Opinion - Clare Wells, Dompost 8 June 2010
Budget cuts a step backward for early childhood education
Early childhood education was dealt a significant blow in the May budget. The government has taken a step backward by cutting funding to the sector, undermining the nationwide investment made to date. While children can still access ‘20 hours’, the government has changed the way kindergartens and education and care centres are funded to provide those hours.
Currently, kindergartens and centres receive government funding at different rates, depending on their proportion of qualified teachers. Those employing between 80 - 100% qualified and registered teachers receive the highest rates. The rates recognise the costs for services employing 100% qualified teachers and provide an incentive for others to reach that target. These highest rates were removed altogether in the budget. Not only does this mean hundreds of millions of dollars lost from the sector, but also that the government is saying 80% qualified teachers is sufficient to provide quality. We disagree.
Research shows that quality is measured in several ways including the qualifications of staff, the number of qualified teachers to children, as well as the nature of the relationships and the interactions between children and teachers.
We all know how much and how fast children learn in their first few years. Children learn through play. They develop literacy and maths understandings and skills, and acquire knowledge in subject areas such as science, and the arts. They practice their problem solving and leadership skills, and experience the thrill of discovery and satisfaction of a task mastered. They interact with other children and adults, respecting and recognising the value of everyone’s contribution. Qualified teachers are there for children, encouraging that next step – just as they are in school.
Studies done both here and overseas show the benefits of quality early childhood education for all children, and their families, in the short and long term. The New Zealand Council for Education Research Competent Children’s study shows the benefits at age 16 years in student success at school. The research evidence makes the government’s decision even more baffling.
International studies show that money spent on quality early childhood education services represents significant savings in the future - for every $1 spent $13 is saved; students are more likely to stay at school longer and to be successful, to have better employment prospects and to make a positive contribution to society. That is a significant return on investment.
The evidence of these benefits convinced previous governments to invest in early childhood education, to set quality targets including 100% qualified and registered teachers in all centres, and to find ways to increase participation. The early childhood education sector helped design and implement the plan to reach those targets over a ten year time frame to 2012. The government’s investment achieved both aims but is now at risk. Cutting funding to the sector is a short sighted decision that could actually end up costing the government more in the long run.
The early childhood education sector has been underfunded for years. New Zealand still spends less than the OECD average despite progressive increases in the last decade. Costs have increased because there are more services, more children participating and attending longer hours, and more qualified teachers in the sector than ever before. If the government wants to manage the escalation of costs, one way of doing that would be through better planning of services. Currently anyone can set up an early childhood education service, wherever they like, even if there are other services in the same area and spaces available. If they meet regulatory requirements - they get government funding. In the last five years over 500 centres have opened, yet there are still communities where there are not enough services.
Over 180,000 children currently attend an early childhood education service in New Zealand. About 140,000 attend a centre-based service, of which 40,000 go to kindergarten. Kindergarten is a community-based and not for profit service. All the funding we receive goes directly into providing kindergarten for children and families in hundreds of communities around New Zealand. One of the hallmarks of kindergarten is that we employ qualified and registered teachers.
Parents choose to enrol their children in a kindergarten or centre for a range of reasons. In making that choice, they expect it will not only be an enjoyable and safe experience for their child, but also one that it will benefit their child’s learning.
At a time when the government is looking to improve school achievement and value for money, it would be prudent to retain funding in the sector we know makes a positive contribution to children’s schooling success and has long term benefits for children and for New Zealand. Eight out of ten qualified teachers is simply not good enough for our youngest children.