It was very disturbing to read the Herald on Monday and to discover how little is understood about the critical importance of trained teachers in early childhood settings. This atrocious act is attacking those providers of early childhood education in NZ who have worked the hardest to achieve the highest quality of provision for our youngest and most vunerable members of our society. While we would applaud the Government for addressing the issues of participation, we are gobsmacked at the lack of vision that has now been revealed. It is not just participation that is critical, but QUALITY PARTICIPATION. There is significant evidence in a number of robust research studies that for every $1 spent in early childhood education the Government saves at least $8. We hope that the wider community will continue these important conversations with their Members of Parliament.
The NZ Herald Editorial: Preschool Budget cuts right move
One of the more contentious decisions hidden in the Budget last Thursday was in the financing of early childhood education. The previous Government gave childcare centres an incentive to employ trained teachers, increasing their grants as they hired a greater proportion of qualified staff.
The Budget has done away with two of the highest bands of subsidy, effectively cutting funds to centres with more than 80 per cent of their staff trained.
It expects to save $280 million over four years out of an annual allocation for childcare that has risen from $428 million to $1.3 billion since Labour introduced its policy of 20 hours a week free for 3- and 4-year-olds and imposed staff training obligations.
Fewer than half the country's 4300 centres have more than 80 per cent of their teachers registered yet. The cost blowout over the past five years would have escalated further without the decision National has taken.
While the cut-off will save $295 million, Education Minister Anne Tolley plans to put $107 million back into other early education programmes, $91.8 million of it earmarked for Maori, Pacific and low-income areas.
Plainly, National does not regard specialist teaching of pre-school children to be quite as important as Labour did. It is probably right. When the previous Government imposed training requirements, there were loud objections from childcare companies that some capable and dedicated staff would be unable to meet these. National does not want to drum them out of the industry.
From next February, no centre will be funded for 100 per cent trained staff. Those that have more than 80 per cent will have to charge higher fees if they will not reduce their staffing costs. Fees may have to rise next year by $25-$42 a week. They will release public funds for those who would otherwise miss out.
The Childcare Association calls this a "brutal blow" which could affect more than 2000 teachers and 93,000 children. The primary teachers union, which includes early childhood teachers, said the Budget threatened to "dumb down" early education and punish those most committed to improving its quality.
But did childcare centres ever need to be fully staffed by trained teachers? Or was this a classic case of "qualification inflation". There are powerful interests at stake when training requirements are decided. Training institutions can expand, unions can enlist more members and base their pay claims on the qualifications required. Arguing against them can be difficult when the subject is children.
It is easy to insist little children deserve nothing but the best. And working parents who place their infants in childcare want to be assured on that score. But "the best" at this level might not require professional training. The best could include people with an aptitude for caring but not for academic study and tests. Checks on their performance can be reliably left to a competitive industry that must constantly satisfy observant parents.
The Government is right to direct more of its early education support to areas where children are missing out. It has chosen five community projects based on successful programmes in Counties-Manukau and Tamaki.
Pre-school attendance is of proven benefit to a child's later education and no child should miss out. But once kindergartens and playschool gave way to fulltime childcare, the teaching profession took control and the cost to the taxpayer rocketed. Something needed to be done. It seems reasonable to suggest that eight trained teachers out of 10 staff is a perfectly adequate ratio. It has the side benefit of keeping some unqualified but dedicated carers in the job.
Contentious the decision may be but it seems educationally harmless, socially equitable and financially necessary.
What follows is a very thoughtful response from Annemarie Quill of Tauranga which was published in The New Zealand Herald on Tuesday, May 25, 2010
BABIES NEED PROFESSIONALS, NOT NANAS
Annemarie Quill explains why the Budget is bad news for parents who want the best for their children.
Love babies? Become an early-childhood teacher. When applying for the job, leave out your degree.
A qualification will no longer be of value to centre owners if they already have their quota of 80 per cent of qualified staff. Last week's Budget cancelled the financial incentive to centres to employ 100 per cent qualified teachers.
The Government argues that 80 per cent is enough. There are unqualified childcare workers who have extensive experience. Many are mothers or grandmothers.
I am mum to a 6-year-old. I can't teach her primary school class to read. Sometimes I cut my daughter's fringe. It doesn't make me a hairdresser.
A piece of paper alone does not make a great teacher. But it should be a minimum benchmark for someone to whom we entrust our babies.
In other professional arenas we do not tolerate half-measures. We demand rigorous standards, which include both qualifications and experience.
We would decline an operation from a surgeon who learned his trade from Shortland Street.
We wouldn't choose a lawyer's practice where one in five doesn't have a law degree.
So why accept this dumbing down of standards for our youngest children?
With the number of New Zealand children in childcare mushrooming, particularly babies as young as 3 months, these children deserve care that is richly resourced.
The most valuable resources are professional staff. All the wooden blocks in the world cannot replicate teacher interactions.
The first five years of life are crucial for brain development. Poor early relationships cause devastation later in life.
While New Zealand's older children terrorise each other on the playground, drink themselves to death or stab their teachers, this Government is now committed to spending more on prisons than on quality care for babies.
The childcare sector has fought hard to be recognised as part of the education curve. Labour's funding policy was based on extensive research that children in care outside the home thrive with qualified teachers. The benefits last throughout school and beyond.
True, the Budget needed to address the spiralling cost to the taxpayer of childcare funding. But last week's cuts hurt the kids, not the industry.
The huge financial investment in the sector has not always filtered down to those it was meant for - the children.
Childcare is big business. Government funding, plus high parental fees, has made childcare the cash cow of the noughties-like retirement villages and rental property of previous years.
Witness the number of investors-many from overseas-who piled into the sector for financial motives. Their love of the alphabet is limited to the logos on shiny new Hiluxes.
These business owners will not take the Budget's hit on their bottom line. Instead, they will pass on the cost to parents in fees or "donations".
Centres may opt to focus on 3- or 4-year olds to benefit from the continuing 20 "free" hours subsidies.
This potentially leaves the growing number of under-2s in childcare with the least qualified staff. Yes, some loving and attentive. Others just cheap labour on minimum wage.
Centres who retain 100 per cent qualified teachers are likely to be unaffordable for many families. Most of our kids will be left 20 per cent of the time with the "love babies" brigade.
For those who doubt the dire human and economic consequences of poor quality childcare, a reminder of another booming industry sector which a previous National Government deregulated in the 90s.
Similiar funding cuts, a downgrade of the apprenticeship system, and relaxed regulations for 100 per cent qualified and registered professionals.
Love building anyone?
Annemarie Quill is a Tauranga writer, early childhood teacher and mother of three.