Margaret Carr and Linda Mitchell on why early childhood centres need qualified staff
We found it startling that questions are being raised about whether teachers in early childhood services should be qualified.
Especially when we know know so much about the significance for lifelong learning of the early years and about the complexity of the education and care task.
Prime Minister John Key is wrong to say "It is a matter of personal belief as to whether a high proportion of centre staff should be trained [teachers]".
This is not so. It is a matter of an informed and evidence-based decision.
Questions about qualified versus non-qualified teachers would never be raised about the adults who teach 5 and 6 (or older) year-olds in school.
The lessening of targets for employing qualified teachers and the removal of the top two rates of funding for early childhood services employing 80 to 100 per cent registered teachers will undermine the high quality of early childhood education that New Zealand should be aiming for.
The services that will be hardest hit are those very services that have managed to achieve a highly qualified workforce and that offer an inspiration and exemplar to others.
Research evidence is clear that positive outcomes for children and families participating in early childhood education depend on the quality of staff; child interactions; the learning resources available; programmes that engage children, and a supportive environment for children to work together.
The outcomes for a child include things such as motivation, persistence, reciprocity, resilience and imagination that will set children on a life-long learning journey.
They include cognitive outcomes such as numeracy, reading and language progress - outcomes the Government is particularly interested in.
A key characteristic of a early childhood service supporting these child outcomes is that the adults working with children hold early childhood teacher qualifications.
This was the finding of the 2003 US National Institute of Child Health and Development study on the impact of childcare quality on children's cognitive development.
Across 10 countries, a 2006 International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement study of nearly 2000 children found that as levels of teacher education increased children's age-7 language performance improved.
The study found that teachers with more education use more words and more complex language in communicating with children.
Another US study of 800 4-year-olds, using data from the National Centre for Early Development and Learning, linked higher levels of teachers' education to gains on standardised measures of mathematics skills.
A myth has spread that early childhood education is over funded. Quite the reverse. New Zealand spends less on early childhood education than many countries.
A recent Unicef report (2008) suggested a benchmark and minimum level of 1 per cent of GDP should be spent by governments to ensure that childcare is managed in the best interests of children and societies.
New Zealand's level of funding is only 0.6 per cent of GDP. Its spending has increased three fold in the past five years, but it was woefully inadequate before.
And costs have increased because there are more services, more children participating, and more children attending longer hours than five years ago.
Money spent now on early childhood education saves money in the long run.
Together with Cathy Wylie at the NZ Council for Educational Research we recently completed a literature survey of outcomes of early childhood education, published by the Ministry of Education.
We found that investing in good quality early childhood education can bring actual cost benefits to government as well as to children and families.
One relevant study of quality provision with teaching staff qualified in special education and early childhood development followed the children to middle age.
It found that a dollar spent in early childhood saved $17 at age 40 in terms of the later cost of social services and criminal convictions, and the tax benefits from employment.
Key says that "There will be some [centre owners] that in the end say, "I want to be 100 per cent teacher-led", and I suspect that will be driven by the parents who send their children there and they may be prepared to pay a little bit more.
High income families whose children participate in early childhood centres will be able to afford the fees to maintain the high quality standard of 100 per cent qualified staff.
But low income families will not.
Economic inequality will now be associated from the early years with educational inequity.
The new education policy established by the May budget says that we cannot afford the financial cost of qualified teachers to provide care and education for all of New Zealand's youngest and most vulnerable of children.
We say that as a nation we cannot afford not to - the long-term social, economic and educational cost is too high.
Margaret Carr is Professor of Education and Dr Linda Mitchell is Senior Lecturer (Early Childhood Education) at the University of Waikato.