacher-led services, with 100 per cent qualified, registered teachers - will help the Government meet these important objectives.
Investing in early childhood education is good fiscal policy. Research shows that every dollar invested can save up to $17 in future costs.
The Early Childhood Education Taskforce's report, An Agenda for Amazing Children, concludes that "investing in early childhood education can be thought of as one of the most effective uses of taxpayer funds".
Multiple research studies show that participation in high-quality early childhood education has enduring benefits for all children as they progress through their school years and beyond. The research shows the positive effects of early childhood education on students' literacy, numeracy and logical problem-solving competencies and social skills well into their secondary schooling years.
For children from disadvantaged communities, the benefits are even more pronounced and include increased success at school and increased likelihood of employment.
Walk into a kindergarten and you will see four-year-olds using computers to research information for a project; children discussing the kindergarten's recycling programme, working out how to harvest the next crop in the vegetable garden or negotiating a fair process to make sure everyone gets a turn. Young children are aware of their environment and the people around them.
They are industrious, inquisitive and creative. Kindergarten teachers build on and develop those interests, extending each child's learning and understanding about their world. Their experience in kindergarten will contribute to the academic, emotional and social foundation supporting their success.
The benefits of high-quality early childhood education extend all the way up the income ladder, and the research evidence shows that the economic benefits are maximised by universal provision.
Targeting alone is administratively expensive and has limited success reaching at-risk populations which are often ill-defined and constantly changing. The current mix of universal provision and targeting works. It provides universal access for all children, including up to 20 hours early childhood education each week for three to six-year-olds, plus additional targeted funding to support specific communities where needed.
Greater participation in early childhood education among low- income, Māori and Pasifika children is a goal that kindergarten supports and contributes to significantly. However, simply increasing the number of children attending services is not enough. To maximise the benefits of early childhood education, services need to be high-quality and tailored to meet the needs and aspirations of individual communities.
Kindergarten offers more than 30 services models and several of them are breaking new ground. Toru Fetū Kindergarten in Wellington brings together three Pasifika communities, focused on preserving and promoting the Niuean, Cook Island and Tuvaluan language and cultures. The Waimate and Ruahine regional kindergarten associations run mobile kindergartens which bring services to rural communities, and Koru Kindergarten in Stratford is attached to a Teen Parent Unit. Te Timatatanga o Te Matauranga Whare Kohungahunga is a bilingual kindergarten in Whangarei.
As the Government considers the future of early childhood, New Zealand Kindergartens urges ministers to acknowledge the important role of early childhood education for children, parents, whānau and communities.
Attending an early childhood education service is a child's first point of contact with our world- class education system. The Government must make a long-term commitment to ensuring high- quality, universally accessible early childhood education so that all children in New Zealand can have an opportunity to thrive and to reach their potential.
Clare Wells is chief executive of New Zealand Kindergartens Te Pūtahi Kura Pūhou o Aotearoa. She has just been appointed to a government working group to improve the quality of early childhood education.Dominion Post - 14 February 2012